Affordable housing idea put on hold
Orlando pitches incentives to push landlords into compliance
- By Ray Lamont Staff Writer
While a plan aimed at having existing apartments around the city recognized as affordable housing has been kicked back by a City Council subcommittee, the councilor behind the concept said Thursday he is "absolutely" not going to let it fall by the wayside.
The proposal, filed by Councilor at-Large Joseph Orlando Jr., would provide incentives for property owners who have unlicensed apartments or other housing units in their houses come forward and gain certification needed to have them credited as affordable housing.
But the council's Planning and Development Subcommittee has declined to endorse the order as written over a series of questions — notably Orlando's call for a city official to be designated as a zoning administrator who could single-handedly grant permits for the units.
"That permitting authority rests now with the Zoning Board of Appeals, and I think we want to leave it there," said Planning and Development Chairman Paul Lundberg, whose subcommittee includes Councilors Melissa Cox and Val Gilman. He said the idea of giving one person the authority would raise concerns, as would the role of the public in voicing any questions or concerns about a given application.
"Right now, it's confusing as to whether the public would have the opportunity to weigh in," Lundberg said, "so we urged Joe (Orlando) to work with (acting Community Development Director) Gregg Cademartori and with (Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Francis) Wright.
"All three of us thought the idea is a good idea," Lundberg said of his subcommittee, "but mechanically we didn't have it right."
Orlando's proposal calls for designating a city official as zoning administrator. That administrator could certify existing but unpermitted units as viable for affordable housing and give landlords the chance to bring their houses into legal compliance without having to pay any fees.
The goal is to recognize what Orlando and other city officials see as an untapped housing source — units that may have been added as so-called in-law apartments or others that could now be available to lease.
Orlando, however, said his idea of a zoning administrator is also designed to tighten a process that can be daunting to landlords or other property owners.
"I'm not trying to take away anybody's power, but one of my big goals is to streamline this process as an enticement for those who don't want to have to hire lawyers or an architect," said Orlando, a lawyer with his family's firm of Orlando & Associates. "The system I'm trying to put in place is for those folks who may have these housing units, but who don't have maybe $15,000 to $20,000 lying around to go through what it takes to get this done."
Orlando said he had worked on many aspects of the measure with the administration of Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken. Chief Administrative Officer James Destino has said the administration would also like to take inventory of units that already exist but are not recognized under state and federal affordability guidelines. According to state figures, just 7.2 percent of Gloucester housing is recognized as being affordable to those who meet income eligibility standards, below the state goal of a minimum 10 percent.
Christopher Sicuranza, the mayor's director of constituent services, said the administration had not specifically endorsed Orlando's proposal, but continues to pursue the idea of working on solutions to the ongoing housing shortage — affordable and otherwise — as noted in a February Metropolitan Area Planning Council report that found the city will need 600 new housing units by 2020.
"We know affordable housing is a need, we know it is a crisis, and we are actively exploring the best solutions both internally and with the City Council," Sicuranza said.
For his part, Orlando said he will continue to push for his concept of reaching out to the city's landlords to work toward a solution.
"I am absolutely going to be going forward with this," he said. "We can hold another work group, another hearing if that's what people want. But I want to fix this (affordable housing crisis), and right now it seems the process for fixing things is broken, too. Just because this isn't the way we've done it before doesn't mean it can't be done now."
Staff writer Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.