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Affordable housing in Massachusetts: Questions and Answers from the Catholic perspective on Question 2


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The Roman Catholic Bishops in Massachusetts released a statement in September 2010 supporting a state law that promotes affordable housing. The Bishops also announced their opposition to Question 2, an initiative on the November 2nd statewide ballot aimed at repealing the affordable housing law. The following Q and A provides background for Catholics on the issues addressed by the Bishops in their statement.

Q. Tell me more about the Catholic Bishops' statement, and what the Bishops said about affordable housing and Question 2?

A. The statement was signed by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, Archbishop of the Boston Archdiocese, Bishop George W. Coleman of the Fall River Diocese, Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell of the Springfield Diocese, and Bishop Robert J. McManus of the Worcester Diocese. These Bishops are the Ordinaries [governing Bishops] of the four Massachusetts Roman Catholic dioceses and from time to time they decide to join their voices through the Massachusetts Catholic Conference to address particularly important issues of statewide interest. Their statement on affordable housing emphasizes the critical value of a statute in Massachusetts that has led to the creation of affordable homes throughout the Commonwealth for individuals and families of modest means. The Bishops were moved to oppose Question 2 because it would take key portions of this statute completely off the books, thus eliminating a vital tool that has helped so many people find affordable housing. The full statement of the Bishops can be accessed online at http://www.macathconf.org/10-BishopsStatementAffordableHousingQuestion2Sept21.htm.

Q. What affordable housing provisions would Question 2 repeal if a majority of voters support the ballot question?

A. If approved by the voters, Question 2 would repeal sections 20 through 23 of Chapter 40B of the Massachusetts General Laws. See Secretary of the Commonwealth Question 2 Summary at http://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/ele10/ballot_questions_10/quest_2.htm. These sections incorporate a procedural preference in the building permit process for public agencies, non-profit organizations and "limited dividend" developers seeking to build low or moderate income housing. Non-profit groups include faith-based social service providers such as the Planning Office for Urban Affairs in Boston. "Limited dividend" developers are those "for profit" entities that agree to limit the profits they earn in order to participate in government subsidized housing development programs. Currently, under these sections in Chapter 40B, any builder in the three categories just mentioned can apply directly to a city or town zoning board of appeals for a "comprehensive" permit to create affordable multi-family units. This allows affordable housing developers to avoid having to apply separately to numerous local zoning boards. Thus the present law gives preference to those development plans that propose new housing for low or moderate income families. If a majority of voters votes "yes" on Question 2, then these sections of the law on affordable housing would be abolished.

Q. So the Bishops oppose the repeal of the affordable housing sections of current law and that is why they oppose Question 2?

A. That is correct. Knowing what a "yes" vote or a "no" vote at the ballot will do can be confusing. The Bishops support a "no" vote on Question 2 because if a majority of voters vote "no" and the ballot question is defeated, then the affordable housing provisions will remain in place. In short, the Bishops' position is to vote "no" on Question 2 to save the affordable housing law.

Q. The advocates for voting "yes" on Question 2 say that they support affordable housing too, but claim that the affordable housing provisions of Chapter 40B have created all kinds of problems and thus need to be scrapped in their entirety. Why exactly do the Bishops want the affordable housing provisions to be saved?

A. In their statement, the Bishops make three important points. First, they explain that the current law has led to the creation of affordable housing that otherwise would not have been created, saying that "no other state program or tool has been as effective" in meeting the Commonwealth's housing needs. This assessment is backed by other sources. For example, a bipartisan gubernatorial task force on affordable housing concluded in 2003 that "a significant portion of the ... housing units built under comprehensive permits would not have been created in the absence of the statute." (Chapter 40B Task Force Findings and Recommendations, May 30, 2003 at 15.) Eliminating the affordable housing law will result in affordable housing becoming even less available in the Commonwealth.

Second, the Bishops highlight the essential role that the affordable housing law has played in enabling Catholic non-profit organizations to provide for the housing needs of so many families who could not otherwise afford a decent home. The very first affordable housing plan approved under the law in question was created by the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, a non-profit affiliated with the Boston Archdiocese. The Planning Office has become one of the most effective non-profit developers in the Commonwealth, and is responsible for the creation of over 2,300 homes for more than 10,000 members of the working poor, seniors, persons with disabilities, and others in need of decent affordable places to live. The Planning Office has a well-deserved reputation for promoting collaboration between all of the stakeholders when new affordable housing is proposed.

Question 2 backers cite legislative testimony delivered in 2007 by Massachusetts Inspector General Gregory Sullivan, describing problems with the affordable housing law with respect to unscrupulous developers. Sullivan's testimony clarifies however that "[t]he problems we have identified have been with these [for-profit] limited dividend corporations and a lack of oversight by both the subsidizing agencies and the state." Non-profits are not to blame for the troubles highlighted by the Inspector General. Yet a "yes" vote on Question 2, dismantling the law entirely, will cripple the efforts of non-profit providers of affordable housing. That makes no sense as a matter of policy, especially when Question 2 fails to propose any alternative.

Third, and finally, the Bishops affirm that housing is a fundamental human right and regard the Commonwealth's affordable housing law as a valuable tool for furthering that right. See Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church no. 365 (listing housing among other "basic human rights"). The Church's recognition that a human right is at stake is consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, which affirms that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including ... housing".

Q. But what about the argument that the affordable housing law has created problems?

A. No law is perfect. There are many thoughtful objections to the way that the affordable housing law is being carried out in practice. Changes in the affordable housing regulations have been made over the years in response to various concerns. Opposing the complete dismantling of the affordable housing law by voting "no" on Question 2 does not rule out the need to upgrade the law when problems arise. Rather than abandoning the law altogether, the better approach is to retain what is good while improving what needs to be fixed.

Q. When expanding access to affordable housing, aren't there other valid concerns that also weigh in the balance?

A. Yes. In their assessment of the merits of Question 2, the Bishops regard the right to housing for families with low or moderate income to be a fundamental priority. A key premise of the affordable housing law is that every community should contribute its fair share in creating access to decent housing for those of modest income. Nonetheless, when property development leads to increased density, undoubtedly there are other legitimate concerns about the impact on the locality's infrastructure that can come into play. The affordable housing provisions in Massachusetts establish a reasonable preference for the building of low or moderate income housing, while at the same time in individual cases the law allows for those involved in the decisionmaking process to weigh and balance other relevant factors.

Q. Are the Bishops alone in opposing Question 2?

A. No. Organizations, civic leaders, and citizens from across the social and political spectrum have come forward to announce their opposition to Question 2. See ProtectAffordableHousing.org. This is not a partisan stance since, for example, all four candidates for governor have taken the same position against Question 2. See Providers Council Gubernatorial Forum at Faneuil Hall, Boston, Sept. 28, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/providerscouncil#p/a/F05B97D98F11AB98/2/3zIeR1eYKxA.

Q. By speaking out on a ballot question, aren't the Bishops inappropriately getting involved in political matters?

A. No. All citizens and voters have the right to express their views on important issues, especially those concerning public policy. Other religious groups and religious leaders have also spoken out on Question 2 and the First Amendment protects their right to make their opinions known. On matters touching on the dignity of the human person, as Question 2 does with respect to the human right to affordable housing, the Bishops have a special duty to stand up for the interests of the poor and the vulnerable.

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