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Brookline set to fall under 10% affordable housing, triggering 40B applications

A four-story, brick apartment building located at 455 Harvard Street.
An apartment building at 455 Harvard Street, which was built through the 40b process. Photo by Sam Mintz
July 28, 2023  Updated August 2, 2023 at 8:34 a.m.
Brookline is likely to dip below an affordable housing threshold this fall, which will mean housing developers will again be able to appeal decisions of the town’s zoning board to the state, according to town officials.

If less than 10% of the housing in a city or town is affordable, a state law, Chapter 40B, kicks in: developers who agree to make a certain percentage of the units in their project affordable have the right to appeal unfavorable local zoning board decisions to the state.

That means if the town rejects their proposals or imposes conditions that the developers find untenable, they can appeal to the state’s Housing Appeals Committee (HAC), which can then overrule the town.

According to town officials’ estimates, Brookline is likely to fall under 10% as of September 1, when it’s projected that the town will have 2,617 units counted toward the Subsidized Housing Inventory out of 27,742 total housing units. It will be the first time the town has fallen under 10% since early 2022.

Developers are readying 40B applications, according to Kara Brewton, the town’s director of planning and community development. “We’re likely going to get three or four, maybe even six, new 40B applications this fall,” Brewton said at a recent meeting of the Housing Advisory Board.

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It will be a short-lived window: Brewton predicts the town will be back above 10 percent by the end of 2023.

But even a brief reappearance of 40B applications will be significant to the town’s housing landscape. In the past, developments approved through 40B have been controversial, with neighbors or other opponents frequently criticizing their design, size or impact on the neighborhood. However, these developments have been the most significant recent source of new multifamily housing, and advocates argue that the units are important to combat an ongoing housing shortage.

“From 2015 to 2021, Brookline built net 600 units of housing, and a lot of that was 40Bs,” said Town Administrator Charles Carey in a recent interview.

The town’s website lists 22 projects in various stages of completion which have been developed through the 40B process in recent years.

Carey says the town is trying to take control of its housing future and move away from 40Bs as it complies with the state MBTA Communities zoning law. That will be the subject of heated debate at this fall’s Town Meeting.

But in the meantime, falling under the 40B threshold will inject new uncertainty into the town’s housing plans this fall.

An apartment building at 420 Harvard Street, also built using the 40B process. Photo by Sam Mintz