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REAL ESTATE ISSUE

What's So Bad About a Cottage?

A plan to build a dense community of homes 1,000 square feet or less has the pretty town of Easton in an uproar. But why? Maybe these are exactly the sort of properties this state needs to help fix a market filled with overpriced, oversized housing.

By Lisa Prevost
March 22, 2009
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Before the hysteria set in, before the neighbors started with the trailer-park slurs and the lawn signs imploring passersby to "Save Our Neighborhood," and before one of them, a documentarian, began filming the whole affair, Charles "Nick" Mirrione tried to have a rational conversation with the people of Easton. A successful developer who got his start fixing up ratty multifamily rentals in the neighboring city of Brockton, Mirrione was used to opposition. He had encountered some level of resistance on nearly every residential project he'd undertaken in Easton: building clustered Colonials on quiet cul-de-sacs, grand Victorians with custom weather vanes, and, most recently, boxy single-level ranches for retirees. As in any fast-growing suburb, this one situated about halfway between Boston and Providence, once people moved in, they set about keeping others out. In Mirrione's 35 years in business, the arguments, he says, hadn't changed.

It was 2007 when Mirrione's sharp blue eyes picked out the next market opportunity. While new houses in Easton had ballooned to an average of 5,000 square feet, household sizes were actually shrinking. All over the state -- and the country, for that matter -- households consisting of a single person, two unrelated people, or a single-parent family were now the majority, according to Census data. Obviously, houses ought to be getting smaller, not larger, Mirrione thought. "I was sitting at my doctor's office, waiting, one day," he recalls, "and I was sketching a two-car garage with a little set of stairs going up to an apartment above. I was fooling around with it, trying to make it look cuter, like a barn." He was still doodling when he came across an article with pictures of colorful little cottages in the Seattle area.

Only distant relations of the dark and drafty lakeside variety, these 21st-century cottages featured open floor plans, lots of natural light, and bright exterior colors. The design concept compressed the American ideals of suburban living into miniaturized form: domestic spaces downsized to less than 1,000 square feet across two floors, detached homes to maintain privacy (unlike with town houses or condos), and tiny patches of yard. The cottages were typically huddled together around a common green. It added up to an appealing formula that had people lining up to buy them. Intrigued, Mirrione flew out to meet with the developers and talk with cottage owners. When he returned, he hung out a new shingle: the New England Cottage Co.

Two years later, he's still trying to get his first cottage project off the ground. Although this kind of housing caught on a decade ago in the Pacific Northwest, Mirrione was unable to persuade tradition-minded New Englanders to give the concept a try. So, after being turned away in Easton, Mansfield, and West Bridgewater, he's decided to do what many a persistent, mildly ticked-off Massachusetts developer has done before him: He's forcing his plan through in Easton under Chapter 40B, the perennially controversial state law that almost guarantees housing developers project approval if at least 20 to 25 percent of the units are set aside for low- and moderate-income residents. This is not the route Mirrione wanted to take. "We're not after McDonald's workers," he explains. "We're after the young professionals just out of college who might otherwise leave Massachusetts if they can't afford it." Given the towns' reaction, however, he decided he had no choice.

To be sure, Mirrione is motivated by self-interest -- if the cottage concept proves as popular here as in the Seattle area, particularly with single women, it could be a lucrative niche. At the same time, cottage housing could be one part of the solution to the state's affordability problem. The January median price for a single-family home in Massachusetts did drop to $259,250, the lowest the median price has been since March 2002, according to real estate publisher The Warren Group. This certainly helps, but the median household income still isn't enough to purchase a median-priced home in many Greater Boston communities, according to a report last year from Northeastern University's Center for Urban and Regional Policy. Cottages could help fill that gap. Mirrione is aiming to keep market prices for his cottages at a level affordable for people earning between 100 percent and 130 percent of the median household income (about $84,400 in Easton). In order to do that, however, he must first persuade skeptical suburbanites that density, if done right, can be desirable.

People who live in Easton (population 23,300) refer to two Eastons: north and south. North Easton gets all the attention because it's the end associated with the Ames family, operators of a famed 19th-century shovel factory. While the Ames legacy blessed the north end with lasting cachet, most notably in the form of a handful of architectural treasures, South Easton missed out on the Ames largesse. But the overlooked end of town may gain notoriety of its own as the place where cottage housing made its New England debut.

Mirrione has selected two South Easton sites, both on major travel routes and within densely developed areas identified by the town's Fair and Affordable Housing Committee as appropriate for such housing. The plans call for 28 cottages at each location, with seven at each sold at reduced prices. The one Mirrione calls West Meadow Cottages will straddle the Easton/West Bridgewater line on roughly 14 acres on Turnpike Street, a busy commercial and residential strip. The second, Eastondale, is to be entirely in Easton on 3.74 acres on Pine Street, a more residential area where neighbors are vocally opposed.

Before he decided to push the projects through under 40B, Mirrione tried to persuade the town of Easton to change its zoning to accommodate the concept. A barrel-chested 58-year-old guy who wears a neatly trimmed mustache, Mirrione went before board after board, pitching the cottage concept as a way to provide "starter" housing in a town where the median sale price for a single-family house at the time was around $392,500. (These days, it's closer to $355,000.) He called it "gap housing," a way to help fill the affordability void between prices and incomes. The newness and manageable size -- 680 to 1,000 square feet -- would surely appeal to young workers, who, numerous studies have shown, are abandoning the state for less costly regions. Though not inexpensive, cottages could be slightly more affordable at somewhere between $240,000 and $340,000. The key to that affordability was high density.

As a way around the 1-acre-per-house requirement that applies to most of Easton, Mirrione proposed a zoning bylaw allowing as many as seven cottages on a single acre. That way, developers like him could spread the steep land costs across more units. Some officials bought into the idea -- the affordable housing board, Planning Board, and selectmen all endorsed the bylaw. "Our committee thought it was a creative solution to providing housing at lower price points," says Rachel Hansen, a member and former chairwoman of Easton's Fair and Affordable Housing Partnership. In the minds of many more residents, however, density plus tiny houses equaled a 1970s-style subsidized housing project. When the proposal hit the floor of the town meeting in May 2007, one person after another stood up in a school gymnasium to decry cottages as a threat to the water supply, the schools, and the overall character of the town. The bylaw was voted down that day. Mirrione recalls: "We got slaughtered. We were trounced and held up like drug dealers outside of schools."

Sentiment has shifted slightly since -- now Mirrione and his colleagues are just money-grubbers. Or at least that seems to be the consensus on Pine Street. A hodgepodge neighborhood that came together before zoners decided that different housing types ought not to mingle, Pine is a shady sanctuary hemmed in by busy roadways and commercial development. In an era of orderly subdivisions, the layout is refreshingly arbitrary. An early 20th-century bungalow claims 4 acres next to a two-family on a lot a quarter of the size. Postwar ranches and Capes with aboveground pools and concrete walks are interspersed with antique homes hugging the roadside, a 1940 schoolhouse converted into apartments, and a nondescript house fronting a tractor-trailer yard.

The people who live on Pine say they like its stuck-in-place feel. Not long ago, there was even a farm of sorts, at 121 Pine. Neighbors say the woman who lived there in the modest white farmhouse kept goats and geese until she passed away several years back. "The grass was all kept low and mowed from the goats," says Cecilia Mahoney from the front steps of her Colonial directly across the street. The goats didn't bother her nearly as much as the thought of what's coming: 28 cottages and at least as many cars.

A hairdresser with a wide smile and an easy manner, Mahoney is one of the staunchest opponents of the cottages. She's expressed her concerns in a neatly printed letter to the board of appeals (which is still reviewing the cottage applications), at public hearings, and online on a popular community forum. Among her many concerns are water runoff, septic issues, traffic, pedestrian safety, the effect on property values, and the added burden on town services. The night before this particular day last November, Mahoney had nervously stood up at a hearing held in the high school auditorium to tell officials she hadn't moved to Easton 13 years ago for this. "I grew up in Dorchester in a house with nine kids -- I know what it's like to have density," Mahoney had said.

Now, headed for work in a sky-blue blouse with her hair pulled back to expose dangly earrings, Mahoney wants to make something else clear. "We're not against affordable housing," she says, referring to herself and her husband. "We're against cottages, and we're against density." Asked about last night's PowerPoint presentation showing lushly landscaped colorful cottages in the Seattle area, Mahoney acknowledges the cottages looked attractive, but quickly adds, "Everything's nice when it's new." She goes on, "I think it's going to look like a really cute trailer park-slash-condo community."

One common complaint is that a dense cluster of cottages will have a greater impact on the town than a few houses. Yet, according to Linda Pruitt, owner of Seattle's The Cottage Company, an early pioneer of the concept, eight cottages, with one or two residents each, bring in fewer people than would four large houses on the same space. "Density is only a negative if you presume erroneously that mom, dad, and three or four kids and a few cars are going to live in these cottages," Pruitt says. "That is not what happens, in our experience."

Locally, many researchers argue that higher density in in-town locations is a must for the region's future economic growth. In December, the nonprofit Massachusetts Housing Partnership issued the latest in a years-long stream of studies linking obstacles to housing development to negative job growth. The study, conducted by Edward Moscovitch, president of Cape Ann Economics, compared metro areas across the state and nationally and found that the greater the proportion of new homes built on large lots, the lower the employment growth.

"What we need are diverse housing types, and zoning doesn't work with us for that," says Mirrione. "You need a tiered price structure to keep all values buoyant and to maintain a range of age groups in town."

In the Seattle area, proponents of cottage housing had the benefit of political will on their side. In 1990, the state of Washington passed one of the most progressive (and controversial) land-use laws in the country, the Growth Management Act. An attempt to slow sprawl, the act requires fast-growing counties and cities to write local plans that protect environmentally critical areas but also encourage development in designated "urban growth" areas. "Cities and towns were mandated to create certain numbers of housing -- they had to grow," Pruitt explains.

Since then, many Seattle-area municipalities have adopted cottage bylaws. Pruitt's company has built seven cottage developments in five communities; all have sold out. The company's hallmark is its ability to create a villagey community atmosphere characterized by thickly planted gardens, deep front porches, and a central green, like Danielson Grove in Kirkland. The focus is not affordability, however -- fine craftsmanship and design keep Pruitt's prices fairly high. She says that the cottages represent a lifestyle choice for most of her buyers, part of "a tremendous backlash to the McMansionization of single-family homes."

The concept has been poorly implemented in some places. The city of Shoreline, about 15 miles north of downtown Seattle, halted new cottage communities in 2006 because of neighborhood protests over what city planning director Joseph Tovar describes as several "bad" projects. The city's cottage ordinance was too flexible, Tovar says, which resulted in developments that were too close together, short on common space, or raised too high relative to the rest of the neighborhood. Shoreline officials still consider cottages an important piece of their housing strategy, however, and Tovar predicts a cottage comeback, via a much tighter ordinance, within the year.

Although Mirrione's company is still working on detailed site plans for his cottage projects, Mirrione insists that because he intends to use the projects as models for other communities, he's paying close attention to design and engineering. Last October, he tried to allay Pine Street neighborhood concerns about the layout of the project by inviting residents to an evening get-together. Nobody came -- neighbors urged one another not to attend in an online forum, Mirrione says. That sort of predisposition to opposition, he goes on, is precisely why state legislators enacted 40B in 1969. Suburban communities were adopting zoning in ways that prevented lower-income people from moving in. To varying degrees, they still are, in the form of large-lot requirements and prohibitions on density. "Without 40B, there'd be no affordable housing," Mirrione says. "Of course, we all love poor people -- just not in our town."

Not that Mirrione is any do-gooder himself. An up-by-his-bootstraps conservative who skipped college and went straight to Vietnam, he freely admits that he's not interested in building low-income housing. The greater irony, however, is that had Easton voters approved his proposed cottage bylaw, or some version of it, the town would have had more control over the projects. The bylaw language laid out a list of conditions developers had to meet before qualifying for the exception. Under 40B, the town has far less leverage. The board of appeals could deny Mirrione's application, but he could then appeal to the state and would likely win. That's because under the law, at least 10 percent of a town's housing units must be permanently set aside for low- to moderate-income residents before it can safely deny a 40B project; Easton's stock of affordable housing barely tops 3 percent.

The law does not play well on Pine Street. Mirrione is effectively "using 40B as a gun to hold this town up so they can make a fortune," charges Gregory Roman, leaning forward on the sofa in his unit in the converted schoolhouse. "Putting 28 homes on just under 4 acres of land is crazy."

Roman suddenly realizes that he's almost shouting and starts to laugh. A tall, youthful-looking director who runs a commercial production company out of his home, Roman is not typically so serious. (In his spare time, he performs as a campy, crooning cross-dresser known as "Titler.") This December afternoon, he's just finished making chocolate chip cookies, which, he jokes, are intended to distract him from the pints of Haagen-Dazs he's been devouring. His plump Jack Russell terrier, Lily, prances about the high-ceilinged, open space that serves as kitchen, dining area, and living room in the unit he shares with his partner. Roman owns the building and rents out two additional units.

The reason he is so irked, he explains, is that having previously lived in South Providence, where there were problems with crime and noise, he moved to Easton two years ago because he thought it was "idyllic." Now, he goes on, Mirrione wants to erect a "mini-ghetto" on his street. He expressed his outrage in a letter to the board of appeals as the review process was just getting underway. In the same letter, he suggested that, after just one hearing, Mirrione was receiving special treatment because his son Walter, a lawyer, chairs the board. Walter is a senior vice president for New England Cottage, an obvious conflict of interest. So far, however, he has neither attended nor participated in any of the cottage hearings.

Roman's neighbor at the opposite end of the street, Joseph Conforti, is equally suspicious. A semi-retired airline pilot and amateur filmmaker who splits his time between Easton and Florida, Conforti bought his 5-acre property on Pine Street 10 years ago. He'd never heard of 40B, he says, until Mirrione's cottage project came along. Now he is using the project as the basis for a broader documentary about the law. Conforti shows up with his camera at board of appeals hearings, but so far Mirrione has rebuffed his requests for an interview. Mirrione says of Conforti: "He thinks he's Michael Moore or something. He's got his own private agenda."

It's true Conforti has an agenda, but he doesn't keep it to himself. In his view, 40B is a corrupt and "sickening" law that rips off taxpayers for the sole benefit of developers. He points to the 2006 investigation by the state inspector general exposing developers who understated their profits on 40B projects in order to take a higher margin than the law allows. (Excess profits are supposed to go to the host town for affordable housing purposes.) Conforti acknowledges that some towns use zoning to keep people out but says he's not convinced that's necessarily a bad thing. "I grew up in Brookline and would love to own a house in Chestnut Hill, but I can't afford it. So should the town of Brookline subsidize me? One argument is, if you can't afford to live there, don't."

Conforti, Roman, and their neighbors on Pine Street have picked up like-minded allies who are fighting two 40B projects proposed in North Easton. The same emotions that powered the recent, ultimately unsuccessful statewide effort to repeal 40B by ballot initiative have galvanized Easton residents across neighborhoods. Opponents cite specific concerns, but often their comments also reflect fear of the unknown, says Chuck King, a selectman who has lived in town for 23 years. "They're protecting what they perceive to be their quality of life," says King. "The world they grew up in -- and it might be a 1950s flavor, a 1960s flavor -- that's no longer there. Projects like these change their perception and shake their structure." Opponents of 40B projects may acknowledge that more and cheaper housing is needed for Massachusetts's economic well-being, but that concession comes with predictable qualifiers: There's a better street for that kind of housing, a more appropriate neighborhood, a less suburban community.

Last year, Easton voters did approve a "smart growth" district off Route 138 that would combine commercial and residential uses, including affordable housing. Town officials lobbied hard for that proposal, which would move Easton closer to the statutory minimum and, under state law, allow them to deny unwanted 40B applications for at least two years. However, by approving the district, voters didn't give up the right to block a specific project down the road.

A major sticking point for the cottage bylaw -- the zoning change proposed by Mirrione -- was that the town couldn't count market-price cottages as affordable housing. Instead, it would have to add them to its housing inventory, pushing that 10 percent threshold farther out of reach. Mirrione and a company vice president, Frederick Clark Jr., a former district chief of staff for the late congressman Joe Moakley, are talking with lawmakers about ways to eliminate that disincentive, like allowing towns to exclude cottage units from their housing inventory count. In the meantime, the drama in Easton will continue to play out. As the review process drags on, Chuck King is watching from the sidelines. He won't comment on whether he thinks Pine Street is appropriate for cottages -- he'd rather leave that to the board of appeals to decide. As to 40B, King has mixed feelings. The law is imperfect, but he knows as well as anyone that the problem is real. A couple of years ago, his son, a UPS employee, and his wife, a teacher, won an affordable-housing lottery in Canton. Now the couple and their son have a house of their own. "It may not be a big, fabulous McMansion," King says, "but it's a start."

Lisa Prevost is a freelance writer in Connecticut and a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. E-mail her at lprevost@prodigy.net.

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