TRURO — The debate over how much affordable housing Truro needs was for years focused on the 3.9-acre Cloverleaf parcel on Highland Road, which will have 39 apartment and duplex homes, mostly at subsidized rents.
Now, the question has re-emerged a mile and a half further south, at the 69.9-acre Walsh property, where a planning committee voted on Jan. 18 to use an “interim number” of 252 units on 28.5 acres for upcoming traffic and water studies. That number was suggested by Walsh Committee alternate Raphael Richter, who suggested it because it represents 60 percent of the housing need identified in a draft Housing Production Plan presented to town officials last December.
That vote was controversial, however, with members of the minority saying that 252 units was “not reasonable” and “would change the entire profile of this town.”
Against this backdrop, an unsigned analysis, circulated in January in the Truro News, suggested that a state metric called the Subsidized Housing Inventory would indicate a much lower housing production number for Truro. The article suggests that, after adding 39 future Cloverleaf units to the town’s inventory, Truro would need to add only 55 qualifying units, of which 14 would have to be affordable, to reach the state’s 10-percent target.
“This would then make Truro the leader on the Outer and Lower Cape,” the article concludes. “And Truro will have then met its regional fair share obligations under the statute.”
Truro Town Manager Darrin Tangeman and Town Planner Barbara Carboni declined to comment on the analysis or on the town’s housing goals as they relate to the state’s Subsidized Housing Inventory.
The Independent asked Laura Shufelt, a director of community assistance at the Mass. Housing Partnership and an expert on subsidized housing, to comment on the Truro News report.
Its premise — that 14 new affordable units in a 55-unit development would make Truro the leader in affordable housing on the Lower and Outer Cape — was, she said, “ludicrous.”
One mistake in the analysis, said Shufelt, is including Truro’s Cloverleaf in the inventory calculation but not counting similar projects in Orleans and Provincetown. Had the author included them, Orleans would be at 10.7 percent in the SHI calculation and Provincetown at 12.4 percent.
Several Lower and Outer Cape towns have approved large subsidized housing developments in the same timeframe as the Cloverleaf, Shufelt said, including 65 units at Jerome Smith Road in Provincetown, 46 units at 95 Lawrence Road in Wellfleet, and 62 units at the old Cape Cod Five building in Orleans.
There are more projects in the works in these and other towns. Orleans is contemplating 77 units at the Governor Prence Inn property. Provincetown is planning 36 units at the old police station on Shank Painter Road. Eastham is considering 69 units at its T-Time and Town Center Plaza properties. Wellfleet purchased the 21-acre Maurice’s Campground for housing last year.
Shufelt also said that the Subsidized Housing Inventory should not be misunderstood as a goal. “The SHI calculation is not a substitute for a needs analysis,” she said.
The inventory defines whether a developer of mixed-income housing will have the right, under the state’s Chapter 40B, to go to the state’s Housing Appeals Committee. If a town’s inventory is under 10 percent, it has very little flexibility to reject a mixed-income 40B project, Shufelt said.
The 10 percent was an arbitrary number, she said, agreed on in 1968 when the state passed the original 40B legislation. She added that the SHI is a flawed proxy for a community’s needs in resort areas. That is partly because it excludes from its formula all housing units the U.S. Census Bureau deems “vacant” — which includes properties reserved for “seasonal, occasional, or recreational use.”
The 2020 American Community Survey puts that seasonal proportion at more than 78 percent of Truro’s 3,386 housing units. This means that every time a long-term renter is displaced to make way for a vacation home or short-term rental that unit is subtracted from the town’s total housing stock for the purposes of the SHI calculation — and the number of subsidized units needed to reach 10 percent goes down.
The 40B law was written to encourage for-profit developers to put mixed-income developments on their own land, Shufelt said, which is why it requires only 25 percent of the units to be affordable. On the Outer Cape, most 40B developments are on town-owned land with the aim of making 90 percent or more of the units affordable.
Shufelt said towns buy land for affordable housing at a certain density and then find themselves using 40B to get buildings permitted because they haven’t taken the step of rezoning their own parcels.
“I’m not criticizing the select boards — I know what it takes to get a zoning change,” Shufelt added. “It’s easier to let the developer use 40B.”
But having only 25 percent of 55 units be affordable would never happen on a town-supported project, she said.
“The goal for these towns is to have a functioning economic system with reasonable staffing ratios, supporting the workers we need, and meeting the needs of folks with disabilities,” said Shufelt. “This 10 percent number does not reflect that need.”