North of Boston planners met in Danvers last week for what amounted to a wake-up call, and it's not one that a lot of people want to hear.
To keep up with regional population growth, cities and towns need to create 330,000 housing units over the next 15 years. And the planners aren't talking about waterfront mansions for the well-to-do; they're talking about affordable housing that is accessible to people with more modest incomes.
So what's the problem? While most people believe themselves to be open-minded and welcoming, the fact is that almost everywhere in this region, when a new housing development is proposed, a group of residents fights relentlessly to keep the new people out.
Let us count the ways: They say there's too much traffic, too many units, poor drainage, it's not in line with the character of the town. If affordable housing is involved, you can add arguments about how — so sorry —- there are few amenities, such as access to public transportation, that lower-income people would need, so they wouldn't be happy here, and it really wouldn't be appropriate. If family housing is needed, add the argument about the cost of schooling being a drain on taxpayers.
This happens in the region's cities as well as small towns, and it's turning into a major problem.
Andrew DeFranza, the director of Harborlight Community Partners, a nonprofit that creates and manages affordable housing, talked at the regional meeting about his agency's two-year struggle to create 60 units of affordable housing for seniors in Wenham.
They tried to do everything right — meeting with neighbors and then modifying the design and reducing the number of units slightly to accommodate their concerns. "We spent a ton of money and time to honor the community process," DeFranza told the planners.
After a seven-month permitting process, the plan was approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals. But now two lawsuits filed by neighbors — the nearest neighbor is almost 300 feet away — are delaying the development and jeopardizing Harborlight's financing for the project.
It's a story that's familiar to planners from the Merrimack Valley to the North Shore.
Another case in point: the development of the former St. Joseph Church property in Salem, originally planned to be a mixed-income development. Seven years later, after seeminly endless challenges, the non-profit developer had lost its financing for moderate-income housing and had to switch to all low-income apartments. The delays harmed the project but didn't stop it.
And clearly, it filled a need. When a lottery was held to select tenants, there were 1,000 applicants for 51 affordable apartments.
What seems to be taking hold is an attitude that more housing is bad, when in fact, more housing is needed. As this region grows, there will absolutely be more traffic and more people. Smart zoning and planning can mitigate the bad effects and maximize the good ones, but there's no way that Essex County will be returning to the 1950s with sparsely developed areas and one car to a family.
Instead of standing in the way, trying to delay and harass any new development, we need to embrace growth and plan for it. That means working with developers to create better projects, rather than simply grumbling about changing times and trying to slam the community door shut on newcomers.
That's worth bearing in mind, too, as the region heads into municipal elections. Development is always on the agenda at the local level, but what we don't need are officials who simply buy into negativity. We need leaders who have a vision for their community that embraces everyone and who can work with planners, like those who met here last week, to plan intelligently for future growth.