The mixed blessing of the Community Preservation Act
Report calls for more investment in affordable housing, towns say it’s a heavy lift
ROYALSTON, a rural Worcester County town with about 1,250 residents, has been squirreling away money from a tax surcharge partially dedicated to affordable housing for more than a decade now.
“If you give us another 50 years, we might be able to build something,” said Tom Musco, a Community Preservation Act Committee member who also sits on the town’s planning board.
The town is one of eight municipalities identified in a new report by the Tufts Center for State Policy Analysis and commissioned by the Greater Boston Real Estate Board that have spent zero Community Preservation Act dollars on affordable housing.
The Community Preservation Act, passed in 2000, lets municipalities decide whether to impose a 1 to 3 percent property tax surcharge to generate funds for affordable housing, historic preservation, and open space and recreation. At least 10 percent of the money must be dedicated to each category, to allow cities and towns some flexibility in choosing where to spend it.
Community Preservation Committee members from several towns that spend little on affordable housing told CommonWealth that very rural and new CPA communities might be getting unfairly dinged by the report.
Royalston and Phillipston, rural communities that passed the act with a 3 percent surcharge in 2008 and 2007, say their tiny tax base, minimal planning infrastructure, expensive construction costs, and almost nonexistent developer interest have been a barrier to spending the CPA funding.
“We don’t really think of it as a housing program,” Musco said. “The only thing we could use the money in the housing fund for was if Habitat for Humanity built a house, we could use the money to help the project.”
“Contractors are not terribly enthused in this rural setting,” particularly in areas like Phillipston without a town sewage system, said Linda Langevin, the town’s Community Preservation Committee chair. “They’re not as friendly toward that sort of area.” She said the new committee, trying to bring a new enthusiasm for the process after a more lax committee in prior years, deeply wants state help to boost their efforts.
To be fair, other rural communities have managed to meet the 10 percent bar, but new affordable housing is few and far between. Stockbridge, for instance, made major CPA investments in an affordable housing community back in the early 2000s and used funds since then to maintain and repair the Pine Woods community, but most housing funds go to repairs and upgrades for existing affordable housing.
“Everything is being measured against a very low bar,” said Evan Horowitz, the report’s author and executive director of the Tufts policy analysis center. “A lot of stuff counts as spending it on housing,” including paying staff and putting money into designated housing trust funds, and “even by that very loose definition towns aren’t spending very much.”
Of course, not all towns are eager to spend their CPA money on affordable housing, with several choosing to purchase land under the “open space and recreation” category and taking it off the table for development. The Boston Globe highlights Peabody and Boxborough, two towns that cleared the 10 percent spend requirement on affordable housing but nonetheless used CPA funds to purchase large tracts of land specifically to prevent housing on the sites. Northbridge, one of the towns that the report says spent nothing on affordable housing, dedicated CPA funds toward a $1.45 million purchase of the historic 97-acre Castle Hill Farm site last month.
“The question becomes, is it too late for Mattapoisett?” he said. “We’ve just taken acres upon acres off the rolls for housing. I just hope it wasn’t done purposefully, but I don’t know.”