Haverhill Council to Hear Sweeping Zoning Change, Planned Housing Board to Address Shortage

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A multipart approach to a housing shortage and related lack of affordable apartments in Haverhill calls for changes to zoning, establishment of a new housing board and builder-financed trust fund and incentives to allow more units despite lot sizes.

The proposal goes before the City Council tomorrow night, building on a plan first discussed two years ago, to require 10% of all units in a housing development to be set aside as affordable. The proposed zoning ordinance would apply to single-family as well as multifamily developments. Mayor James J. Fiorentini gave his view of the problem to the City Council in 2021.

“We have a terrible problem in the city right now with people being priced out of the housing market. How do you keep it so that our children and grandchildren can afford to live in the city? I’ve introduced an ordinance, which is not before you tonight. It requires that 10% of the new developments be affordable and we’ll be discussing it a little bit more at the planning board,” the mayor said.

Besides the requirement of 10% affordably priced homes, the plan calls for the City Council to accept a state law that allows the city to establish a trust fund and related bureaucracy paid by developers who’d rather contribute to affordable homes rather than build them.

In a Friday letter to city councilors, Community Development Director Andrew K. Herlihy hinted the city could again be forced under state law to allow developers to call the shots when building housing. “With the release of the 2020 Census housing numbers, the city sits precariously above its 10% affordable/subsidized housing threshold under (state law), at less than 10.05%,” he wrote.

Tuesday’s proposal permits developers to build affordable housing or pay into a trust fund the difference between market rate and the sale or rental price of a restricted unit, initially $35,000 for a rental unit or $50,000 for a sale unit. Councilors and Planning Board members may adjust fees.

Herlihy explained the rationale, writing, “Having the ability for developers to ‘buy out’ of their obligation to build affordable units would enable the city to accumulate non-taxpayer funds for housing needs that the city could control and deploy (through a trust) in a more flexible manner without all the federal/state ‘red tape,” he added.

There was little detail of a section that would allow builders planning 25% or more affordable rental units to build the extra units “off-site” at the discretion of the City Council. Another section allows a “density bonus,” allowing builders to add one additional unit for each affordable unit “regardless of the minimum lot area required for the addition unit or units.”

Affordable is defined by the state, but the proposed ordinance references pricing geared toward those earning 80% or less than the area median income. It also requires lotteries for choosing renters or buyers and a preference for existing Haverhill residents.

The new ordinance would not apply to rehabilitation of fire- or storm-damaged buildings as long as they are rebuilt at the same size.

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