By Scott Van Voorhis
New England Center for Investigative Reporting
---- — This spring, developer Jim Williamson came up with a sure-fire way to calm some residents’ concerns about a proposed 174-unit housing complex in Walpole: Discourage families with children from moving in.
Williamson told town officials that his project would include only one- and two-bedroom homes, not the three-bedroom units that are more suited for families with school-aged children. His reason was simple: additional children can strain the resources of schools and increase operating costs, something town officials had made clear they were concerned about.
“We are trying to do the right thing for the town,” said Williamson, a spokesman for the Framingham-based company Barberry Homes. “One way to minimize impacts is try not to have too many school-age children.”
Williamson’s decision to cut out three-bedroom homes is one that is made over and over in Massachusetts, driven by town officials and residents who fear that additional pressures on schools will stretch already strained budgets.
In a tight housing market, officials across the Bay State deploy an array of tactics to discourage modestly priced new apartment and home construction for families. These include pressuring developers to drop plans for three-bedroom apartments and crafting zoning regulations to encourage the construction of over-55 housing developments that ban children.
The result is that many middle- and working-class families are finding the equivalent of “No Vacancy” signs in Bay State towns and cities amidst growing resistance to new homes, condos and apartments that might bring in school children.
“The bias against multi-family housing and school children from rental properties is enormously strong,” said John Connery, a long-time Melrose-based housing consultant who works with communities and developers.
The conflict is heating up again as the Massachusetts housing market rebounds from a crisis that began in 2005 and stalled development and depressed prices statewide.
Multi-family construction, at a virtual standstill in 2009, is picking up again, and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has established a state goal of building 10,000 new multi-family units a year through 2020 to support the state’s economy.
Still, just 5,191 permits were issued for new apartments and condos in 2012, roughly half the governor’s goal, according to the U.S. Census.
Clark Ziegler, executive director of the nonprofit Massachusetts Housing Partnership, which advocates for affordable housing, said the economy suffers when homes are unaffordable for young families.
“If we make it needlessly difficult for families with school-age kids we will artificially constrain job growth,” he said.
Already, the tight housing inventory is adding upward pressure on home values and monthly rents, making Massachusetts one of the nation’s most expensive addresses.
Median home values for single-family homes in Massachusetts rose to $325,000 during the first eight months of the year, a 12 percent increase over last year’s figures, according to the Warren Group, a Boston-based company that tracks local real estate. Rents are even higher. The average two-bedroom apartment costs $1,271 a month, making the Bay State the seventh most expensive state in the country for renters, according to the Washington, DC-based nonprofit National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Three-bedroom apartments account for just 6 percent of new rental housing units built between 2002 and 2012 in Massachusetts under the state’s 40B affordable housing law, according to the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, a nonprofit housing advocacy group based in Boston.
Meanwhile, the number of projects restricted to buyers over the age of 55 has risen dramatically, according to the nonprofit group.
Developers built roughly 20,000 age-restricted condos, townhomes and apartments from 2000 through 2009, according to PrimeTime Communities, a Littleton-based company that does research for home developers. That’s out of more than 58,000 building permits for new units that were issued across Massachusetts during the same period, Census numbers show.
Tom Skahen, a partner with PrimeTime communities, said towns are eager to approve age-restricted projects that limit financial burdens and increase the tax base. Such properties were a minimal part of the local housing landscape before 2000.
“It is way easier to get permits for the active (senior) community,” said Skahen. “A lot of these towns are anti-kids.”
Among those with proposed age-restricted developments is the city of Methuen. There, national home builder Toll Brothers came forward with a plan to revive a failed development project to build half-a-million-dollar homes around a golf course, a plan that collapsed after only a few homes were built, leaving a field of weeds and debris.
Toll was ready to market the homes to older adults but wanted to reduce the age restriction to 50 and up. City officials insisted that buyers be at least 55. The development is still awaiting final approval.
City Councilor Joyce Campagnone said Methuen schools already struggle with a large student population. “We just don’t want to see the numbers increasing,” she said.
Some 96 towns and cities across Eastern Massachusetts offer special zoning incentives to encourage construction of new housing restricted to buyers and renters age 55 and up, according to a 2006 study by the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based research company.
Amy Dain, author of the study, believes the political landscape remains largely the same.
“It was amazing to see that so many communities are not allowing housing to be built that would be affordable and appealing to middle-class families,” said Dain, who is now at the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Changes in federal law also figure prominently in the rise of age-restricted developments.
In 1995, Congress amended the landmark civil rights-era Fair Housing Act. The change enabled developers to build age-restricted retirement communities that exclude younger buyers and children without having to include medical and nursing facilities, as previously required, said attorney Stephen Marcus, a partner with Marcus, Emmer, Errico and Brooks in Braintree.
Critics say the changes were meant as much to block young families as to attract seniors.
“I cannot tell you how much it sticks in my craw that you cannot discriminate in housing, you cannot discriminate in any way, shape or form, yet the one group that was carved out was children,” said Peter Francese, a New Hampshire-based demographic analyst. “That is morally and every other way wrong.”
Dozens of other towns and suburbs don’t outright ban traditional multi-family housing but create zoning rules that make such housing extremely difficult to build, according to housing consultants and builders.
“To allow for active adults over 55 and not have zoning for the same thing for families, it’s discrimination,” said Jeff Rhuda, chief development officer at Symes Associates, a local builder and former president of the Massachusetts Home Builders Association
Such efforts by local officials to zone out apartments and condos that might attract families come despite evidence that new housing isn’t the school budget-buster it’s thought to be.
Francese said the long-term bias against families instead is slowly hurting communities that are shutting out a young work force, forcing families to seek states more hospitable to them. With a median age of 39.3 in 2011, up from 36.5 in 2000, Massachusetts is the 10th oldest state in the country, according to the U.S. Census.
There are signs the over-55 boom may be starting to ebb. A decade of frenetic building activity has left developers with a stockpile of unbuilt sites approved for senior housing.
Developers have lobbied to lift age restrictions on buyers in projects in Ashland, Hanover, Norton, Wilbraham and other communities.
It’s unclear, however, whether this change will mean more housing for families. Such restrictions can be hard to lift, often meeting opposition from local officials concerned about the impact of opening up such developments to families with children, Marcus said.
While the recession may be partly to blame for a slowdown in development and sales of over-55 units, age restrictions can be a turnoff for some buyers worried about the future resale value of their units, brokers say.
Buyers looking at age-restricted units fear they will have a harder time finding buyers when it is their turn to sell, said Lesley Palmiter, a real estate agent at Keller Williams Realty in Newton.
“There are too many restrictions and too many stipulations,” Palmiter said.
The lack of three-bedroom apartments also has caught the attention of the state Department of Housing and Community Development. It is now considering regulations that would require a minimum number of such units when new apartment and condo developments are built under the state’s
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (necir-bu.org) is a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University and WGBH TV/Radio in Boston, supported in part by media outlets that include The Eagle-Tribune/ NECIR senior investigative reporter Jenifer B. McKim contributed to this report along with intern Anais Vallant.