High school students today may be more likely to see themselves as residents of apartments or condos rather than houses. When asked if he would like to live in Wellesley one day, Syd Vecchiotti ’25 felt it wouldn’t be realistic for him.  

“I like the access that Wellesley has to Boston, but no [I wouldn’t be able to afford to live in Wellesley],” said Vecchiotti. 

High school students’ future housing is at stake. Even before the pandemic, in 2016, 37 percent of graduating college seniors planned to live at home at least a year or more after graduation, according to a survey by the job site Indeed. In 2023, nearly 45 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 live with their parents, according to the U.S. Census

“Kids at the high school are going to realize that they’re ready to get out of their parents’ home, and there’s nowhere to go. They can’t afford an apartment, they can’t afford to buy a home. That’s not going to change unless we do something,” said Ann-Mara Lanza, co-founder and CEO of Building A Better Wellesley, a grassroots organization advocating for attainable and affordable housing in Wellesley.  

Yet housing has seen considerable growth in Wellesley over the past decade—in pricing and in amount. With a growing median home price that stood at $1.9 million in January 2024, Wellesley may quickly dash your hopes of becoming a homeowner. However, these changes were accompanied by some — quite literally — bigger ones. In your commute across town, you will inevitably notice the most recent additions to Wellesley’s growing neighborhoods: multi-story condos.  

“If you ask me ten years ago, if I was still going to be living in Wellesley, I’d say probably not. The reality is, people in high school, in college now, the future homeowners, the next generation of Wellesley residents who are going to be deeply involved in town affairs, I’m not sure all of them will stay, but I do want it to be possible for them to stay if they want to,” said Andrew Mikula ’15, an urban planning devotee and housing advocate who grew up in Wellesley.

The median single-family home price in Wellesley has grown by more than $0.5 million over the past five years.  Data from Redfin

As residential complexes with multiple units for individual buyers, condos serve the purpose of making it easier for more residents to stay, providing access to town services and conveniences, like public transportation, without paying exorbitant prices. Condos have played a central role in creating affordable housing in Wellesley.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “affordable” housing is housing that is subsidized, with occupants who earn 80 percent or less of the area’s median income. For an individual in Wellesley, the income limit is $78,300; for a family of 4, the limit is $111,850. Currently, out of the over 9,000 housing units in Wellesley, nearly 12 percent of them are designated affordable, the bulk of which resulting from condo development projects — for instance, The Nines next to Wellesley Office Park alone has 350 units built in 2022. 

Located on Weston Road, the Bristol condo complex boasts “spectacular luxury” with unit pricing starting at $1.2 million. Photo by Lily Jin. 

These bigger recently completed condo complexes, which also include The Bristol on Weston Road, Terrazza Wellesley in Linden Square, and 680 Worcester St (which is currently under construction), have been years in the making. All were made possible through a single state law known as Chapter 40B. 

“Our state is in a housing crisis. We are losing young people; we’re experiencing an outward migration of our young professionals because there just is no place to live, or no affordable place to live,” Lanza said. “[Chapter] 40B and other state initiatives are there to encourage communities to build housing, so the goals are good.” 

In an effort to prevent the construction of homogenous communities that exclude low and moderate-income housing, Chapter 40B required all towns to have over 10 percent of their housing to be affordable, or designated as part of the town’s Subsidized Housing Inventory (SHI). 

ten years ago, Wellesley was well below this ten percent threshold, with only six percent of its total housing deemed affordable. This lack of affordable housing—despite the town’s adoption of inclusionary zoning in 2005 which required housing projects to have at least twenty percent of its units be affordable—made Wellesley vulnerable to an onslaught of outside developers who used Chapter 40B as leverage to advance their condo development projects in the town.

“What the state said was, if you aren’t at this ten percent, then developers can ignore your zoning. Zoning tells you what you can build where. Developers were basically allowed to build wherever they wanted,” Lanza said. 

A rush of 40B projects came to town around 2017. It was a contentious process: neighbors fought in court, the projects were delayed, but the developers eventually built the condos, overriding zoning bylaws. 

“The problem with 40B was, a lot of towns like Wellesley and a lot of our surrounding towns were in a state of denial over this for a long time because in some of these suburban towns, the market just wasn’t at a place where it made sense to build a ton of apartments at scale,” said Mikula.

Moreover, the last of these projects, the Terrazza Condos, did not actually follow the law for affordable housing. Instead of building a development with 20 percent affordable units, the developers negotiated a smaller one that was only 10 percent affordable (four units out of 35), allowing it to fit better in the neighborhood. 

Similarly, resulting from 40B, The Bristol only has two actually affordable units out of 26 total units. Neither the Bristol or the Terrazza has reached full occupancy yet, but more people will move into Terrazza this spring. 

Wellesley has since met the 10 percent requirement after developing Wellesley Office Park, namely The Nines condos with 350 units, through a more collaborative process under Chapter 40R. 40R, in contrast to 40B’s coercion, awards towns cash payments and a large degree of input into the development through a majority vote of two-thirds in town meeting.

However, despite meeting the 40B threshold, Wellesley may not have actually reached the objective of building hundreds of affordable units, as mentioned in Town’s Housing Production Plan from 2019. 

“The way that subsidized housing inventory works is that if it’s a rental property, and a certain percentage of those are affordable, then all of them may count towards the subsidized housing inventory,” said Eric Arbeene, Planning Director of the town government’s Planning Department. “So I’m not sure if we’ve created 400 actually affordable units.” 

But after satisfying 40B, any subsequent housing projects must have at least 20 percent of its units designated affordable. Going forward, Wellesley plans to center housing processes around long-term thinking done by the town itself, rather than private developers. 

“Some people think that if we maintain this status quo in Wellesley with a lot of heavy-handed, discretionary review processes around housing, then we center power among the community with housing,” said Mikula. “I think it’s the opposite. It gives developers and private interests a lot more power if they are the visionaries behind where the housing goes, what the typology is, as opposed to us doing that work, that long-term thinking in advance.”

For instance, by encouraging planning, the more recent state mandate associated with housing, the MBTA Communities Law, is designed in a smarter way. Every community with access, or adjacent access, to the MBTA is required to create areas where multi-family housing can be built without a special permit. Each community has a certain target number of units to allow for, or make possible to build. 

Rezoning from new projects have faced considerable backlash from Wellesley residents who push for more considerate planning and preservation.  Photo by Lily Jin.

“Instead of giving developers a ton of leverage in a punitive way, it forces towns to think ahead and plan for an additional amount of capacity for housing on their own terms first,” Mikula said.

According to the state’s calculations, as a commuter rail town, Wellesley needs to zone for 1392 additional units. 

“We don’t know when they’re going to be built, but it requires planning. We have already determined where we can build them: along Washington Street by the commuter rail stations,” Lanza said. 

According to Lanza and Mikula, long-term planning means foremost considering the housing’s location. Sustainable housing would be housing in transit-oriented locations where people can walk to trains, shops, schools, etc.— thus reducing car traffic. 

“We think about what fits in the community. That’s part of the goal here: to create housing in the right spots,” Lanza said. 

Building A Better Wellesley recently worked on introducing accessory dwelling units to Wellesley homes. Accessory dwelling units are small apartments attached to single-family houses with a maximum space of 900 ft2. They can be helpful for seniors who require support from an adult child, or for individuals who want less expensive rent. This proposal obtained 90 percent approval from town meeting, so now Wellesley allows residents to build these units whereas they were not allowed before. 

Besides grassroots efforts, Wellesley’s main governmental organization who oversees planning for housing is the Planning Department, with a board that consists of five elected citizens. The Planning Department’s purpose is to guide Wellesley in fostering diverse housing stock, multiple transportation options, and efficient use of resources. They try to achieve these goals through zoning bylaws, policies, plans, and promoting citizens’ participation, according to Arbeene.

One of these zoning bylaws include Residential Incentive Overlay (RIO) District zoning, which provides a residential reuse incentive for portions of land close to the town centers and public transportation—the recent condos were all RIO projects. Their overlay districts were approved by town meeting around 2019. The developers then received permits from the Planning Board.

“From purchasing the property to going through the permitting process to then building it, the process can take years,” Arbeene said. “Generally, about three years.”

From the financial perspective, funding for subsidized units can also be a complex issue. The state can provide funds through grants and other state programs, but Wellesley has not had a project relying on state subsidies. The vast majority of real estate development that created any affordable housing in Wellesley has instead relied on cross subsidies: rather than getting tax credits from the state or federal government, developers subsidize the affordable units by taking profits from market-rate units. At The Nines, Bristol, and Terrazza, more than 75% of their units are sold at market rate, or between $1-2 million. 

“Subsidies don’t go as far as they would in communities with lower land costs. It’s really expensive to build any kind of housing in Wellesley so any project that has a substantial number of affordable units has to have some subsidies attached to it, whether it’s the town reducing land price, or cross subsidies from market rate units, or some form of cash,” Mikula said. 

Building A Better Wellesley has been meeting with nonprofit developers to put together a project, which Newton has already done, to create a housing project that guarantees higher percent affordability. 

“If we work with nonprofit developers, we have more ability to build affordable housing at different levels of income,” Lanza said.  

Already this spring, one could potentially see more changes in Wellesley’s housing. On 150 Cedar Street, near The Wok restaurant, there are plans for another RIO development with 34 units, of which 20 percent will be affordable. This overlay district project will have to go through town meeting this spring. 

“The Planning Board will make a recommendation, but town meeting ultimately holds the cards, so it’s really citizen-driven decisions in government,” Arbeene said. 

This year, the Planning Department has been working on creating a new Housing Production Plan, now named the Strategic Housing Plan, which will focus on all types of housing — affordable, senior, market-rate — now that the 10 percent requirement is met. The plan was partly funded by the town’s Community Preservation Act, which requires that at least 10% of the proceeds each year are dedicated to affordable housing.

“It’ll be a real public process,” Arbeene said. “At the end of the day, it’s about the people who live here; we want to know what their vision is.” 

Indeed, adopting the lens of long-term, forward thinking, issues of affordable housing will ultimately be in the hands of the people who may live here in the future.   

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