“High housing costs are unacceptable for our people, our businesses, and our state’s future,” said Gov. Maura Healey in her inaugural speech last week. “To fix that, we need to think big.”
Can we get an amen! And a wise early step for Healey toward delivering on that promise will be to not just think big…but think poop.
As in the human waste that in many homes across the state – especially areas like Cape Cod, the Islands and parts of the South Coast – is flushed into septic systems that leach nitrogen into the soil. When that finds its way into local waterways, dangerous algae blooms proliferate, killing shellfish, making the water unusable for people and pets, and creating a foul odor that prompts some of the locals near Poppanessett Bay to refer to it as “Pooppanessett Bay.”
Gross. But what’s this got to do with the housing crisis?
The Commonwealth is just weeks away from mandating a costly fix: requiring all property owners on septic to upgrade to modern nitrogen-filtering systems that could easily cost upwards of $30,000 a pop, and/or pressuring communities without wastewater treatment plants to build them at sky-high expense.
That’s too rich for most of the luckless owners of the 1,592 septic tanks around Phinney’s Harbor and Megansett Harbor in Bourne, where the new regs would require close to $50 million in replacement work, according to local officials. And as a recent New York Times piece points out, these new mandates could accelerate the ongoing gentrification of the Cape into a place where only the super-rich can afford to live.
It’s not just a single-family home problem. This issue cuts to the core of any practical solution to the housing mess. Developers have long complained that the existing rules about wastewater treatment for multi-family housing make it too expensive to build on the scale that might begin to ease the affordable housing shortfall.
“The communities have to step up financially,” said Dr. David Cash, regional administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, in a recent WBZ-TV interview. He says the state will provide “technical support and financial support where it’s possible and [help them] to move to these technologies like full wastewater treatment systems that towns can adopt.”
Sounds vague. And if the Legislature or the new administration has anything approaching a concrete plan to prevent this nightmare, they’re keeping it a secret.
If Healey intends to use this looming catastrophe as a case study of her commitment to dealing with housing, displacement and middle-and-working class economic stress, she will have to move fast. State environmental officials have set a Jan. 30 deadline for public comment, the overall gist of which so far seems to be: oh s—t!
“We have untold wealth in Massachusetts,” Healey said in her speech. “But record public revenue does little good when families can’t pay the rent, or buy a house.”
Or use the toilet without flushing away their nest egg.
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