NEW BEDFORD — Mayor Jon Mitchell unveiled the “Building New Bedford” plan on Wednesday, a sweeping set of policies aimed at increasing and improving the city’s housing supply.
A top priority of the plan is to make the city more attractive to real estate developers. It lays out a path to speed up the permitting process, which officials hope will make it easier and less expensive to build here.
“The way, ultimately, to make housing more affordable, more attainable, is to increase the housing supply, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Mitchell said.
The 33-page plan also includes initiatives to revamp vacant housing, promote home ownership, and improve services for homeless people.
Mitchell credited Office of Housing and Community Development Director Josh Amaral with much of the work behind the plan. Amaral was involved in addressing the housing crisis at PACE before he started working for the city four months ago.
“We have to prioritize adding more housing units,” Amaral said. “This is the way to assist our residents with housing affordability, and we have to throw the kitchen sink at it — every approach that we can.”
The mayor’s administration also collaborated with city councilors to develop the plan, Mitchell said. Councilors Naomi Carney and Scott Lima, who are both licensed realtors, were lined up behind the mayor with freshman councilor Shawn Oliver during the announcement.
Councilor Shane Burgo, who introduced a nonbinding ballot question on rent stabilization, told The Light he had spoken with Amaral in January but wasn’t provided any details on the plan in advance. He was at work on Wednesday and didn’t attend the announcement.
Burgo’s ballot question would ask November voters whether the city should restrict year-to-year rent increases by enacting a rent control policy. The city would not be bound by the results of the vote, and any rent control policy would need to be approved by the Legislature. Mitchell has vetoed the council’s measure adding the question, though the council appears poised to override his veto.
The “Building New Bedford” plan doesn’t include any regulations on rent increases. It calls the local discussion around rent control “misguided” and states that such a policy would only make the housing crisis worse by scaring away developers.
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“This plan proposes a more proactive and effective approach to stimulating much-needed housing development by removing rather than creating barriers,” the plan states.
That approach is to put more housing units on the market, both through new construction and rehabilitation. But that depends on getting developers to come here.
The problem for New Bedford is that it isn’t very profitable to build here, Mitchell said. Developers face roughly the same construction costs across all of New England, but they can charge higher rents in places like Boston. Even though New Bedford’s rents have skyrocketed, they’re still some of the lowest in the region, so developers tend to look elsewhere for a higher return on their investment.
“We have to hustle for investment to pull it in, and that’s the only way you can increase supply and control prices,” Mitchell said.
The plan authorizes the city’s housing office to recruit developers and help them move through the permitting process quickly. It sets a new target of approving large projects in under 90 days.
The administration will work with the City Council and Planning Board to simplify permitting requirements for large developments and it will “explore” changes to zoning regulations that make it easier to build multifamily projects.
The city called on the Community Preservation Committee to put at least 20% of its annual budget toward housing. The committee decides how to spend Community Preservation Act funding, a surcharge on property taxes that provides support for historic preservation, recreation space, and housing projects.
The committee has not allocated more than 20% of its budget toward housing since 2019. In the three funding cycles since then, it spent about 16% of its budget on housing. Meanwhile, the largest share of money went to historic preservation projects.
City policies that hinder development are slated for an update. The city plans to revise zoning rules that require larger-than-average lots and ample parking spaces for new buildings. It will also revise restrictions on in-law apartments.
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Programs to make better use of existing buildings are also on the horizon. The city will appoint a vacant building coordinator to lead a new initiative that will bring empty properties back into use. The initiative will target properties in mortgage foreclosure and probate court to get them out of “legal limbo,” though the plan doesn’t lay out what specific actions it will take to transfer properties to new owners.
There are 403 properties on the city’s vacant building registry, according to the plan, up from the 399 that were listed on a copy of the registry obtained by The Light in September. More than two dozen of the properties have been listed as abandoned for more than a decade.
Meanwhile, the city will sell some of its own unused properties. One example in the plan is former school buildings that can be renovated into new apartments.
First-time homebuyer programs will get a funding boost to provide grants for expenses like down payments and closing costs up to $40,000. There will also be more funding to help low- and moderate-income homeowners with unexpected repairs.
The plan sets aside extra money for lead paint removal, though records obtained by The Light show that much of the existing funding already goes unused.
To address New Bedford’s homelessness, the city is increasing its budget for rental assistance programs with $600,000 in CARES Act and ARPA funding. That means there will be more money to help renters stay in their apartments and to re-house people experiencing homelessness.
The city pledged to increase coordination between different departments that provide homeless services, and to “make resources available” to help local nonprofits improve their homeless services. There are also existing plans to hire outside experts to take a look at the city’s services.
Carl Alves, CEO of PAACA and a leader of the city’s homelessness crisis response, spoke in support of the plan at Wednesday’s announcement.
“I’m thrilled to have this plan,” he said. “I think it’s terrific.”
The plan mentions that the city will “continue to refrain from the sale of tax liens,” a process in which the city sells its property tax debts to a private tax collector. An investigation by The Light revealed that one company raked in millions of dollars in revenue by foreclosing on tax debts it bought from New Bedford. In the process, dozens of property owners lost their houses and all the remaining equity in them over unpaid tax debts that were often a fraction of the property’s value.
While there are no current plans for another tax debt sale, the city stopped short of making it a long-term policy. Mitchell and other city staff said there could potentially be another auction in the future.
The city called for a regional approach to solving the housing crisis that includes towns around New Bedford. The plan stated that New Bedford will “set an example” for the surrounding towns.
“That’s an awkward conversation with them — I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Mitchell said. “But New Bedford can’t operate in isolation on this front.”
Several previous commitments were highlighted in the plan. They include denser, “transit-oriented” zoning districts near commuter rail stops, expanded access to a state-funded incentive program for developers, and 149 affordable units using ARPA funds that are currently in development.
Mitchell concluded his announcement on Wednesday with a message for developers.
“We are open for business,” he said. “We want to see you build here and we look forward to the work ahead.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 31, 2023.
Email housing reporter Grace Ferguson at firstname.lastname@example.org.