Housing, Part Three: What Does the Future Hold?

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final article in a series about housing in Bedford. To see parts one and two, go to bedfordcitizen.wpengine.com and find them under the “Town Services” heading.

According to research in a field called “housing demography,” housing patterns are poised for dramatic change during the first part of the 21st century. Reasons for these anticipated changes include the aging and retirement of the large Baby Boom generation; housing preferences of the younger, smaller “Generation Y”; income distribution; limited, and therefore expensive, land;rising energy prices; and, finally, the effect of these and other factors on housing affordability.

You don’t need to be an expert in housing demographics to know that there’s a strong desire for change right here in Bedford. In fact, the subject regularly bubbles up in everyday conversation. People have plenty of thoughts about housing but the question is, what can and should be done and— perhaps equally as important— can we, as a town, agree about the direction to take?

Bedford’s housing concerns today are diverse:

  • Seniors who want to stay in town struggle to find suitable alternatives to their often too big and hard-to-maintain family homes;
  • Starter homes are difficult to find for young people who grew up in town and want to raise their own families here;
  • Residents of neighborhoods with smaller homes feel vulnerable to the tear-down trend that makes way for large footprint “monster houses”;
  • Abutters become alarmed when plans to build large apartment complexes nearby threaten their quality of life;
  • Town planners are frustrated with zoning laws that no longer address modern-day challenges.
  • The possible solutions are as diverse as the concerns—and potentially controversial.

Talk to Art Smith about what he sees in the future of housing. As a veteran designer and builder and former Planning Board member, Smith recognizes the need to plan for later life. A few years ago, he and his close friends, Rich and Nancy Daugherty, had an idea to build a type of cluster housing, called “infill” housing, on the Daugherty’s Elm Street property in the center of town.

The working name for the project was “Chestnut Row” and it was intended as a high-density,
4–6 unit development for people over 55 to be built on less than an acre of land. The concept, Smith said, would allow aging residents to stay in town, take the equity out of their family houses and downsize to smaller, single-level homes close to all of Bedford’s amenities.

“There’s no provision in the bylaw for that kind of housing, “said Smith. “We came up with an idea of an alternative kind of zone. There are overlay zones in Bedford—we began to think of creating infill zones where there was enough land to support additional housing units, specifically geared toward [down-sizers and first-time buyers]. The Daugherty’s property on Elm Street was perfect.”

“The ZBA (Zoning Board of Appeals) loved the idea but couldn’t find a way to get it approved. We went to the Planning Board to get a sense of their opinion but didn’t get a positive reaction and we figured if the Planning Board didn’t love the idea, it didn’t stand a chance at Town Meeting.”

In order to change zoning bylaws in Massachusetts, a two-thirds majority vote is needed at Town Meeting for communities like Bedford. Speaking about this, Smith said, “It’s tough to get two-thirds of a crowd to vote for anything…. other than when they really don’t like something.”

Another form of housing that could also be categorized as “infill” is a fairly new concept called“Granny Pods” or “P.A.L.S” (Prefabricated Assisted Living Structures). These are small, efficient, hi-tech homes—often equipped with medical monitoring devices. They’re usually designed for one person—but can be larger—and are intended to be temporarily placed in the backyard of a larger home as an alternative to sending an elderly relative to a nursing home. The creator of the P.A.L.S model, Henry Racki, is a certified aging-in-place specialist, whose work even includes helping clients navigate the permitting and zoning processes.

The pods can range in cost between $67,000 and $85,000, depending on size, style and whether medical monitoring systems are included. The structures can also be leased.

If the price is within reach, the structures allow elder relatives to live right in one’s backyard, an arrangement that can put the whole family at ease. The emotional and physical upheaval of moving to a nursing home, giving up independence and moving away from everything familiar often seems like the only option for elders from a short list of bad alternatives. Recent statistics from an AARP study show the vast majority of people over 65 (88%) want to live in their own homes and communities as they age.

On the subject of senior housing, Bedford resident Holly Bloomfield offered this comment online following the first article in this housing series:  “An interesting article I read not too long ago proposed the idea of seniors combining their resources to lower their living costs. In this scenario, a few seniors would arrange to live together and share housing, food and transportation. This solution not only lowers costs but also avoids isolation and allows people to offer and receive support when needed. It could, in fact, improve the health and well-being of the seniors involved. It is, in effect, the building of a new extended-family.”

The model that Bloomfield talks about is a form of cooperative housing or “co-housing,” and another Bedford resident, Christine Bennett, is a big advocate of the concept on a multi-generational scale.

Some college friends of Bennett’s started Camelot, a co-housing neighborhood in the Sawyer Hill EcoVillage, a co-housing community in Berlin, MA., She said the friends looked at Bedford during the planning stage of their development but couldn’t find a large enough parcel of affordable land here.

The housing at Camelot is cluster-style with woods all around and a big community house. Individual houses in co-housing developments can be smaller and efficient. “You don’t need twelve piano rooms because there’s one in the common house. Or twelve sewing rooms or twelve double ovens…. There’s a consumerism aspect to it, to not have to buy all this stuff. To keep things simpler,” Bennett said.

The community and multi-generational aspects of the interconnected co-housing model also appeal to her. “The people rely on each other,” she said, and with a lack of family locally, Bennett says it can be hard to make strong connections. “In an emergency, who do you call?

“I do think about the loss of privacy [that comes along with the co-housing model] but I’d rather have loss of privacy with people I know rather than with somebody who only lives next door because that’s where they plopped down.”

As Bennett recalls, her friends had some difficulties getting the co-housing development plan passed by the town of Berlin. “It was such a large tract of land that a lot of the neighbors were against putting housing there,” Bennett said. “[The community]donated a percentage of the land to the town as permanent conservation.”

Talking about another “cluster housing” development nearby in West Concord called Riverwalk, Bennett admired the concepts behind efficient use of space and the thoughtful positioning of windows that make a more densely populated development feel spacious. “You don’t feel hemmed in.”

Suzanne Koller also likes the “not-so-big-house” concept and her love for Bedford is evident in the passion with which she tackles the subject of housing. As a realtor for Keller Williams, Koller talks to a lot of people about their housing needs and concerns. Because she’s in the business—and because she grew up here—Koller has spent a lot of time thinking not only about how Bedford has already changed but how it could evolve into an even lovelier community.

“I have the same conversation ten times a day,” said Koller. “Everybody has the same concerns and wants the same thing,” she said. “What’s the vision for down the road? Let’s work backwards from there…. Bedford is at a crossroads. What do we want the town to be like for our kids? It’s not heading in a direction that people are very happy with.”

When asked what she thinks causes this level of concern, Koller points to how Bedford lacks “walkability” and how unfriendly it is for pedestrians. She notes the strips malls along the Great Road that are visually unappealing, and how small the esthetically charming center of town is. “A lot of the town was developed in the 60’s and 70’s and that’s what they were doing then, but unfortunately, it has set the tone.”

“There was an article from The Bedford Minuteman from the 1960’s that I’ve heard referenced that said something like, ‘This will never be a two-car garage town.’ People never thought that Bedford could support that and now it’s a three-car garage, McMansion town.”

The vision for the future that people now have, says Koller, includes words like “village, quaint, charming, and community.” She adds, “There’s also a real need for ‘third places’.”

Koller defines a third place as something other than your home or your workplace where people can gather. “Everybody I talk to wants a pub. Not a bar, but someplace people can go to and talk about community issues.”

“Bedford is this amazing anomaly. We are a small town with our own school system that’s one of the best school systems in the state. If you live in Concord and go to Concord-Carlisle or in Lincoln and go to Lincoln-Sudbury, you have to drive twenty, thirty minutes to drop your kid off at school or a friend’s house.”

From where Koller sits, she knows that having a diversity of housing models in town is important.She also understands what people want in a home. So many, she says, are looking for a particular kind of house that simply doesn’t exist.

When asked to describe that house, Koller says, “It’s 2,000 square feet—on that not-so-big-house theory. It’s very sensible space. There are no formal rooms, maybe a formal dining room. It’s all space that you use every day—flexible, casual. There’s really a big push toward built-ins and multi-use spaces. It’s functional but it has character…. Front porches, very welcoming to the street and the community. Timeless.Architecturally classic…. Think of it, if you have a 3,000 square foot house, you probably only use two-thirds of it but you’re heating it, you’re paying taxes on it.”

What Koller sees happening right now, especially among the elder population, is that buyers are planning ahead, rehabbing older housing stock—like ranch, capes and split-levels—to create flexible space with the intention of aging in-place. She also sees that multiple generations are choosing to live together: grandparents, parents, grandchildren, all under one roof.

“People are aging differently. They’re 85 and young at heart and active. Elders want to be co-mingled with younger people—the idea of segregating or targeting any one group is just a bad idea.”

What Koller would love to see in the future is village-style housing that ties the community together with mixed use, artists’ spaces, accessibility to the bike paths and walking trails.

“I don’t know how we get there,” said Koller. “Maybe a zoning change to strategically allow for more village-style zoning…. Someone needs to start somewhere. I think we’re at a make-or-break point right now.”

Definitions of terms:

  • Infill Housing: A model of land use and housing construction within an already built-up area, especially as a method of growth management or community redevelopment. It focuses on the reuse or repositioning of obsolete or underutilized buildings and building sites.
  • Cooperative housing: A model of housing most often based on a legal arrangement whereby a group of people pool their resources to buy a residential property. Each member of the co-op has one vote when determining administrative issues related to the property. For a listing of cooperative housing communities in Massachusetts, see: https://directory.ic.org/records/coops.php
  • Cluster housing: A type of high-density housing that commonly aims to preserve open space on the property. It is also known as “conservation” or “low-impact” development where residences are grouped together to leave land available for open space, recreation, or agriculture. It can be used to good effect where land is at a premium and in areas that have been built out but where housing remains in high demand. Local examples of cluster housing are Bedfordshire on Old Billerica Road or Riverwalk in West Concord: https://www.concordriverwalk.com/


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Cathy Cordes
Cathy Cordes
9 years ago

Great article Kim. Thanks for putting it all together so well. There is an open seat on Planning Board and folks who are really interested in helping Bedford find new solutions might want to consider running for Planning Board.

nancy forrest
nancy forrest
10 years ago

Sorry, Kim, I left out a sentence in my response.. If you would be willing to edit it, please, after the first sentence, could you add
“It seems to me that infill or cooperative housing could be less intrusive to a neighborhood than the construction of a monster replacement of a teardown house.” Then, include or delete the sentence regarding the planning board.

nancy forrest
nancy forrest
10 years ago

Thank you, Kim, for the excellent summary of current housing and desirable alternatives voiced by people with whom you’ve spoken. How to get the ears of the Planning Board???
nancy forrest

Geraldine Welch
10 years ago

Great article. Impressive research .Our aging community worries about this all the time..This is well written and well presented. Thank you

Sue Harrison
Sue Harrison
10 years ago

One thing that bugs me is that a developer can tear down a modest/affordable house to build a huge expensive house at the same time that the town is building/subsidizing affordable housing. Doesn’t make sense.
Great articles on housing. Thanks.

10 years ago

This series so far has missed out providing a perspective on the impact of the many additions of housing units in past decade. The series seemed to advocate adding more housing.

susan mccombs
susan mccombs
10 years ago

This series is really well done. Kim, you have uncovered it all it seems. I had no idea of the ‘infill housing’ concept and availability. I hope these contributions get well read in town.
Thank you for such in depth work.

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