on Housing





A White Paper
on Affordable 
Housing, by 
Thomas N. George
























page last updated September 09, 2005


Perspectives on 



A White Paper on Affordable Housing 

Thomas N. George 

Former Massachusetts State Representative 
First Barnstable District


There is no reason to expend any more time or energy to discuss the issue of affordable housing.  Everyone who deals with this problem in either reality (those in the housing field) or theory (those in the planning field) acknowledges the existence of the problem and the current limited number of programs available to resolve it.  Now, positive action is needed.
        A real solution plan should be developed based on the theme, How can we get more units of housing into the community that are financially within the grasp of those in need?  Most people look to the government to solve the problem.  I maintain that this is incorrect . . . and here’s why.
        This is a private-sector problem.  Incentive to build “affordable” units was taken away by local government because of its quest for larger lots per unit and its fear that smaller lot sizes or cluster zoning would stimulate growth and result in greater buildup of our communities.  Well, we have larger lots, we have the requirement that for each unit in a multifamily structure there be an amount of land to support it as if each unit were an individual one, plus other restrictions that hinder investment in building rental properties or low-priced homes, and we are living with the result.  We didn’t control or stop growth, and we still are not stopping growth, AND we don’t have enough affordable units.


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I think the facts indicate that we need to reconsider our local zoning regulations and increase density in certain, targeted geographic areas to give back to the investor the incentive necessary to make the building of affordable housing units attractive to those who wish to sell at a lower price or retain the units as rental property.  Building affordable units is not different from manufacturing a product:  The more units you can produce for the same capital outlay, the lower the potential unit cost to the consumer.  When building housing units, the most costly single portion of the construction is the cost of the land.  If that cost is above the reasonable investment percentage for the total cost of the finished product, no one will venture into the business of building rental property as a long-range investment, and thus no new units will be made available.
        I do not believe that I am alone in this advocacy.  Some of the Cape’s most trusted advocates of preservation are also proponents of the thesis that change in regulatory control of land at the local level should be the initial step to resolve the housing problem.


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Let me inject a little story about this theme, which happened at a meeting of state senators and representatives with one of our regional planning commissions on the subject of affordable housing.  In the course of the discussion, Representative Atsalis suggested that we urge the towns with sewer services to permit apartment construction on the second, and in some cases third, floors of commercial properties.  This suggestion was quickly dismissed by the planning commission’s representative, with the statement “We could never do that.  It will tax the septic treatment plant.”  My position is, you can’t discourage use of the septic treatment plant out of one side of your mouth, while out of the other complain about pollution to the sole-source aquifer that would result from the building of housing, when in fact the reason for the use of the treatment plant is to save the aquifer.
        “Downtown” locations are needed to relieve tenants of the need for a car or taxis.  While allowing apartments on the second floor of buildings in downtown areas is good, realistically, the more pressing questions are, Will doing so generate enough units, and can the costs of conversion allow for lower rents?


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