EDITORIAL: Planning Board’s zoning proposal embodies good governance

The Current Editorial Board
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The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.

Kudos to the Planning Board for approving a zoning proposal that could help Marblehead chip away at its long-standing affordable housing needs should Town Meeting adopt it in May.

And Marblehead, a community where 77 percent of its housing stock is single-family homes, is desperately short of affordable housing, according to the 2020 Marblehead Housing Production Plan.

Of the 8,135 households in Marblehead, 2,404 — or 29 percent — are classified as low-income. Two-thirds are cost burden, meaning they spend 30 percent of their income on housing.

Yet, just 333 housing units of Marblehead’s entire housing inventory qualify as affordable housing. That’s well short of the state-mandated 10 percent for every town and city.

According to the housing production plan, one must make $76,000 to afford a Marblehead apartment. Monthly rent for a one-bedroom floats under $2,000.

Market conditions are pricing families, young adults and seniors out. The town’s various housing plans note changes in Marblehead’s demographics, and the town’s high housing costs demand “a spectrum of different housing units … to retain aging households looking to downsize and to attract young professionals and young families that support Marblehead’s future.”

The Planning Board’s zoning proposal seeks to spur the production of accessory dwelling units by regulating their construction and use. ADUs, also known as “in-law apartments,” are small living quarters on the same lot as single-family homes. Experts point to ADUs as a way to add natural housing stock, create affordable housing and keep families together.

The AARP supports ADUs as an excellent option for seniors to “age in place.” Moreover, homeowners renting ADUs provide relief to tenants while also collecting extra income.

Over the past several months, we have found the way in which the Planning Board members crafted its ADU proposal to be an example of good governance.

Proposing zoning changes can spawn passionate debate, but we saw the Planning Board’s chair, Robert Schaeffner, run productive, on-topic discussions during public meetings. We saw board members lean on Town Planner Becky Cutting’s expertise. We saw the board incorporate meaningful public input. The board forged consensus on most provisions, from its proposed goals to the prohibited use of ADUs as short-term rentals.

However, members split when the question of a rent restriction on ADUs arrived. Three were against a rent restriction, while two supported it.

Yet, when the board got down to brass tacks, the majority joined the minority, voting to leave a rent restriction in the final zoning proposal. They agreed Town Meeting should decide the provision’s fate, and we found that vote particularly laudable when omissions and special interests permeate political systems today. It is the type of vote that respects Town Meeting’s intelligence, cultivates civic engagement and prioritizes voters’ input.

Nevertheless, we agree with the majority’s argument that rent restrictions could discourage ADU construction. Homeowners will need to recoup their investment into an ADU, and rent control could delay their return.

We encourage officials to take seriously the suggestions made by Marblehead Fair Housing Committee member Kurt James into consideration. He brought attention to Salem grant programs that subsidize homeowners’ ADU construction and design costs in exchange for renting them out at affordable rates. He also suggests Marblehead send a home-rule petition to Beacon Hill, asking for a property-tax abatement for homeowners renting ADUs out at affordable rates.

Lastly, ADUs should not be considered a silver bullet but rather a tool in a toolbox that could help tackle Marblehead’s housing dilemma.

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