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Communities using special legislation to keep affordable housing moving

Posted on May 7, 2020

In the weeks since Governor Baker signed legislation to help municipalities govern during the COVID-19 state of emergency, many cities and towns have opted to continue reviewing housing proposals and planning initiatives. 

The law - House, No. 4617 - relaxes procedural requirements for permit granting authorities, including planning boards and zoning boards of appeal (ZBA). It also allows hearings to be held remotely and permit applications to be filed electronically, if done in accordance with the act.  

This law and three prior executive orders are intended to help towns pass budgets and keep local government moving during the pandemic. In April, MHP published an explainer on these measures and what it means for affordable housing.

Creative thinking to keep public informed

Since then, MHP municipal expert Katy Lacy has been tracking what’s going on. Through on-line research and conversations with a dozen communities, she has learned that despite the challenges of moving to a "virtual" hearing process, municipal boards and staff have moved quickly and carefully to establish effective protocols to ensure adequate public notice, widespread access, and opportunities for public input.  

Boards have modified public notices to include detailed instructions for call-in or virtual participation, and staff have assisted individual residents with technological hurdles, hearing and language barriers.  

The transition to remote hearings has required some creative responses. For example, while city and town hall mailrooms are generally off limits, paper copies of hearing notices and abutter notifications are still required by the Open Meeting Law.

In response, the City of Northampton turned to a local business to print and mail notifications in advance of virtual public hearings. Similarly, while many municipalities allow payments to be made on line, fees and tax bills can still be sent by mail. In several municipalities, separate departments are working "shifts" at municipal buildings to handle all incoming mail while maintaining appropriate social distance.

On-the-fly tech support for residents

"Virtual" hearings present new challenges for fulfilling broad public access requirements. Planning staff find themselves providing technical support to residents struggling with remote connections. In one case, a planner reported "practicing" with an elderly resident in advance of the hearing so the resident could hear what was going on and participate if necessary.

In general, communities have reported strong interest in continuing to provide remote access after live hearings resume. They see this as a way of increasing public participation and enhancing true accessibility. For example, Plymouth Select Board chair Ken Tavares - a 50-year veteran of town politics - told the Boston Globe he never would have imagined being in favor of holding video public meetings. "I think I'm a fan of it," Tavares said. "Thirty days ago, I don't think I would have said that to you."

 In terms of what’s getting done in affordable housing, here’s an update:

  • Acton – The Planning Board hosted a remote presentation of a final draft of the town's Housing Production Plan (HPP) on April 21. The presentation was made by consultants Jen Goldson and Liz Rust. Planning Board and selectmen are expected to approve the plan on May 18, maintaining DHCD approval prior to the lapse of their 2015 plan.
  • Littleton - On May 7, the Littleton Planning Board will open the virtual public hearing on a special permit application for a 24-unit, mixed-income senior residential development. Five units will be affordable, as required by the town’s inclusionary zoning bylaw.
  • Medfield – At a virtual hearing on April 29, the ZBA approved a Ch. 40B comprehensive land use permit to allow for the construction of 56 apartments on the site of a former American Legion Post. This is being done under the state’s Local Initiative Program (LIP), which provides technical assistance to communities and developers who work together to create affordable rental housing.  
  • Needham - On April 17, the town held the initial public hearing on a proposed zoning map amendment to reduce the lot size requirement for a portion of town from Residence A (1 acre per unit) to  Residence B (10,000 square feet per unit).  They are anticipating a vote at the next meeting on May 5.
  • Northampton – The Planning Board and City Council met jointly on April 23 to review and approve a new five-unit development. Prior to the government shutdown, this proposal was already on a fast track due in large part to established city practices that allow for electronic submissions, which facilitate quicker review by municipal staff.  
  • Randolph - On April 23, the Planning Board met via Zoom to approve a 108-unit, mixed-use development in the Crawford Square Business District.   
  • Salem - North Shore Community Development Corporation (NSCDC) has submitted electronic applications to the Planning Board for two separate projects entailing the conversion of former parochial schools to mixed-use developments.  Together, the two projects will add 62 new units of housing.  Public hearings are scheduled to begin on May 7, 2020.

In addition to updates we’ve received from boards and committees, we heard that many municipal building departments had already started using permitting software to handle building, gas and electrical projects allowing for electronic submissions, fee collections, and the issuance of signed permits.

What this means is that most suburban and rural communities have continued to issue permits and continue construction projects, subject to Safety Guidelines and Procedures for Construction Sites developed by the Baker Administration to guide construction during the COVID-19 state of emergency.

(This summary was compiled by MHP municipal expert Katy Lacy, a former town planner who is tracking how local governments are adjusting during the COVID-19 health emergency. If you have questions, contact Lacy at klacy@mhp.net.)