Every three years, Community Teamwork Inc., Greater Lowell’s leading anti-poverty social service agency, conducts a community needs assessment to identify the most pressing challenges for its member communities.
The results of its most recent survey highlight what has been a long-standing intractable problem: the lack of affordable housing.
Similar housing studies across the Commonwealth would come to the same conclusion.
The CTI report included graphics illustrating the impact of the low housing stock on residents and communities in the area.
One shows that in at least three communities in Greater Lowell, more than half of renters fall into the rent category imposed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, meaning they spend 30% or more of their gross income from rent and other related expenses. .
In Lowell it’s 55% of tenants, while in Tewksbury and Dracut it’s 53% and 51% respectively, followed closely by Chelmsford (45%) and Billerica (43%).
Another gives a sample of rental vacancy rates in some CTI communities.
Lowell, at 5%, recorded the highest vacancy rate, followed by Chelmsford (3%) and Dracut (2%). But the majority of cities – Dunstable, Tewksbury, Tyngsboro and Westford – all displayed non-vacancy signs.
The median gross monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment ranged from a high of $ 1,940 in Westford to a low of $ 1,115 in Tyngsboro, Lowell ($ 1,180) and Dracut ($ 1,339) also reporting rents. more affordable.
The number of “affordable” units that have been created and whether a particular community has met the state-required 10% threshold is not included in these breakdowns.
Better known as Chapter 40B, this is an affordable housing program that allows developers to bypass certain local planning and zoning regulations if at least 20% of the units in the development are deemed affordable.
Cities and towns have little power to refuse 40B developments if they do not meet this 10% mandate, which is the case in many communities.
All of this contributes to the mission of this community needs assessment.
“We do a multitude of things, but a lot of it is really just sitting down and trying to collect data directly from the community to try to find out what everyone here says they need and what they want. think of their neighbors. need, ”CTI Director of Planning and Quality Improvement Ann Sirois told the newspaper.
And in talking with community members about what is needed to get proper housing, he found that better paying jobs, education and training to get and keep those jobs, affordable child care, medical and behavioral health care and transportation were essential to achieve this goal.
The obvious lack of achieving the 10% affordable housing metric and a more builder-friendly approval process for all types of housing, especially now that community zoning changes only require a majority simple to be adopted.
CTI Director of Development and Marketing Kathleen Plath said it’s particularly difficult to create affordable housing in Lowell because it’s not beneficial to developers unless the project is of a significant size. , like 40 units.
She said more attention needs to be paid to helping small developers and owners of multi-family buildings to improve the quality of Lowell’s overall building stock.
How about focusing on housing developments in surrounding towns with large open spaces?
Lowell, with an affordable rate of 12.4%, alone cannot solve the affordable housing shortage in this region. Suburban communities must also do their part.
And according to the distribution of subsidized housing stocks in Chapter 40B of the Department of Housing and Community Development last December, many cities need to step up their efforts.
Dracut has only 5.2% of housing deemed affordable. Groton only has 5.7%, Carlisle 3.4%, Pepperell 3% and Dunstable 0%.
The same dynamic appears around the Twin Cities, where Fitchburg’s 9.8% rate eclipses neighboring Townsend (4.4%), Westminster (3.1%) and Shirley (4.3%).
And regional transit authorities based in Lowell and Fitchburg serve many of these outlying communities, removing a transportation barrier that could hamper affordable development.
This housing affordability crisis, a regional problem, demands a regional response.