INTRO TEXT when the community Preservation Act emerged from a tortuous legislative process to become law in 2000, state officials heralded it as the most significant land-use bill passed in years. Simultaneously adding to the state’s affordable-housing stock, preserving open space, and restoring historic buildings, it was billed as a planning and funding tool to help communities maintain character without blocking all new development.
But a new study suggests that the law has functioned as a sort of Robin Hood in reverse, with money flowing from lower-income urban centers and rural communities to some of the state’s most exclusive suburbs and vacation centers.
The study, being released by Harvard’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, also says most of the spending focus by communities has been on acquiring open space, with very little support going to the development of new affordable housing units, a tilt toward the land-banking aspect of the law that may only make it more difficult to find sites for new housing.
Fed by dual concerns in the late 1990s about unchecked development and the rising cost of housing, the law allows local voters to approve a property tax surcharge of up to 3 percent. Municipalities that adopt the Community Preservation Act receive matching payments from the state’s Community Preservation Trust, which is funded through a $20 surcharge on all property transfers recorded statewide.
The law requires communities to spend at least 10 percent of CPA monies on each of the three areas defined in the law—affordable housing, open space projects, and historic preservation—but the remaining 70 percent can be directed among the categories at the city or town’s discretion.
The law has been adopted in 127 localities and has generated more than $360 million in project expenditures. But because approval of the CPA has been heavily weighted toward more affluent communities, the state matching funds drawn from deeds fees have flowed from communities with large low-income populations to wealthier cities, suburbs, and vacation spots, says the report, coauthored by Robin Sherman and Rappaport Institute executive director David Luberoff.
The preservation act has been approved by 60 percent of communities in the top quintile of median statewide household income, a figure that drops to 30 percent for communities in the second and third income quintiles. The CPA passage rate falls into the 20s for communities in the bottom two income quintiles.
“I see the problems I’ve identified with the Community Preservation Act as part of the law of unintended consequences,” says Sherman, whose analysis won a Taubman Urban Prize for excellence in research at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “It’s only the communities with extra resources that are going to benefit from a policy like this.”
Stuart Saginor, executive director of the Community Preservation Coalition, an umbrella group representing organizations that support local passage of the law, says wealthier communities enjoy inherent advantages, including less political risk to local officials who support a CPA surcharge, that increase the likelihood of passage there.
While acknowledging that adoption of the CPA was weighted toward wealthier communities during the early years after passage of the law, the coalition says the passage in the last two years has been more balanced. Of the 27 communities adopting the CPA since late 2005, there were seven in each of the three middle income quintiles, according to Saginor.
But the distribution of funds to date has been weighted overwhelmingly toward wealthy municipalities. Ten communities, home to just 6 percent of the state’s population, have received almost 42 percent of the matching funds distributed by the state, according to the Harvard study. Cambridge, because it is the largest community in the state to adopt the CPA, has collected the biggest largest share of matching funds—15 percent of all funds distributed from the state trust fund. Rounding out the list of top 10 recipients are Newton, Weston, Nantucket, Westford, North Andover, Duxbury, Barnstable, Sudbury, and Plymouth. On the other hand, Boston, Worcester, and Springfield accounted for nearly 10 percent of all property transfers generating payments to the trust fund—and have received back none of it.
“The thing that’s basically stunning is that we appear to be taxing people in the poorest communities so they can give money to the richest communities,” says Luberoff, noting that Weston has received nearly $500 per capita in state CPA funds.
The balance of spending on open space preservation versus housing creation is also of concern, say the study authors. They point to data from the Community Preservation Coalition showing that between 2002 and June 2006, 42 percent of CPA funds were spent on open space protection, while 32 percent was spent on affordable housing. What’s more, say the Harvard authors, a report issued last year by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership suggested those figures are skewed by CPA spending by Cambridge, which accounted for 55 percent of all CPA allocations to affordable housing. When spending by Cambridge is excluded, only 17 percent of total spending by all other communities was devoted to housing, while the total directed to open space preservation rose to 53 percent.
A total of $68 million has been spent to establish 871 units of affordable housing, but many of those were not newly built units but rather existing housing units purchased with the funds, says the study. Only 315 new affordable housing units have resulted from CPA projects, according to the Housing Partnership study.
The law does not establish timeframes within which minimum spending on the three areas of CPA focus must take place. Thus, while communities have stashed money in reserves for future projects, 60 percent of those cities and towns that had adopted CPA had appropriated under 10 percent of their annual CPA funds for affordable housing, according to the Mass Housing Partnership report.
The law also includes no requirements for detailed reporting on the use of CPA funds. The Rappaport Institute study says that the lack of any statistical touchbacks prevents any deeper analysis of the law’s success.
“There needs to be some transparency and accountability,” Sherman says. “It’s really difficult to figure out how the money is being spent.”
Saginor says the preservation coalition, working with the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, this spring finished work on a system that will collect standardized data on CPA uses. The information will be available by the fall on a publicly searchable Web site, he says.
Sherman thinks a commission should be formed to consider revisions to the CPA, including more state oversight of how state funds are used locally. She also thinks cities and towns should be forced to spend state funds within a certain time and devote a minimum portion of funds to new affordable housing units, rather than simply restoring or maintaining existing stock.
Anthony Flint, public affairs manager at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, says the law has fostered “successful public policy” and a number of innovative projects, but he qualifies his praise.
“Think of the name—community preservation,” says Flint. “I think what was behind it was an idea that there was a real need for people to see that their children could live in the town if they so chose, and policemen and teachers could afford to live there as well. I think this idea of community preservation was the meadows and the woods and the historical character—all very important—but that also you’re preserving a kind of economic diversity. And if that affordable housing piece is being underemphasized, then, yes, it is missing some of its intent.”
Jim O’Sullivan is a reporter for State House News Service.