It has magnificent golf courses and meandering trails. It has swimming pools and clubhouses, and a French-style inn complete with a Monet-inspired lily pond. And there are thousands of homes —grand houses, quaint cottages, and posh apartments.
The Pinehills in Plymouth has something for everyone — or almost everyone.
The town’s largest residential development, with 2,500 homes and counting, is obscured by towering pines and spans thousands of acres. But it’s out of reach for anyone of modest means.
In a town with the lowest inventory of affordable housing of any similarly sized community in the state, Pinehills has none. The project was permitted in 2000, before the town’s inclusionary zoning law was enacted in 2005, and the developers have resisted most efforts by town officials to change course.
“They were granted this — to entice them to come here,” said Kathleen Dunn, chair of the town’s affordable housing trust. “You would think OK — the original housing, yes, for a period of time. But now they’re building a lot of other units and they won’t hear of it.”
Two apartment buildings under construction in the development include no affordable housing units, even though the builders offer them in many of their other complexes.
In 2008, under pressure from Town Meeting, Pinehills created an affordable housing trust to support projects elsewhere in Plymouth. Over 14 years, $725,513 has gone into the trust —$411,494 from direct donations; the rest collected from others.
Pinehills officials say the development has provided the town with millions of dollars in other benefits. Its nearly 5,000 residents collectively paid $25 million in real estate taxes last year, according to the town assessor —more than 12 percent of the total collected town wide. And because it takes care of its own water, sewage treatment, trash, and snow removal, it is not a drain on town resources. In addition, because most residents are older, it has not added a lot of children to the public school system. In fact, only 54 children in Pinehills attend town schools.
When the permit was granted, affordability wasn’t an issue, said Pinehills managing partner Tony Green and president Deborah Sedares in an interview. The average home price in town back then, they said, was just $175,000.
Pinehills isn’t to blame for the surge in real estate values, but if the company and developers behind it chose to donate anything close to what the law now requires for affordable housing, it would go a long way toward solving what officials say is a persistent and difficult problem.
Increasingly, many Plymouth residents find themselves being priced out of a community they have lived in most or all their lives. Others barely make ends meet, spending too much of their income on housing and property taxes. It’s not an issue endemic to the fast-growing town, but the steep rise in housing costs has hit especially hard here over the last decade because Plymouth has historically been known as affordable.
The Plymouth Affordable Housing Trust, which tracks the number of affordable housing units being created by the town and reports yearly to the state, recently published a brochure titled “Plymouth Needs Housing Heroes.” “We have an affordable housing crisis,” it says. “Most working people cannot afford to live in Plymouth. Even if they can afford to, they can’t find a place.” Indeed, a single mother of a 17-year-old, who wanted to stay in her son’s school district downtown, said she could find only a 850-square-foot third-floor walk-up, without parking, that she “can barely turn around in.” Her rent — $2,900 a month.
The woman, who did not want to be named out of fear that she might antagonize her landlord, is paying market rent. She is not among the more than 10,000 Plymouth households that qualify for housing designated as affordable, according to a draft housing production plan prepared for the town by the Old Colony Planning Council in July.
But as of June, there were only 1,254 affordable units in Plymouth, 4.88 percent of the total housing supply of 25,689, listed on the state’s inventory of subsidized housing, although town officials say they are continuing to add to that number.
Communities whose housing supply is deemed at least 10 percent affordable have a distinct advantage — they can reject so-called 40b projects. Those sometimes controversial developments are required to make 25 percent of their units affordable, but in return developers can bypass local zoning rules and other laws.
To meet the 10 percent goal, Plymouth would have to double its existing number of affordable units.
As of August, there were more than 1,000 people on a waiting list for subsidized housing, the plan says. That waiting list is managed by the Plymouth Housing Authority, which did not return phone calls seeking comment.
But even affordable apartments may seem unattainable for many. Income and rent limits are set by the state, which includes Plymouth as part of the Boston-Cambridge-Quincy region. The applicable median income that applies to Plymouth is $148,400 for a family of four.
Landlords with affordable apartments can choose tenants earning up to 80 percent of the area’s median income — $118,720 for a family of four.
Because those income limits are relatively high, landlords can charge rents that are high, though they are still considerably cheaper than market rate. “That’s what we’re struggling with,” said Dunn. “The only people who can afford what we’ve built recently are those who fall into the 80 percent category. “We’re working to entice builders to build for people whose income is (lower),” she added.
At two of the town’s newest 40b projects, Oasis at Plymouth behind The Home Depot plaza and the Harborwalk Apartments located at Cordage Park, two-bedroom apartments designated as affordable rent for more than $2,300 a month.
Market rate rents for two-bedroom apartments at Oasis range from $2,745 to $3,045 and from $2,995 to $3,680 at Harborwalk, according to listings on Apartments.com.
And while there may be a long list of people looking for housing, some buildings — including Oasis and Hanover at Colony Place — still have available affordable units, according to their management companies.
And the Redbrook development in South Plymouth, which currently has 15 affordable apartments, plans to add a 53-unit affordable housing complex for seniors, said Linda Burke, a spokeswoman for A.D. Makepeace. The company is donating the land, valued at around $2.2 million. The Grantham Group will develop the project.
Finding an affordable house is even more difficult than landing an apartment. While the town’s housing stock is made up of more than 70 percent single-family homes, soaring construction costs and mortgage rates have priced people of moderate means out of the market, Dunn said.
Under the town’s 2005 inclusionary zoning bylaw, most projects with six or more units must set aside 10 percent or more of them for affordable housing. Developers do have the option of building them off site, though on site is preferred. A third possibility is for them to make payments into the town’s affordable housing trust in lieu of creating housing.
While many developers resist doing more than what is required, one local developer is creating affordable apartments and condos, even when he doesn’t have to.
Rick Vayo, and his company, Megryco, have built 455 housing units over about a decade — 95 of which are affordable. Of those, 50 were not required under the town’s zoning bylaw. After they’re built, his company also manages the voluntary affordable units.
“Our mantra is everything we do has to make a difference — it has to benefit Plymouth,” said Vayo, whose affordable projects are sometimes partially funded by the town’s affordable housing trust or community preservation fund. “It has to be profitable, but it has to be in Plymouth’s best interest.”
If residents raise concerns about affordable housing encroaching on their neighborhood, Vayo said, he confronts their fears head on.
“We can pussyfoot around,” he told neighbors of his development at 574 State Road who during a meeting questioned whether an expansion of the project would overburden the septic system. “But you know you’re not bitching about the septic system. You’re bitching about affordable housing — you don’t want it in your backyard.
“We’re not building Columbia Point,” he added, referring to the Dorchester housing development that was once Boston’s most decrepit and dangerous place to live. “We run our developments in a very strict way,” he said. “It works very well.”
This kitchen in a Megryco apartment on State Road is ADA compliant. It features wheelchair access to the appliances. The apartment’s bathroom has easy access to the sink and shower.
The Pinehills created the Pinehills Affordable Housing Charitable Trust in 2008, after Town Meeting refused a request for it to expand by 69 acres, citing the lack of affordable housing.
The partners pledged to deposit a minimum of $100,000 into the trust and contribute $250 for every house sold thereafter. Since then, Pinehills has returned to the town many times for a variety of approvals, but town officials say they cannot compel it to open the development to lower-income residents because the original permit is still in place and does not require it.
Pinehills officials insist that apart from any donations they make to the trust, the value of the development to the town is incalculable.
“The Pinehills reflects the objectives set by the town when the master plan was approved, and we are proud of what we together, the town and Pinehills LLC, have accomplished,” said Pinehills president Sedares.
Habitat for Humanity of Greater Plymouth is the largest recipient of grants from the trust, according to tax returns. Its executive director, Amy Belmore, said Pinehills’ financial support has already helped build four projects and a fifth home is underway in Manomet. “Habitat has had a really great and strong partnership with the Pinehills Affordable Housing Trust,” she said. “We certainly appreciate their commitment to affordable housing.”
Meanwhile, Pinehills is continuing to build more homes and apartments. It is currently 83 percent complete, with more than 500 houses left to go, Sedares told the town planning board in July.
The Bozzuto and Hanover companies are now building apartments marketed as ultra-luxury, where rents for modest-size three-bedroom units are hovering at around $5,000 a month.
If the Bozzuto company, which is building the massive Rowen on the edge of The Pinehills’ once bucolic village green, were required to comply with the town’s 10 percent bylaw, it would either have to construct 17 affordable units on site, or donate roughly $1.7 million to the town’s Affordable Housing Trust.
Instead, the two builders have donated to the Pinehills Affordable Housing Charitable Trust— a combined $164,500, according to Sedares. Both companies have built affordable apartments in many projects outside of Plymouth, according to their websites.
AvalonBay, which built apartments at Pinehills before the affordable housing trust was created, champions its commitment to affordability. Its website lists affordable housing opportunities in 26 Massachusetts communities.
None of those opportunities are in The Pinehills.
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.
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