Adorable as Affordable?: The Zoning Challenge of Tiny Houses

by Olympia Bowker

Viewpoint

With Massachusetts’ housing affordability crisis showing no signs of abating, it imperative to consider new, creative solutions. A 2018 Boston Magazine analysis of over 150 Massachusetts cities and towns revealed the lowest median home price in one municipality was $255,450; the highest was $1.9M. Contrast these figures with the roughly $60,000 retail cost of a Tiny House, and it is no wonder that these diminutive abodes appear tempting as affordable options. But can they play a meaningful role in ameliorating the affordable housing crisis in Massachusetts? And can the Community Preservation Act (“CPA”) help spur a Tiny House trend in Massachusetts?

Tiny Houses: What Are They, and Are They Prohibited?

A “Tiny House” is defined by the 2018 International Residential Code (“IRC”) as a dwelling that is 400 square feet or less in floor area excluding lofts used as a living or sleeping space. Generally, Tiny Houses look like miniature versions of traditional houses; they can feature tiny modernist rooflines, colonial shutters, or Victorian gingerbread trimming. They can be built either on trailers or fixed foundations—a key distinction for affordable housing purposes.

While attention is often on the high-end Tiny House market that focuses on minimalist lifestyles and carbon footprints, experiments nationwide highlight the value of “tiny house villages” to address homelessness. With the wait times for affordable housing in Boston lasting years, urgency must beget innovation here as well.

Notwithstanding the growth in Tiny Houses as a social and architectural movement, long-standing provisions of many municipal zoning bylaws and ordinances ignore, if not effectively prohibit, Tiny Houses. In Massachusetts, a wheeled Tiny House is legally treated as a recreational vehicle (“RV”), mobile home, or trailer that must be registered with the state and used as such (i.e., not parked year-round other than in a designated area), and is often barred by or heavily regulated under local zoning laws as undesirable.

If a Tiny House is built on a foundation, it must comply with zoning and building codes applicable to single family residential dwellings, including minimum square footage, lot and building size, and setback requirements. For example, Holliston Zoning Bylaw §V(D) has a 600 square foot minimum for floor area, effectively prohibiting Tiny Houses as defined under the IRC. But with the housing shortage at crisis levels, notwithstanding the still-developing zoning and construction standards, high land prices, and political tensions, these small-segment models of housing shouldn’t be overlooked.

Tiny Houses as Stock for the Subsidized Housing Inventory under G.L. c. 40B

To incentivize communities to adopt zoning changes to allow Tiny Houses, it is important to note that Tiny Houses constructed for low or moderate-income households may be countable toward a municipality’s Subsidized Housing Inventory (“SHI”) for purposes of the “Comprehensive Permit Law,” G.L. c. 40B. To qualify as SHI, the unit must be “affordable” to households earning at or below 80% of the Area’s Median Income (“AMI”)—the rent or mortgage payment and related housing expenses (e.g., utilities) cannot exceed 30% of the household members’ annual incomes.

Since enactment in 1969, G.L. c. 40B, §§ 20-23 (“40B”) has served as the main statutory scheme to address the affordable housing shortage statewide. 40B includes an ‘anti-snob’ provision that empowers the Zoning Board of Appeals to override zoning requirements to approve “comprehensive permits” for denser, larger, and higher developments than would otherwise be allowed under local regulations if the municipality has not met its “safe harbor” threshold for SHI: either at least 10% of a municipality’s total housing stock must be “affordable” or more than 1.5% of municipal land must be dedicated to SHI. See G.L. c. 40B, § 20; 760 C.M.R. § 56.03(1); DHCD Guidelines (rev. Dec. 2014). If a municipality meets neither SHI threshold, 40B dramatically relaxes local control over approval of comprehensive permits for housing developments that contain 20-25% affordable units.

Even after 50 years of 40B incentive, as of 2017, Massachusetts municipalities had an average of 9.7% SHI, and only 67 of Massachusetts’ 351 municipalities were at or above the 10% SHI threshold. Tiny Houses that qualify as SHI would be more attractive to municipalities because they would count towards the 10% safe harbor threshold for 40B purposes.

But in order to qualify for SHI, Tiny Houses have to be allowed in the first place.

Crafting Tiny Zoning

Municipalities can start by explicitly including Tiny Houses in their zoning: write Tiny Houses into tables of uses, and define whether they can be used as accessory dwellings, secondary or tertiary structures, or as stand-alone residences. Definitions should address whether they can have wheels, or whether they must be built upon a foundation.

Carefully crafted Tiny House zoning can provide housing stock that fits within the character of towns by allowing continued municipal control over massing, setbacks, aesthetics, and other elements which municipalities would otherwise relinquish under the traditional 40B system.

Further, creation of an overlay district for Tiny House villages could provide for maximum square footage, smaller setbacks, and smaller lot of sizes in certain areas. In such scenarios, preexisting non-conforming lots may become buildable. With creative zoning such as cluster developments, more homes could be built in smaller areas.

In 2016, Nantucket enacted a zoning bylaw amendment that explicitly allowed Tiny Houses that comply with the International Building Code. While industry standards did not align at the time to permit prefabricated Tiny Houses under that ordinance, future iterations of bylaw changes and changes in the industry specifications can address those types of mismatches going forward.

Leveraging CPA Funds

The CPA can serve as a catalyst for a Tiny House trend by subsidizing construction or land acquisition for Tiny Houses that count towards SHI thresholds. One way the CPA helps communities create affordable housing is by establishing a “community preservation fund,” which is fed by a local tax of up to 3% on real property.

The CPA defines affordable housing as “community housing” that serves households at or below 100% of AMI. CPA funds can support many types of activities in furtherance of affordable housing, including construction and property acquisition. Municipalities can neutralize land costs by acquiring buildable land, which not only can enhance feasible development possibilities, but also allow more control over design and location of development.

Tiny Houses created with or assisted by CPA funds can be included in a municipality’s SHI through compliance with the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD)’s Local Initiative Program, which requires the unit to be created as a result of the municipality’s action or approval. The unit will be sold or rented on a fair and open basis subject to an affirmative fair marketing and resident selection plan approved by DHCD; be affordable to households below 80% AMI; and have its permanent affordability secured by Department use restrictions. CPA funds used to purchase land for Tiny Houses also incentivize partnerships with developers, such as through subsidies or by allowing the developer to build on municipal land.

Conclusion

Tiny Houses are not the silver bullet, as the resident pool for such housing is admittedly small, but they offer one more means to create much-needed inexpensive housing for single or double occupancy – a segment not prioritized in the current 40B scheme. By considering the interests of citizens, cities and towns, and affordable housing proponents, they can perhaps expand housing options and increase supply – at least a tiny bit.

 

Olympia A. Bowker is an associate at McGregor & Legere, P.C. in Boston. She helps clients with a broad range of environmental, land use, zoning, and regulatory matters.


Understanding When Competitive Bidding Applies to Affordable Housing in Public-Private Partnerships

by Lauren D. Song and Tyler Creighton

Legal Analysis

Anyone who owns, constructs, or finances a construction project involving public funds, public ownership, and/or public use must carefully consider whether the project may be classified as “public construction.” If so, the project will be strictly regulated under an array of local, state, and federal requirements, including competitive bidding and procurement requirements, prevailing wages, bonding, and affirmative action goals. Mistakenly treating a project with a strong public-private interdependence as exempt from the public construction laws can expose the hybrid project to bid disputes, financial penalties, unenforceable contracts, and costly delays in the permitting, acquisition, funding, rehabilitation, and construction of critically needed housing. But compliance with the Massachusetts system of procurement when not required to will also constrain the construction process, significantly increase project cost and time, and result in other inefficiencies. This article reviews two bid protests recently decided by the Massachusetts Office of Attorney General (“AG”) to illustrate the challenges inherent in determining when affordable housing projects undertaken through public-private partnerships (“P3”)[i] may be “public construction” for purposes of the competitive bidding requirements under G.L. c. 149, §§ 44A44H (“statute”).

I. Background: Public-Private Partnerships for Affordable Housing 

Greater Boston perennially ranks nationally among the top-five highest average in rents and home prices. But because of the lack of funding, most low-income people in Massachusetts do not receive rental assistance, and three in ten low-income people are either homeless or must pay over half of their income in rent. The need for affordable housing preservation and production is at a crisis level in Massachusetts and nationally.[ii]

As the supply of affordable housing in the private market has lagged, public housing has been dying a slow death of divestment for decades. Established under the United States Housing Act of 1937, the public housing program produced nearly 1.4 million units nationwide, but today, only about 1 million units remain with a combined $49 billion backlog in unaddressed repairs.[iii] This backlog will continue to rise even as more federal public housing units are lost permanently with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s (“HUD”) effort to “reposition” the public housing inventory through public-private partnerships under the Section 18 demolition and disposition, Rental Assistance Demonstration (“RAD”), and Moving to Work programs.

The trend favors increased P3 initiatives with an expectation of greater efficiencies through risk sharing, leveraging financing from both public and private sectors, and accessing broader innovations, knowledge and skills. Already, “most HUD programs are structurally public-private partnerships (P3s) or have some public-private aspects.” Yet the legal uncertainty and fact-specific scrutiny necessary to determine when P3 arrangements are subject to the competitive bidding requirements may inadvertently chill critically-needed private investments for affordable housing in Massachusetts.

II. Massachusetts Public Construction Law

A. Massachusetts Competitive Bidding Statute

The Massachusetts public construction bidding law mandates that “[e]very contract for the construction, reconstruction, installation, demolition, maintenance or repair of any building by a public agency estimated to cost more than $150,000 … shall be awarded to the lowest responsible and eligible general bidder on the basis of competitive bids in accordance with the procedure set forth in section 44A to 44H.” G.L. c. 149, § 44A(1)(D).[iv] The dual remedial purpose of the statute is to eliminate favoritism and corruption through “an honest and open procedure for competition for public contracts,” Interstate Engineering Corp. v. Fitchburg, 367 Mass. 751, 757 (1975), and to ensure that taxpayers dollars obtain the lowest price for competent construction by qualified bidders under uniform criteria. Fordyce v. Town of Hanover, 457 Mass. 248, 259-60 (2010).

The AG is “charged with investigating allegations of violations of the competitive bidding statute and enforcing its provisions” through “bid protests.” Brasi Development Corp. v. Attorney General, 456 Mass. 684, 691 (2010) (“Brasi”). Awards of contracts can also be challenged in Superior Court where “the potential class of plaintiffs … is not necessarily limited to the low bidder on each contract” because standing is interpreted liberally in furtherance of the statute’s remedial purpose.[v] Barr Inc. v. Town of Holliston, 462 Mass. 112, 119 (2012).

The AG may enforce her bid protest decision by filing an action in the Superior Court. See G. L. c. 149, §§ 27C (a), 44H. However, the AG’s bid protest decision is accorded no deference by the courts which construe the statute de novo. Brasi, 456 Mass. at 694. Accordingly, a bid protest decision cannot settle the legal uncertainty as to whether and under what circumstances the statute applies to P3s.

B. The Brasi “Totality of Circumstances” Test

In Brasi, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) held that the competitive bidding statute applied to a “build to lease” arrangement between a private developer, Brasi Development Corporation (“BDC”), and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell (“University”). In so deciding, the SJC adopted a totality of circumstances test to conclude that the so-called “lease back” scenario[vi]  in Brasi was in fact “the functional equivalent of a construction contract.” Id. at 684. The SJC reasoned that “limiting the inquiry to the [Request for Proposal (‘RFP’) as has been done in other contexts] ignores relevant circumstances that have a direct bearing on the transaction that the parties contemplated,” and that the totality of circumstances indicated the creation of a project by “an agency for the agency’s use in carrying out its public purpose” which constitutes “construction of a building by a public agency” to which the statute applies. Id. at 697-699.

Specifically, the SJC concluded that where BDC was obligated to construct a dormitory and lease it back to the University for up to 30 years subject to the University’s option to purchase and automatic transfer of ownership at the end of the lease, the “character of the agreement was, in essence, a contract for construction by a public agency… rather than a lease.” Id. at 684. The SJC admonished that “[o]therwise, the parties could easily employ long-term leases to evade the ‘competitive bidding requirement’ of the procurement statute.” Id. at 695. Brasi underscores that in evaluating whether public bidding laws apply to a P3, (1) public ownership is not necessary or dispositive and, (2) the “totality of the circumstances” of all agreements focuses on whether there is a “creation of a project by the [public] agency” that is “for the agency’s use in carrying out its public purposes.” Id. at 697.

III. Recent Attorney General Decisions on P3 Projects

A. Holyoke Housing Authority Decision: Public Housing Conversion under RAD

On June 20, 2019, the AG issued a detailed decision in In re Holyoke Housing Authority Rehabilitation of Lyman Terrace (“Holyoke Housing”) methodically applying the Brasi factors to the P3 rehabilitation of Lyman Terrace (“Project”) and found that the project constituted a public construction subject to the statute. However, the AG expressly declared that the decision in Holyoke Housing was “prospective only and, therefore, does not apply to this specific project, but will serve as guidance to other awarding authorities.” Holyoke Housing, p. 2.

This Project involved the conveyance and rehabilitation of 167-units of distressed federal public housing built in 1939 and owned by the Holyoke Housing Authority (“HHA”) to The Community Builders, Inc. (“TCB”), a private developer, as part of HUD’s RAD program under a 75-year ground lease (“Ground Lease”).[vii] Largely consistent with HHA’s RFP, the Master Development Agreement (“MDA”) required TCB to “initiate, coordinate and administer all planning, design, development, financing, construction and management activities in connection with” the Project,[viii] subject to certain rights of HHA to approve the general contractor and to review the plans, and subject to procedures for the selection of the contractor to help ensure competitive pricing, payment of prevailing wages, and compliance with other contracting standards.

To implement the Project, TCB formed a separate private limited liability company (“Owner”) to own Phase 1 of the Project pursuant to G.L. c. 121A, and HHA obtained HUD’s approval for the disposition of the public housing units under the RAD program. The Owner paid a base rent of $2,710,000 to HHA, and obtained over $35 million of financing for Phase 1 (including a $1 million loan from HHA, eight other loans from different public and private lenders, and almost $16 million of private equity contribution from the allocation of low-income housing tax credits (“LIHTC”)).[ix] TCB provided all corporate construction completion guarantees required by financing sources.

In exchange, as required for the RAD conversion, HHA entered into new Housing Assistance Payment (“HAP”) contracts with HUD to ensure the Owner would receive subsidy payments for the continued operation of the rehabilitated units under the Section 8 program. HHA and HUD also retained regulatory and enforcement rights with respect to the Section 8 HAP contracts, and HHA retained a limited right of first refusal and the option to buy back the buildings in 15 years. Other agreements obligated the Owner to “maintain the public purpose of the housing development” by operating and managing the rehabilitated units as affordable for low-income residents. Holyoke Housing, at 12.

According to the AG, the RAD Project posed the question under Brasi: “whether the public bidding laws apply when a private entity undertakes construction on a housing project that was initially owned by a public housing authority, was initiated by the public housing authority, is funded by public money, serves a governmental purpose, with control over the design and construction process retained by the public housing authority which may revert to the public housing authority if the authority pays fair market value, within a relatively short amount of time.” Holyoke Housing, p. 11. Notably, absent from the Project is the “lease back” arrangement that troubled the SJC in Brasi.[x] Rather, Holyoke Housing reveals a complex and pervasively regulated set of transactions typical of RAD conversions, which is one of the limited options available to some housing authorities to preserve distressed public housing units as affordable housing.

Nonetheless, the AG decided the Project was subject to the statute, applying the Brasi factors and following the SJC’s focus on whether the Project will “assist the public entity in ‘carrying out its public purposes.” Id. at 11-12. The AG also queried why a home-rule waiver from the statute had not been sought for the Project, as had been successfully done in other similar public housing redevelopments undertaken by TCB. See Holyoke Housing, p. 4.

B. Chestnut Park Preservation Decision: Privately-Owned, LIHTC Housing

On September 25, 2019, the AG decided In re MHFA, DHCD, and City of Springfield: Chestnut Park Apartments (“Chestnut Park”) finding that the P3 project there did not constitute public construction. Chestnut Park involved the occupied-rehabilitation of a privately-owned and privately-developed, 489-unit, LIHTC-financed, mixed-income rental housing development (“LIHTC Project”). In concluding that the LIHTC Project was not a “construction of a building by a public agency” subject to the statute, the AG recognized that there are “two separate legislative systems for creating and maintaining affordable housing…on both the state and federal levels”: a public housing system owned by public agencies that rely on grants and operating subsidies (as in Holyoke Housing), and a private affordable rental housing system developed, owned, and operated by private for-profit and non-profit entities relying on public and quasi-public loans, subsidies, and tax incentives. Chestnut Park, pp. 9-11. The AG then declared that nevertheless, even privately-owned affordable housing like the LIHTC Project is subject to the Brasi test. The AG also rejected a narrow interpretation of Brasi that the “totality of circumstances” test is “confined to cases involving leases.” Chestnut Park, p. 11. Finally, the AG distinguished Chestnut Park from the facts in Brasi and Holyoke Housing to conclude that because the public lenders, MHFA, DHCD, and the City of Springfield (collectively “Public Agencies”), “did not initiate or plan the design or construction of the Project; have never owned and will not own the Project land, buildings or improvements; do not have an absolute right to acquire the premises; and do not control the design or construction of the Project in any way other than as lenders, the public bidding laws do not apply” to the LIHTC Project. Id., p. 2 (italics added).

Applying Brasi to each indicia of public ownership, project control, use, purpose, and funding, the AG rejected the argument that Chestnut Park Apartments is a government agency-financed and controlled affordable housing facility subject to the statute, and determined that the conditions of financing in the Public Agencies’ regulatory agreements did not constitute “significant control over either the design or the construction of the Project” but were “programmatic” requirements for the operation of the LIHTC Project as affordable housing consistent with the Public Agencies’ public purpose and underwriting requirements.[xi] Id., pp. 12-15. The AG concluded that “public financing alone ‘does not render a private development … a public building or public work, or make [an owner] an agent or servant of a public instrumentality,” and noted that “[i]f that were the case, the private businesses that invest in low-income communities while benefiting from the New Markets Tax Credit Program … would become subject to laws governing public construction and prevailing wage,[xii] since they [likewise] advance the public purpose of serving low-income communities.” Chestnut Park, pp. 16-17 (quoting Salem Bldg. Supply Co. v. J.B.L. Constr. Co., 10 Mass. App. Ct. 360, 362 (1980)).

IV. More Challenges on the Horizon?

The AG’s recent bid protest decisions applying the Brasi totality of circumstances test underscore that in Massachusetts, all public and privately-owned P3 projects are well-advised to continue to consider carefully the applicability of the statute and all other public construction requirements [xiii] when one or more of the following “red flags” of potential challenge is present: (1) direct or indirect public ownership in part or all of the project, (2) public or quasi-public financing in the form of equity or debt, or assumption of risks or provision of guarantees, (3) significant public entity control over the construction, rehabilitation, or design of the project, and/or (4) construction to serve a specific public purpose or public use. By addressing the legal requirements for public construction early, P3 projects will be optimally positioned to provide badly needed affordable housing efficiently, with quality construction, within budget, and in a timely manner, and avoid costly public relations hiccups and litigation.

 

Lauren D. Song is a Senior Attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services where her practice focuses on affordable housing preservation and development through public-private partnerships, including under the federal “Section 18,” “RAD,” and state demonstration programs. Lauren is a current member of the Boston Bar Journal and the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association.

Tyler Creighton is a law student at Boston University and former legal intern with Greater Boston Legal Services. Prior to law school, Tyler worked on election and voting policies with Common Cause Massachusetts and ReThink Media.  

 

[i] The U.S. General Accounting Office defines “public-private partnerships” as joint efforts between the public and either the private for-profit or private nonprofit sectors.

[ii] All five Greater Boston counties rank nationally in the top 10 percent for income inequality. The median rent of $2,450 for a one bedroom apartment in Boston in 2019 is unaffordable for most lower-income and working-class households.

[iii] ”Public housing” refers to federal public housing in this article unless otherwise specified. Public housing is funded exclusively by Congressional appropriations. HUD administers the public housing operating and capital funds appropriated by Congress to approximately 3,300 public housing authorities (“PHAs”). However, Massachusetts (along with New York, Connecticut, and Hawaii) also has a state public housing program comprised of more than 240 local PHAs and overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (“DCHD”) which also faces a $2 billion capital funding shortfall.

[iv] In Massachusetts, “public construction” falls generally under two categories of either “vertical construction” of “public buildings” governed by G.L. c. 149, or “horizontal construction” of “public works” governed by G.L. c. 30, § 39M. Generally, the vertical projects are subject to more requirements than the horizontal projects. The AG has jurisdiction to investigate bid protests in both vertical and horizontal  construction.

[v] See e.g., Andrews v. City of Springfield, 75 Mass. App. Ct. 678 (2009) (standing for group of city residents); Associated Subcontractors of Mass., Inc. v. Univ. of Mass. Bldg. Authority, 442 Mass. 159 (2004) (standing for subcontractors’ association); East Side Const. Co. v. Town of Adams, 329 Mass. 347 (1952) (standing for group of taxpayers).

[vi] Lease backs typically involve creative arrangements where a public entity leases land to a private developer (often for a de minimus amount) in exchange for the developer’s promise to build on the land and then enter into a [sub]lease-to-own agreement for the construction with the public entity. See, e.g., Andrews v. City of Springfield, 75 Mass. App. Ct. 678, 679 (2009) (invalidating lease and option to purchase because “Springfield’s request for proposal (RFP), while styled as a lease, was in reality a construction project subject to the bidding procedures set forth in c. 149” which Springfield did not follow).

[vii] RAD allows for significant PHA discretion in how the public-private interdependence is structured. At a minimum, RAD conversions of public housing to the more reliable Section 8 platform allow PHAs greater access to private financing and on better loan terms for renovations. See, e.g., Fischer, Will. 2014. “Expanding Rental Assistance Demonstration Would Help Low-Income Families, Seniors, and People with Disabilities.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. See also, Meryl Finkel, Ken Lam, Christopher Blaine, R.J. de la Cruz, Donna DeMarco, Melissa Vandawalker, Michelle Woodford.  (Nov. 2010). Capital Needs in the Public Housing Program.

[viii] HHA separately undertook the “horizontal” improvement of the public works for Lyman Terrace through grants. HHA used a contractor selected through a competitive bid process but subsequently contracted with a TCB affiliate to complete the site improvement.

[ix] The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), created by the Tax Reform Act of 1986, is now the most significant private incentive for affordable rental housing production in the United States, involving more than 3.13 million housing units placed in service between 1987 and 2017.

[x] Some have argued that the Brasi totality of circumstances test applies only in similar “build to lease” or “lease back” scenarios.

[xi] The Public Agency loans impose certain affordability, unit-mix, tenant-selection, and other use restrictions for 52 years, after which the units can be converted into market-rate housing under G.L. c. 40T, § 3.

[xii] While the AG is charged with enforcing the state’s prevailing wage statute, the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards is tasked with issuing state prevailing wage schedules and making applicability determinations, Felix A.  Marino Co. v. Comm’r of Labor and Indus., 426 Mass. 458, 460 (1998), and has adopted Brasi’s totality of the circumstances test for determining whether a project is a “public work” subject to the prevailing wage law. See e.g., Re: Construction of Leasehold Space in Private Buildings by Charter Schools for the Purpose of Use as a School, Prevailing Wage Program Opinion Letter (Feb. 22, 2012). Notably, projects that are covered by the state’s prevailing wage statute, G.L. c. 149, § 2627 are not necessarily subject to the competitive bidding statute and vice versa. This is because, for example, there are amount thresholds in the Competitive Bidding Statute not applicable to the Prevailing Wage Statute, and whereas the bidding laws cover “buildings by a public agency,” the prevailing wage laws apply to “public works.”

[xiii] Other issues that may affect P3 projects in addition to competitive bidding requirements include whether it is federal, state or local, such as relates to: (1) prevailing wages, (2) work force policy mandates relating to DBE, WBE, LBE, etc.  (3) procurement restrictions on materials and equipment, (4) bonding requirements, and (5) mechanics lien rights, and (6) even the timing of presentation of claims or commencing an action or the applicability of sovereign immunity or limits on damages.


Bellalta: A Flowchart for the Owner of a Nonconforming Home

by Kate M. Carter

Case Focus

In Bellalta v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Brookline, 481 Mass. 372 (2019), the Supreme Judicial Court reaffirmed the process by which a preexisting, non-conforming single- or two-family structure can be altered or expanded, clarifying the framework established by courts wrestling with the “difficult and infelicitous” language of G.L. c. 40A, Section 6 for nearly four decades. Bellalta confirmed that changes to such structures can be made by special permit without the additional need for a variance.

The Section 6 Quicksand

Section 6 regulates the application of local zoning to preexisting, nonconforming structures and uses. Its language reflects a tension between competing philosophies governing the use and development of Massachusetts land. On the one hand zoning is interested in the elimination of nonconformities. But zoning also reflects the notion that “rights once acquired by existing use or construction of buildings in general ought not to be interfered with.” Opinion of the Justices, 234 Mass. 597, 606 (1920). Thus, under Section 6, a zoning ordinance or by-law shall not apply to structures or uses lawfully in existence or lawfully begun … but shall apply to any change or substantial extension of such use … to any reconstruction, extension or structural change of such structure … except where alteration, reconstruction, extension or structural change to a single or two-family residential structure does not increase the nonconforming nature of said structure. Pre-existing nonconforming structures or uses may be extended or altered, provided, that no such extension or alteration shall be permitted unless there is a finding by the permit granting authority … that such change, extension or alteration shall not be substantially more detrimental than the existing nonconforming [structure or] use to the neighborhood.

(Emphasis added). In two sentences, the statute (i) protects previously compliant structures and uses from the effect of subsequently enacted zoning bylaws, (ii) preserves the need to comply with zoning if one wants to change or alter a nonconforming structure or use, and (iii) creates a separate exemption for certain changes or alterations to single- and two-family structures. In Bellalta, the SJC examined the extent of the protections afforded by the “second except clause” to owners of single- and two-family preexisting, nonconforming structures.

Underlying Facts and Procedural Posture

Defendant homeowners owned a unit in a two-unit Brookline condominium. They proposed adding a dormer to add 677 square feet of living space. The building did not comply with the floor area ratio (“FAR”) – the ratio of building gross floor area to lot area – for the zoning district in which it was located. The FAR for the zoning district was 1.0. The FAR for the defendants’ building was 1.14, which would increase to 1.38 with the new dormer.

After being denied a building permit, the defendants applied for, and were granted, a “Section 6 finding” by the Brookline Zoning Board of Appeal. The Board found that the proposed addition and resulting increase in FAR would not be substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood than the nonconforming structure was prior to renovation.  Plaintiff abutters appealed, arguing that because Brookline’s bylaw expressly prohibited FAR increases of more than 25%, defendants also needed to apply for a variance – a more difficult and narrowly-available type of zoning relief.

The “Interpretative Framework”

Beginning with Fitzsimmonds v. Board of Appeals of Chatham, 21 Mass. App. Ct. 53 (1985), and culminating with Bjorklund v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Norwell, 450 Mass. 357 (2008), the courts have established a three-step framework to analyze a homeowner’s request to alter, reconstruct, extend, or change a preexisting, nonconforming, single- or two-family home. First, how does the structure violate current zoning? Second, does the proposed change intensify that non-conformity?  If the answer to question two is “no”, the proposed change is allowed by right, without the need for relief. Only if the answer to question two is “yes” must a homeowner apply for a finding by the local board that the proposed change will “not be substantially more detrimental than the existing nonconforming use to the neighborhood.” Bellalta, 481 Mass. at 380-81.[1]

In Bellalta, the defendants argued that the new dormer would make the building more consistent with the architecture and dimensions of other buildings on the street. Moreover, the proposed addition was modest – it only increased the habitable space by 675 square feet.[2] Thus, they argued that the new dormer would not be substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood than the existing, nonconforming building. The Board agreed, issued the Section 6 finding, and allowed the project to proceed without a variance. Bellalta, 481 Mass. at 383; see also Gale v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Gloucester, 80 Mass. App. Ct. 331 (2011).

In upholding the Board’s decision not to require a variance, the Bellalta court explained that since the “second except” clause was adopted in 1975, the Legislature has amended Section 6 on multiple occasions, and never clarified the language – thereby ratifying the courts’ interpretative framework. Bellalta, 481 Mass. at 383. To require the defendants to also apply for a variance would allow the Brookline bylaw to eliminate the special protections otherwise afforded preexisting, non-conforming single- or two-family structures by Section 6. Id. at 386 – 87.

Bellalta’s Significance Amidst a Growing Housing Crisis

Underlying the language of Section 6, the resulting interpretative framework, and the Bellalta decision is a value judgment that extra effort should be taken to protect a particular segment of housing stock: single- and two-family homes. The protections afforded preexisting, nonconforming single- and two-family homes would be illusory if owners were obligated to undertake the burden of applying for a Section 6 finding and a variance. Bellalta, 481 Mass. at 383. The time and costs associated with such a process might mean that homeowners would forego the renovation and maintenance of older, “starter” homes leaving them to be torn down and replaced with new, more expensive housing. Id. at 384. Bellalta’s re-affirmation of the “special protections” afforded to single- and two-family homes is particularly important amid today’s housing crisis. Section 6 provides a valuable counterbalance to municipalities seeking to stifle housing production by increasing minimum lot sizes or other dimensional requirements. Bellalta, 481 Mass. at 384 – 85. The Section 6 process allows homeowners to make changes to accommodate evolving housing needs, without adding additional demand to an undersupplied housing market.  By affirming the streamlined process by which homeowners of preexisting, nonconforming single- and two-family homes can make changes to their homes, the SJC in Bellalta, reaffirmed the Legislature’s decision to protect single- and two-family homes. Section 6’s protections will continue to play an important part in helping to address Massachusetts’ growing need for more habitable living space within an increasingly expensive and diminishing pool of available land.

 

Kate Moran Carter is a shareholder at Dain ǀ Torpy. She represents clients in disputes concerning the ownership, operation, development, and use of real estate.

 

[1] If the proposed change will create new nonconformities, a variance will be required.

[2] In Bjorklund, the SJC sanctioned certain types of improvements, without the need for a Section 6 finding, because the small-scale nature of such improvements “could not reasonably be found to increase the nonconforming nature of the structure.” 450 Mass. at 362 – 63. Although the Bellalta court implied that the defendants’ proposed dormer was the type of small-scale improvement, that would not require a Section 6 finding, the defendants had conceded that the proposed increase in FAR from 1.4 to 1.38 would increase the structure’s nonconforming nature. Bellalta, 481 Mass. at 381 – 82.


Introducing the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts

by J.D. Smeallie

President’s Page

Smeallie_J.DAt a dinner last March, I sat next to the Editor in Chief of American Lawyer.  I told him that I would soon be the president of the Boston Bar Association and that one of the perks was the opportunity to create an initiative for my year as president.  I then ran by him some of the initiatives I was considering.  When I got to the topic of civil legal aid, he stopped me and said there is nothing more important that a bar association can do than to fight for civil legal aid for those in need.  His passion on this point resonated with me, and I knew then that the advancement of civil legal aid would be my cause during my upcoming term as president.

Shortly thereafter, the Chief Judge of the State of New York gave a speech at Harvard.  He spoke of a task force that he had created to expand civil legal aid.  The task force was comprised of a statewide group of lawyers, judges, business leaders, academics, union leaders and legal aid attorneys.  What struck me most about their effort was how they demonstrated that increased state funding for civil legal aid actually saved the state money, while bringing in increased federal aid.  The New York task force’s report was so persuasive in this regard that the state legislature there agreed to increase legal aid funding from $200 million to $300 million over a four year period.

For the past several months, I have visited with state legislators, bar leaders, legal aid attorneys, business leaders and other stakeholders to discuss the creation of a similar statewide initiative in Massachusetts.  Without exception, those with whom I met acknowledged the problem.  With federal funding of the Legal Services Corporation constantly shrinking, and IOLTA funding all but drying up, overall funding for civil legal aid has been on the decline in Massachusetts for years.  At the same time, the need for representation in matters involving basic human needs like housing, prevention of domestic violence, and health care has been on the rise.  In 2012, fully half of the people eligible for civil legal aid in Massachusetts had to be turned away because staffing at legal aid agencies had been slashed.  As a result, poor people have to navigate our judicial system without the benefit of counsel.  The situations in our Housing Courts and Probate and Family Courts are particular bleak.  95% of those who appear in the Housing Court are unrepresented.  The percentage is not much better in the Probate and Family Courts.  There, 80% of the litigants do not have a lawyer.

All of those with whom I have met agree that a statewide initiative to examine the unmet need for civil legal aid across the state and to determine the most cost effective way to meet that need is a good idea.  We are lucky to have the benefit of the good work already undertaken by our Access to Justice Commission, and we do not intend to repeat their efforts to provide help to unrepresented litigants.  We do expect to follow the lead of the New York task force and examine whether increased funding for civil legal aid can save the state money in the costs of homelessness, domestic violence prevention and various forms of aid which can be replaced by federal benefits, as was found to be the case there.

So, a BBA task force, named the Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, is now taking shape.  Among those who have agreed to serve on the task force are the general counsels of five major Massachusetts based companies, a former president of one of our major universities, our Attorney General, the Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel, the managing partner of one of our largest law firms, and the current President of the Massachusetts Bar Association.  We anticipate adding leaders from the legal aid community, state Representatives and Senators, and a union representative.  We expect to complete our work and present a report in the spring of 2014.

Our system of justice is measured by how we treat those most in need, but we are not measuring up at the moment.  If the experience in New York is indicative of what we may find and recommend here, the hope is that we can to reverse the trend and to begin to expand civil legal aid for our state’s poorest citizens, while saving the state money in the process.


Expanding Lawyer for Day at Housing Court: One Piece of Homelessness Puzzle

By James D. Smeallie

President’s Page

In March of this year, the Boston Bar Foundation (BBF) released a groundbreaking study assessing the practical impact of legal representation in eviction cases. The data indicated that without representation by counsel, many vulnerable tenants forfeit important rights, often lose possession of homes they could have retained, and sometimes forego substantial financial benefits. Conducted under the auspices of a Boston Bar Association (BBA) Task Force on Expanding Civil Right to Counsel, the study involved two different pilot projects, one in the Quincy District Court, and one in the Northeast Housing Court.

Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York found that “the unmet need for civil legal assistance in New York State is profoundly impacting vulnerable New Yorkers and costing taxpayers millions of dollars by increasing homelessness, failing to prevent domestic violence, and increasing poverty.”

This is not a new problem. In 1999, the BBA’s Real Estate Section partnered with the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association (VLP), Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), the WilmerHale Legal Services Center, and the Boston Housing Court (BHC) to establish a Lawyer for the Day program. The goal was to prevent evictions resulting in homelessness. At the request of the BHC, the program has two different legal information tables, one for unrepresented tenants, and another for unrepresented landlords. The Herbert W. Vaughan Fund of the BBF helps support the operations of this program.

During the 13 year history of the Lawyer for the Day program at the BHC, 1,200 volunteers have donated their time to assist more than 14,732 individuals. In just the past year alone, 443 volunteers helped 991 tenants and 181 landlords.

About 95 per cent of tenants at the BHC are unrepresented. According to Chris Saccardi, a solo practitioner from Somerville and a frequent volunteer, tenants, the bulk of whom are low-income and frequently minorities, are usually opposed by a landlord represented by counsel. The issue before the court is typically whether the tenant can stay in his or her home. Were it not for the Lawyer for the Day program, the imbalance in power would be profound.

Chris reports that it is not uncommon to see families with young children, families with elderly parents sharing their home, as well as elderly people living alone — all of whom are facing eviction. But he also sees tenants who have slipped below middle class status because of job loss or illness.

For tenants living in subsidized housing or Boston Housing Authority developments, the stakes can be especially high. Take for example a grandmother raising grandchildren. Should one of those kids get in trouble, the entire family can face eviction. Should they be evicted “for cause,” the impact can be devastating — with the family being required to split up, move in with relatives, or live on the street. Collateral consequences may follow.

GBLS is well-known for having housing attorneys second to none. Yet the demand for their services by poor people overwhelms the supply.

The BHC, which hears anywhere between 200 and 225 evictions weekly, considers the Lawyer for the Day program a godsend. Thanks to Lawyer for the Day volunteers, some 80 per cent of the cases can be resolved successfully through mediation provided by BHC staff — without a judge having to get involved.

“The program has been successful beyond our wildest dreams,” says Robert Lewis, Chief Clerk Magistrate of the BMC.

A word about unrepresented landlords. . . they are frequently immigrants with limited English proficiency who depend on the rent to pay mortgages on owner occupied two or three family homes. Missed rental payments can put them at risk of foreclosure. Indeed, there are situations where landlord owners of small multi-family homes can be in a tighter financial situation than their tenants.

Often times this population of landlords need to be advised about what steps they must take to bring their property to the minimum state sanitary code, and assisted in determining the difference between a tenant complaint and what the law requires them to do.

This month, the Lawyer for the Day program will expand its services to low income landlords, starting with one Monday a month dedicated specifically to those cases. As Joanna Allison of the VLP points out, the mistakes that unrepresented landlords make on a procedural basis make it impossible for them to prevail in their cases — resulting in wasted filing fees for people who can least afford them and inefficiency for a busy court.

The Lawyer for the Day program is a model for legal services organizations to leverage the contributions of committed volunteers to preserve housing for a very vulnerable population and to conserve precious judicial resources. If we consider the fact that the cost of placing a family in a shelter is on average three times higher than the average government subsidy for families in Massachusetts, the program is also saving taxpayers money.

The program also illustrates the concept that lawyers can do well by doing good. Mary K.Y. Lee, a lawyer whose paid work involves both immigration and landlord/tenant matters, is another dedicated volunteer. She says that were it not for her volunteering for Lawyer for the Day at the BHA, she might not have gotten litigation experience so early in her career, and credits the program with helping her become “a better person and a better lawyer.”

We should all applaud all those involved for making the Lawyer for the Day program a continued success. That being said, we still confront the painful reality of overburdened courts and underrepresented litigants.

As the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York concluded, “private lawyers cannot fill the gap in services as the sheer numbers of needy and unrepresented litigants overwhelm the capacity of volunteer lawyers.” In response to that Task Force’s recommendations, the New York Legislature dramatically increased legal aid funding to provide for counsel in eviction and other cases involving basic human needs.

So while I say “keep up the good work” to all our volunteers, I look forward to the BBA expanding beyond its civil right to counsel study and pursuing new paths to assuring counsel to all those involved in cases involving basic human needs such as housing. Stay tuned.