Millbury Needs More Housing

Millbury Needs More Housing
A sketch of Chicago's Michigan Avenue no. 2 by Donald Shaw MacLaughlan. Image courtesy Smithsonian Open Access.

There's no dancing around the facts, and Jeff Raymond believes a moratorium on multi-family projects sends the wrong message.

We're fully in election season in Millbury, and while we have some general thoughts on the upcoming board races in town, the other item on the docket is the coming moratorium on multifamily housing in town.  It's a big enough deal that even the Worcester Telegram and Gazette are on the case:

[Steve] Stearns said to have been motivated to submit the petition after looking at condominium and apartment developments approved by the town such as Stafford Village, Clearview Homes, Cobblestone Village Apartments and Canal Street Apartments.

The most concerning to him is Rice Pond Village, a 192-unit affordable housing development that seeks approval by the Zoning Board of Appeals. The developers, SJV Investments, had previously pitched a 46-condominium project that was struck down in early 2022 by the Millbury Planning Board.

The 18-month moratorium, according to Stearns, looks to create a pause that gives the town enough time to address the effects of such structures in the town regarding traffic and tax revenue.

Stearns says that his goal is to make sure that “developments are in harmony with the area,” an expression that he quotes from the town’s master plan...

“We just want them to be done appropriately and responsibly and to not exacerbate public safety,” said Stearns. “The concern is that the character and the feel of the town will change if these (projects) are not put in the right places.”

I don't doubt Steve Stearns's specific motivations as expressed in the Telegram, or in his numerous appearances in front of numerous boards in town. Stearns is a smart guy with a lot of strong ideas, and he very clearly puts the work in.  We should all take after his work ethic when it comes to matters of local government, but he and other proponents of the moratorium are wrong on the merits when it comes to multi-family housing.  Millbury, like most communities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and across the country, need more multi-family housing and not less.

Millbury is a town of population growth. If you disagree, look at the census numbers - we added over 500 residents between 2010 and 2020 and have new housing on Canal Street and at Clearview imminent, with Rice Road and Singletary Arms only a few years away after that.  We're going to have well over 15,000 people in this town by the next Census.

What does this tell us?  Well, developers wouldn't be coming into Millbury to build if people didn't want to live here.  There are more than 300 communities in Massachusetts to choose from, and developers are building where people want to live. Turns out having a couple exits off the Pike and being 15 minutes from all the good stuff in Worcester is desirable, especially for people able to work remotely or in a hybrid model post-pandemic. That's not the only signal, though, because the other signal is in your own wallet.

I live up near the Grafton line. This development in particular started out as six houses in the late 1980s, and expanded to three distinct neighborhoods across dozens of houses in the years following. The plots of land aren't huge - we're talking fractions of acres here - but the houses are all in the 2,000-2,500 sq ft range. They're nice homes, and most of the people and families that live here reflect the modern upper middle class two-income reality.

My wife and I bought this house in 2013 when it was valued at approximately $280,000. We refinanced in 2021 at the low point of interest rates before the Fed messed everything up, and the lender valued our home at over $600,000. I don't say it to boast, I say it because it's absolutely insane - this house is not worth $600,000, and I'd argue none of the houses in this neighborhood are worth $600,000, never mind the $700,000 or $800,000 they command for the week or so they're on the open market.

Why is my house overvalued so much? Because, to co-opt an old political slogan, we need to build, baby, build. There is not enough housing to go around, and the professional class willing to pony up a literal small fortune to live here get first dibs. The census numbers bear this out, by the way: the median household income of the town is $96,672 as of 2021.  I'm sure most of the households in my neighborhood are way above that number, given that ours is below it, but what it tells me is that we have a lot of people with money moving into town, which is inflating the housing market well beyond what anyone would consider reasonable.

So when Steve Stearns talks about "the character and feel of the town," I respectfully dissent. For Millbury, at least, that ship sailed long before I was brought into this world. The (perhaps harsh) reality is that Millbury has moved away from its working class character that many longtime residents remember in favor of a professional population more likely to sit behind a computer screen than a conveyor belt.  We're Millbury in name only; the mills mostly left years ago and we're all working in (or out of offices located in) Worcester and Boston now.

When I hear the anti-growth contingent (which Steans says he is not part of, although many of those who support his moratorium are) talk about these issues, I don't hear "the character and feel."  I hear "I don't want more people to live here."  I hear "keeping people out of my kid's schools."  I hear "keeping my home value high."  It's not a dogwhistle, it's not an implication, but it's what I hear.  It's sometimes direct, but it's mostly what the intentions are behind the "character and feel" argument for many people.  They're the same arguments we're still hearing when old timers complain about the apartments in the center of town when the old town hall that stood in its place burned down 50 years ago. It's a classist argument from the better off in this town that I promise those who are on the other side of the economic coin hear loud and clear.

Listen, if you read my column in the past or heard me talk about this town, you know I love it here.  I love the history, I love the character, I love this town warts and all. It's because I love this town that I want more people to live here.  More people means a broader, not strained, tax base.  More people means more incentive for people to open cool restaurants and businesses and spaces in town.  More housing might mean that your $600,000 home might only be worth $550,000 when it's all said and done, but more housing means you're more likely to stick around and not sell anyway, so you're not going to notice it while benefiting from everything a larger population provides.

(And if your motivations for a moratorium are your home values staying high, that's fine.  I just wish you were more up front about it.)

One more thing, as I'm going long: If the appeal I'm making here doesn't work for you, I get it.  It's a complicated issue, and often personal - I'm not the people of Rice Road staring a multi-family complex down the street and likely never will see that in my neighborhood. But if you're thinking in more general terms, consider the Rice Road scenario more than any of the other arguments.  Rice Road was going to be a 40-60 home development until the Planning Board voted it down at the behest of the residents in the neighborhood and called the developer's bluff. The outcome of that action?  Hundreds of affordable housing apartments in what will likely be an eyesore of a development, and functionally little anyone can do about it because of state-level affordable housing rules.  The moratorium on the docket is a direct result of that development, but said moratorium wouldn't apply to another Rice Road project anyway because Millbury doesn't have enough affordable housing. The very motivation behind this moratorium wouldn't apply!

Trying to stop growth in a town is like trying to stop yourself from growing old. No matter what you do, your hair is still going to fall out, your teeth are still going to yellow, and you're not going to live forever. Growth, in many ways, is inevitable. But trying to stop growth is like taking shady pills bought off the internet in an effort to stave off the effects of aging for a few years - you're more likely to end up killing yourself in the process anyway.

Say no to a multi-family moratorium.  It just doesn't make sense.

Jeff Raymond is a Founding Editor of the Bramanville Tribune. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @jeffinmillbury