When Massachusetts voters head to the polls next week they'll be asked to decide the fate of the state's main affordable housing law, credited with creating tens of thousands of new homes, sometimes without the backing of local officials.
The law has had a contentious history, in part because it gives private developers more power to bypass local zoning laws if they promise to include a certain percentage of affordable units in their projects.
State lawmakers originally adopted the law, known as 40B, in 1969. At the time, big cities, such as Boston, were shouldering a disproportionate share of the state's affordable and public housing units. One goal of the law was to pressure the suburbs to pick up some of the slack.
To do that, the law sets a goal of 10 percent affordable housing for each city and town.
If a community falls short of that goal, and is failing to make steady progress, a developer can invoke the law and seek a comprehensive building permit, provided it promises to set aside 20 to 25 percent of its development as affordable housing.
The comprehensive permit gives developers a stronger hand to skirt zoning laws that could block the project.
While affordable housing activists see the law as one of their strongest tools, some local officials have bristled at the measure over the years, arguing that it undercuts control over growth.
Those pushing to repeal the law say they also support affordable housing, but argue the law is inefficient and has failed to create enough affordable homes, particularly rental units.
"It doesn't serve the most needy, the working poor," said John Belskis, a retired telephone worker from Arlington and spokesman for the Coalition for the Repeal of 40B. "It's not serving those who really need the housing."
Backers of the law say it's paved the way for about 58,000 units of new housing in the past four decades, including 30,000 affordable units.
The law also has been a boon to the economy, they say, employing construction workers and helping those with limited incomes find a home or apartment. Doing away with the law would end that progress _ and put a stop to 12,000 more units in the development pipeline.
They also reject the idea that repealing the state's main affordable housing law would help create more affordable housing.
"You can't take away the tool that is responsible for 80 percent of the affordable housing in the past decade and say we'll have more affordable housing," said Francy Ronayne of the Campaign to Protect the Affordable Housing Law. "It's just counterintuitive."
Tyan Bassett credits the law with helping her family find an affordable home on Cape Cod, where both she and her husband grew up.
Bassett said the couple and their infant son had been renting a two-room cottage and were beginning to doubt they could ever find a home for their growing family until they learned the group Habitat for Humanity was relying on the law to build affordable single-family homes.
Bassett, 33, said the family put its name in a lottery and was chosen. The family of four is now paying a $750-a-month mortgage on a salt box style, three-bedroom home.
"It's one of the four miracles in my life: my husband, my kids and my house," said Bassett, whose husband is a licensed electrician and a plumber's apprentice. "You cry happy tears when you know that the alternative is horrible. This is heaven."
Although the affordable housing question has been overshadowed by two other ballot initiatives _ one that would cut the state sales tax rate and another that would again lift the sales tax from alcohol sold in stores _ opponents have been mounting a campaign to persuade voters to reject the measure.
As of mid-October, the group had raised more than $1 million to defeat the question. The money has come from affordable housing groups, the Home Builders Association of Mass., the Mass. Association of Realtors, the Greater Boston Real Estate Board and hundreds of individual donors.
The bulk of funding for supporters of the question has come for a single group, The Slow Growth Initiative based in Chelmsford, according to records filed with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
The group paid almost $284,000 to hire professional signature gatherers to collect the needed voter signatures to secure a spot on Tuesday's ballot.
In March, the Attorney General's office ordered the Slow Growth Initiative to stop soliciting donations in Massachusetts. The office said the group was soliciting through its website as a charitable organization without first registering with the state Division of Public Charities, which oversees nonprofit organizations.
(This version CORRECTS the spelling of 'thousands' in the first paragraph.)