When We Organize, We Win! Housing Victory in Newton

Victory! Newton’s Board of Alderman Grants Special Permit for 28 Austin Street

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As reported here, Progressive Newton has been working throughout 2015 with residents and other organizations to make the proposed development at 28 Austin Street in Newtonville a reality.

We are thrilled to report that on December 7, by a 17-6 vote, Newton’s Board of Alderman approved the special permit needed for the project to go forward.

A special permit requires 16 votes to pass, so the atmosphere was tense all the way to the end.

Over more than four hours, all 23 of the alderman present spoke passionately and eloquently before a packed house about the reasons for their votes. Only an eleventh-hour (actually more like 11:45) decision by three previously undecided members to vote “yes” ensured the project’s passage.

Progressive Newton’s members believe last night’s vote was a tremendous step forward for Newton and, in particular, a critical first step on the path to ensuring that Newton will remain the welcoming and economically diverse city it always has been.

Demand for housing in Newton far outstrips supply, and supply of ADA-accessible 1- and 2-bedroom units with easy pedestrian access to shopping is virtually nonexistent.

28 Austin Street, when completed, will be home to 68 households, many of which might not be living in Newton without it. It will revitalize Newtonville’s center, creating 68 homes, a public plaza with cultural offerings, and 124 public parking spots on what is now an ugly parking lot with 127 spots. It will be environmentally friendly, made of certified LEED materials and within easy walking distance of dozens of restaurants and shops, as well as several mass transit options.

From our perspective, the developer's recent agreement to make 23 of the 68 units affordable to households earning between 80 and 120 percent of AMI (an increase from the 17 affordable units under the previous plan) made 28 Austin Street even more attractive.

We thank to the Board of Alderman for the countless hours put in studying the details of the proposal and listening to Newton’s incredibly engaged citizenry, and for having the courage to vote in favor of the project. We thank the unprecedented number of residents who gave so freely of their time and energy to say “yes” to a proposed development.

Had last night’s vote gone the other way, an important opportunity would have been missed. Not only was it unlikely that anything would be built on the Austin Street parking lot for years to come, but a clear signal would have been sent to developers and potential residents that Newton’s gates are closed.

With the average price of a single-family home in our city now over $1 million, we risked becoming – even more than we are today – a city where only an ever-smaller affluent few can afford to live.

That is not what we want Newton to be, and today we have more confidence that the Newton of tomorrow will be the same open and inclusive place we have been proud to call home. That – rather than an ugly parking lot offering some minute additional convenience –  is the essential part of Newton’s character we have fought to preserve.

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commented 2015-12-10 09:08:06 -0500 · Flag
This is good news to be sure – supply needs to increase for prices to moderate, but I would quibble with the phrasing that this is a first step towards “ensuring that Newton will remain the welcoming and economically diverse city it always has been.” You would need quite a few of these sorts of victories to have an impact on affordability.

What would ensure that Newton remain welcoming and economically diverse? It’s hard to say because housing costs are a regional issue and any action that Newton takes or doesn’t take will be swamped by the influence of surrounding areas. Perhaps an agreement with other close-in communities to commit to greater density in tandem? Kind of like the climate agreement where every country volunteers to do its part? Would something like that be possible?

On a side note, the 23 “affordable” apartments are not necessarily a win for affordability in Newton since every addition to the housing supply will confer greater affordability through the normal functioning of a market. (As people with the most resources choose the newer over another house, the one they would have bid-up becomes cheaper; in turn the people then able to afford that house don’t bid-up another unit. Housing is not interchangeable but it is one market since it all does the same thing for people.) Since these units go to people who might not be in the market at all otherwise, these may have no effect on affordability for anyone other than the people who get the apartments. Which is sad, because market rate apartments could have been expected to relieve demand pressure (ever so slightly) and help buyers at any income level. Market rate apartments also would have incentivized developers to build more, further relieving demand pressure.
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