A ‘dream come true’ in Wrentham
Newly built affordable starter home is a rare find
KIM BASSIGNANI grew up in a four-bedroom raised ranch in Norfolk.
Her father, Larry, a Navy veteran injured on a construction project while in the service, used his disability payments to help build the solidly middle-class home in 1965 with the help of life-long friends from Norfolk.
The lot cost just $900. The house cost $18,000.
As a girl, Bassignani was confident she, too, would someday have her own home in what was then sleepy rural town near the Rhode Island border, a place where her family had lived since her great-grandfather immigrated from Lithuania in the early 1930s.
While Bassignani could not have suspected at the time, it would take half a century before she would have a house of her own to call home.
And, ultimately, she would find herself priced out of Norfolk, her hometown, with the once affordable, middle-class starter home, like the one her father built, having gone from a staple of the housing market to an all but extinct species.
The post-war housing boom filled the suburbs of Greater Boston with affordably-priced capes, ranches, and split-level homes, but by the late 1980s, the middle-class housing boom had ground to a halt.
Fearful of rising school costs, towns limited construction to a smaller number of ever larger and more expensive homes, while growing environmental concerns fueled resistance to the paving over of fields and forests.
Construction of new homes plunged and prices soared in suburbs across the Boston area, setting the stage for what has morphed into a decades-long housing shortage.
Bassignani has seen that trend play out firsthand, with the home her father built 55 years ago in Norfolk for $18,000 recently selling for more than $420,000.
No one knows more than Bassignani her luck in landing the two- bedroom, two-bath, 1,700 square foot home.
“I couldn’t believe I had a house,” Bassignani said. “It was a dream come true.”
Indeed, it was a rare find. Barely a dozen new homes in Greater Boston went for less than $500,000 over the past two years, all in outer suburbs near I-495, according to MLS PIN, the local listing service used by brokers.
And that Bassignani managed to buy her modest starter home for under $200,000 — in a development of mostly upscale homes no less – was thanks to the relatively unusual use of the state’s 1960s-era affordable housing law.
The decades-old law, Chapter 40B, has led to the construction of tens of thousands of apartments and condos across Boston’s suburbs.
But it has never been widely used for the development of single-family homes, with the Baker administration having attempted to fill in that gap with its Starter Home Zoning District initiative, an effort that has yet to bear any fruit (see main story).
“When I signed my last document, the tears just poured out,” Bassignani said.
But she wishes she could have found it years earlier, when her son, Michael, was still at home and they were living at a subsidized rental complex owned by the town of Norfolk.
Bassignani said she is “so grateful for my apartment in Norfolk and that I could raise my son in the town my family lived in for generations” and that the Norfolk Housing Authority also treated her with respect.
However, Bassignani said at times that she and her son were looked down upon by local police, school officials, and others in her hometown, with Norfolk’s small cluster of affordable apartments referred to derisively as “the projects.”
While there was a perception that residents in the town-owned apartments were on public assistance, Bassignani said most, like her, were working regular jobs but simply couldn’t afford to buy a home or pay market rent.
“There definitely was a stigma,” she said. “Not everyone makes six-figures, but people deserve a place to live.”Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance reporter and writer who lives in Natick. He has reported on housing issues for the past 25 years for the Boston Herald, Boston Business Journal, Banker & Tradesman and Boston Globe.