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Is property ownership in New Bedford about to get easier?

By Steven Froias

Contributing Writer

It’s unusual that a policy wonk makes like Batman, but MassINC’s Ben Forman swung into Gotham City – um, New Bedford – this week like a superhero with a wham, bam, boffo public policy plan that could be a game-changer for Gateway Cities* in Massachusetts.

Forman is actually part of a dynamic duo (backed up by a Justice League). He and co-author Alan Mallach recently completed “Building Communities of Promise and Possibility – State and Local Blueprints for Comprehensive Neighborhood Stabilization.” It’s a set of proposals and a plan to wring inequities out of a system that essentially penalizes urban neighborhoods.   

MassINC’s Ben Forman at the Love The Ave steering committee meeting on Acushnet Avenue, New Bedford, MA.

On Monday, Feb. 25, he shared some key points with the North End neighborhood group, Love The Ave at their quarterly steering committee meeting.

It was an eye-opener.

Have no fear, gentle reader. I won’t get get all Chris Hayes or Rachel Maddow smarty-pants on you here. I’m more Steve Kornacki, and will explain what it all means – with appropriate hyperbole to keep you engaged.

Basically, while Massachusetts is generally regarded as one of the most progressive states in the nation, its public policy on housing is anything but. It generally adheres to post-World War II guidelines, which favor suburban barbarians over urban residents.

How? Glad you asked. Here’s one way.

A post-industrial city like New Bedford is blessed with a good supply of housing stock – a lot of it historic; much of it functional; and almost all of it concentrated in unique neighborhoods throughout the city.

All good, right? Hold on.

While the quintessential and almost ubiquitous three-decker may help define urban New England, most of these charming buildings are about a century old. That’s old – as anyone who owns one will tell you. They require a lot of upkeep.

Which would be okay for these sturdy dwellings if maintenance had matched the march of time. But in way too many areas, this hasn’t been the case. Especially in Gateway Cities like New Bedford.

One reason why is that policy and code perversely incentivizes living in the suburbs.

The report states and Ben Forman explained at the Love The Ave meeting that their research revealed many lower-income neighborhoods in Massachusetts – “most notably, but not solely, in the state’s Gateway Cities” – struggle with the challenges of weak real estate markets, where low rents and declining values make it difficult to maintain an aging housing stock.

When you do go to invest in your older home, or investment property, a “value-based threshold” can create a catch-22. Even relatively conservative improvements – like a new roof – can trigger a threshold unique to Massachusetts: If the cost is more than 30 percent of the pre-existing property value, the entire building must be brought up to full compliance with current codes.

While that may sound like a good thing, in late 19th or early 20th century buildings that can mean everything from head clearance on stairways to new energy-efficiency standards.

Often, the cost of the renovations will then not add sufficient market value for the homeowner to recoup the money they are sinking into the “money pit” – or maybe even get the financing needed to make it happen at all.

Existing policy can be especially pernicious with rental property, leading to all sorts of dastardly behavior. Like landlords scooping up under-valued properties and using them as rental cash cows until they are simply not habitable.

There goes the neighborhood. 

Policy like this favors the suburbs (and gentrified cities, like a lot of Boston) because hitting that 30 percent threshold is less likely when a house is at or above market value. You can do much more to improve your property without falling into a rabbit hole of renovation from which there is no easy escape.

Given that Gateway Cities are densely populated, Massachusetts is in a situation where its policy discourages investment in buildings where a significant amount of its population lives. The result? Gotham City-like neighborhoods. It’s perverse – like something dreamed up by The Joker!

But, lest you despair, remember that this story has a superhero. A few of them.

Ben Forman and Alan Mattach, co-authors of “Building Communities of Promise and Possibility,” are our first two.

The full plan – only a small snapshot of which I’ve provided here – contains action items for bringing Massachusetts into the 21st century when it comes to the epic battle to save our neighborhoods with common sense policy changes that reflect how so many of us actually live.

There are other goodies in it which go beyond housing, like criminal justice reform and better use of our schools, but dirty journalist that I am, I wanted to cherry-pick an aspect which would tease your self-interest and make you look.

The ideas in the blueprints constitute a toolbox that municipalities, neighborhoods and residents can use to have the flexibility necessary to meet a variety of unique challenges – like a means of escape from the dreaded value-based threshold. And thus help level the playing field between economically distressed and more affluent areas of Massachusetts.

The entire report, about 24 pages, is concise, well-written, and very readable – even without comic book references. It can be found here. A limited amount of paper copies are available at Groundwork, 1213 Purchase Street. Feel free to drop by and ask for one!

Another hero of this story is New Bedford’s own State Rep. Antonio F. D. Cabral. He has introduced Bill H.177 on Beacon Hill to turn elements of our dynamic duo’s plan of attack on the status quo into reality.

It’s winding its way through various committees right now, and will receive full legislative voting attention in late summer or fall of this year.

Love The Ave stakeholders – our homegrown superhero team – plan to travel to Boston to lend support to its eventual passage into law.

The plan’s many elements directly address the opportunities and challenges found in New Bedford’s most relentlessly urban neighborhood.

And that’s something worth fighting for.

Stay tuned to this Bat Channel for updates.

* From Wikipedia: Massachusetts gateway cities are “midsize urban centers that anchor regional economies around the state,” facing “stubborn social and economic challenges” while retaining “many assets with unrealized potential.” These communities, which all had a legacy of economic success, have struggled as the state’s economy shifted toward skills-centered knowledge sectors (increasingly clustered in and around Boston.)

The designation was initially applied to eleven cities named in a 2007 report co-authored by the Brookings Institution and the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC). The original eleven cities are: Brockton, Fall River, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester.

Steven Froias