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North Suburban News

Winchester Attempts to Tackle Lack of Affordable Housing

Sep 19, 2018 09:50AM ● By Dan Marra

WINCHESTER - Winchester may not be a physically gated community, but it is quickly becoming an economically gated one. 

At least that’s the thought of some in town, as Winchester recently released a draft of its Housing Production Plan as it attempts to increase its paltry number of affordable units in the community.

According to the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, only 3.1 percent of Winchester's housing units are considered affordable. That number shrinks to 1.9 percent if the proposed construction of 96 apartment units at 416 Cambridge Street is struck down. Currently residents filed an appeal preventing the building of that structure citing traffic concerns, as well as other issues they have with the development. That case is expected to be heard later this fall.

If that number remains at 1.9 percent, it would put Winchester in the bottom 10 percent of communities in Massachusetts when it comes to affordable housing. Compared to neighboring communities, Winchester looks even worse. Arlington has 5.6 percent affordable housing; Lexington has 11.1 percent, surpassing the state’s goal of 10 percent; Stoneham has 5.3 percent; and Woburn has 8.7 percent.

The primary drive for communities to reach that 10 percent number is control, according to Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts housing Partnership.

“More communities are trying to develop their own housing plans as they try and get ahead and be in control of housing products,” Ziegler said. “If the communities don’t have a plan and aren’t moving toward increasing their affordable housing, communities lose control and building developers can bypass town bylaws.”

But the decision to increase affordable housing in town should go beyond the control aspect, argues Ziegler.

“It’s a values question,” Ziegler said. “What type of town do you want to live in? Most people don’t want to live in an exclusionary community.”

In Winchester, that’s the very debate the community is having. According to John Suhrbier, a member of the Winchester Housing Partnership, the common excuse in town for the deficiency of affordable units is the lack of space in Winchester. But Suhrbier fears the concerns go deeper than that as there are other construction options besides just building on vacant land.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in Winchester to convert underutilized commercial space,” Suhrbier said. “But there’s also an attitude that the town doesn’t want low income, minority populations in Winchester.”

And so this housing production plan aims to achieve two goals – expand the housing inventory in Winchester and increase the number of affordable units so that the town can regain control of the affordable housing projects proposed by developers.

“In Winchester for middle and moderate income families, there’s nothing they can afford,” Suhrbier said. “People have trouble moving to town after college because they can’t afford the prices here. And older residents are forced to move out of town because it’s just unaffordable to live here.”

This housing production plan begins to address those concerns, as it looks to pinpoint locations in town where affordable housing makes sense, but Winchester still has a long way to go to become a more inclusive community.

“There’s definitely more support in the community, but we’re still struggling with the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) phenomenon,” Suhrbier said. “We’re definitely moving forward, we’re just moving very slowly.”

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