By Kelsey Bode Staff Writer
HAMILTON — Residents Saturday voted down a proposal to pay $600,000 to encourage a local nonprofit developer to build a smaller affordable housing development.
Around 200 residents gathered at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School for the town’s Special Town Meeting. They were presented with an article backed by the Hamilton Affordable Housing Trust that sought to allocate $600,000 to negotiate an agreement with Harborlight Community Partners, a Beverly-based nonprofit affordable housing developer, to build a smaller, 40- to 50-unit affordable housing development on Longmeadow Way instead of one with as many as 200 units.
Hamilton’s affordable housing stock sits at about 3 percent, far below the 10 percent threshold municipalities must meet or otherwise open themselves up to so-called Chapter.
40B projects, which allow developers to bypass local zoning bylaws to create denser projects. However, the majority of residents at the meeting opposed the plan.
Marc Johnson, a member of the Affordable Housing Trust, told residents at town meeting that the $600,000 would be coupled with an additional $300,000 in existing funds from the Affordable Housing Trust and $400,000 from an exclusionary housing fee from a proposed Canter Brook project. In all, $1.3 million would be allocated to assist Harborlight with Longmeadow Way.
Johnson also said the Longmeadow project was connected to a 20-unit affordable senior rental apartment development at 59 Willow St. that Harborlight is considering. He said Harborlight would only take on the senior living development in tandem with another companion affordable housing project. An additional $300,000 had been allocated to that project, Johnson added, bringing the total funding for the two projects to $1.6 million.
Residents were split on the article. Many said they were concerned with details of the project, the legitimacy of the agreement between the Affordable Housing Trust and Harborlight, and whether other options had been fully vetted.
Finance and Advisory Committee Chairman Phil Stearns said the article had changed “significantly” from initially seeking as much as $1 million in free cash to a new proposal of $600,000 before the committee had a chance to debate and decide whether to recommend its approval. The Finance and Advisory Committee voted unanimously to recommend disapproval of the initial article.
“It is clear that Hamilton truly does need some workforce housing: teachers, police, employees, seniors, will benefit from more affordable housing,” Stearns said. “Our conclusion when we voted was that there was too much uncertainty to commit town resources and that there was still time to get more information before a decision had to be made. We were given no opportunity to debate this, in fact we only saw it for the first time Wednesday, and had no time to debate this and make a recommendation. I can’t speak for the committee, but at this point I haven’t seen anything that would change my personal opinion.”
Jack Lawrence of 105 Rock Maple Ave. said he didn’t want to see the Affordable Housing Trust’s funds locked into the Harborlight project for years to come.
“If you vote this $600,000 today, it ties up the entire funds balance of the Affordable Housing Trust,” Lawrence said. “Those funds will be probably tied up for at least two years and would not be available to develop any other site.”
Lawrence claimed he and other residents have been pushing for years for other sites to be considered for the project.
Bill Olson, a member of the Affordable Housing Trust, said Harborlight is the only developer to approach the trust.
“I get it this is a tough decision involving a lot of money,” he said. “This is the only proposal we have in front of us, the only developer who has come. We’d be willing to look at other opportunities in the future; this is the one we’re looking at today. I guarantee more affordable housing will be built in Hamilton with or without town support. In my opinion we get a much better, much smaller project if we choose to be involved and stay involved in the process.”
Town Moderator Jeffrey Melick interrupted two speakers during the discussion on the affordable housing project article. The first interruption occurred when Bill Dery of 356
Chebacco Road alleged that Harborlight was extorting money from the town. Melick told Dery he could not use the word “extortion.”
“If you step back from all this hysteria, the word extortion comes to mind,” Dery said. “If we don’t pony that up, we’ll build something that most people don’t want — 200 units, maybe, a whole bunch of low income or affordable housing or homeless housing, whatever you want to call it, on the need to subsidize contractor’s salaries, et cetera.”
“Here’s the threat: We will build 200 units if you don’t give us the money,” Dery added. “I can’t use that word, so it’s simple. We can’t run the town under this type of application. It borders being criminal.”
Melick also interrupted Anna Siedzik of 227 Highland St. after members of the crowd began to boo her for claims that racism, classism, and a “not in my backyard” mindset had begun to taint the conversation around affordable housing in town.
“Affordable housing is a social policy that helps communities rise up together,” Siedzik said. “I hear rhetoric over and over, we don’t want those people, they should stay in Lynn, or Beverly, or Peabody, or Salem. Hamilton is different. When I hear language like that, it makes me say what kind of community are we reflecting for ourselves and for our children? Are we not a kinder community? A more tolerant, accepting community? The rhetoric around affordable housing has become tinged with classism, with racism, with “NIMBY-ism.”
“I would encourage those in the audience to not be distracted by the language and the rhetoric and fear mongering and pay attention to what’s actually being proposed,” she said. “What’s being proposed is a policy that allows us to control our fate, protect open space, have small developments diffused throughout town, everything that people said they wanted in terms of affordable housing. It’s $600,000. In the scheme of our school budget, that’s a drop in the bucket.”
Kelsey Bode can be reached at 978-338-2660 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsey_Bode