The Community Preservation Act finds its balance
DESPITE EARLY WORRIES that the Community Preservation Act was funding a land grab by suburban communities eager to lock in open space at the expense of the affordable housing the law was also designed to support, new spending data show that communities are pursuing the balance of uses envisioned five years ago when the measure was adopted by the Legislature.
From the start, the act had a built-in conflict. The law provides state matching funds to cities and towns that approve a property tax surcharge of up to 3 percent dedicated to spending in three areas: open space, affordable housing, and historic preservation. But, by definition, preserving open space removes land from the market, potentially making it harder to build housing. And it was no surprise that many towns jumped on the CPA bandwagon specifically to buy land and head off development. With communities that adopt the CPA mandated to spend at least 10 percent of the money in each of the three categories, the first round of funding saw towns approve millions of dollars to acquire and preserve open space, while setting aside just the bare minimum for affordable housing.
But data released in June by the Community Preservation Coalition, a statewide organization supported by advocacy groups for each of the law’s three funding areas, show that overall spending on housing is now almost equal to that spent on open space.
Of the $170 million appropriated since the act was approved, 38 percent has gone to open space acquisitions, while 35 percent has been earmarked for affordable housing. Historic preservation projects have received 19 percent of the funding. (The remaining 7 percent has gone to recreation projects, a category designed to allow spending on park improvements in communities where there is little remaining open space to buy.)
Stow, a small MetroWest town of 5,900 that was among the first communities to approve the CPA, has awarded $350,000 to fund a deed restriction on a 37-unit apartment complex. The funding – about one-third of Stow’s total CPA spending thus far – will ensure that the units remain a source of affordable rental housing in a community where, like every place in the state, home prices and rents have soared in recent years.
“We acknowledged that we had an increasing need for affordable housing, and yet [Stow] is a small town that we wanted to keep a small town,” says Bob Wilbur, chairman of the town’s community preservation committee. “We did not drive additional construction, but we advanced affordable housing in the community.”
Not every town has struck the same balance. Sudbury has earmarked about $5.8 million – more than 90 percent of its authorized spending to date – for open space and recreation projects, while allocating only about 5 percent for affordable housing.
The strong interest in land preservation and the need for affordable housing is “an internal tension” of the law, says Doug Foy, the state’s chief development official. Though Foy was among those expressing concerns about the early pattern of CPA spending, he says the results after five years are “pretty encouraging.”
This spring, the preservation coalition celebrated the 100th community to approve the CPA (see map, previous page) when voters in Marion approved a 2 percent tax surcharge by a 71-29 margin. “What has happened over time is success has bred success,” says Pizzella. “Communities look at their neighbors and the fact that they have gotten state matching money.”
That has also started to change the profile of communities adopting the CPA, which has proven most popular in well-heeled suburbs where voters are willing – and financially able – to vote themselves a tax increase. Among towns approving the CPA this spring were Randolph, where median household income is just above the statewide figure, and Fairhaven, where it is slightly below the statewide median.
“People looked around and saw other communities were starting to spend the money from the CPA,” says Juan Carlos Serna, who chaired the CPA campaign committee in Randolph. “People were saying, how did Braintree renovate the town hall, or how did some other town do bike paths, or another one, senior housing?”
Even in a more blue-collar community like Randolph, where plenty of residents are likely to be feeling the housing-cost crunch, CPA advocates played up the idea of targeting housing aid to lower-income senior citizens, not families with children. And, like Stow, Randolph seems more interested in underwriting costs for those in existing homes than in adding to its housing stock. “People don’t want new construction,” says Serna, a refrain heard often in suburbs across the state.
The state matching funds come from a $20 fee assessed statewide on all mortgages recorded through the registry of deeds. That means homebuyers and those refinancing mortgages across the state are underwriting projects in towns that have approved the CPA, giving a Robin-Hood-in-reverse dynamic to funding for a program more popular among voters in affluent communities.
“The best response,” says Foy, “is to try to get more cities into the mix.” But some mayors have complained that it’s tough to win tax approvals in urban centers, despite exemptions from the CPA surcharge for lower-income homeowners.
Tom Callahan, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, has a simple explanation for why so few cities have adopted the act. “Not many have tried,” he says.
Seven cities have approved the preservation act: Agawam, Cambridge, Easthampton, Newton, Newburyport, Peabody, and Westfield. A 2001 campaign to pass the CPA in Boston was defeated after meeting with fierce opposition from some business groups and winning only 11th-hour support from Mayor Thomas Menino. Five other cities have tried, but failed, to adopt the CPA: Beverly, Gloucester, Malden, Methuen, and Waltham.
Each year since the law’s passage, supporters have also had to contend with various proposals to divert money from the state matching fund for other purposes. The latest came this year, when Gov. Mitt Romney’s budget proposed transferring $10 million of the approximately $100 million in the Community Preservation Fund into a separate fund established last year to reward communities for adopting zoning changes that allow for denser development near town centers, part of the administration’s smart-growth strategy.Every effort to raid the fund has been turned back, and with nearly one-third of the state’s communities now having adopted the CPA, the constituency for the preservation act is only growing bigger and stronger.
“Towns that got involved early are the ones benefiting the most,” says Wilbur, the Stow preservation committee chairman. “But the secret is out.”