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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Recap on Housing Roundtable Discussion by Rebecca Cooper

A full house of concerned residents greeted personnel from the city, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Somerville Community Corporation at the Argenziano School for last Tuesday’s Family Housing Roundtable, demonstrating what keynote speaker Rachel Bratt noted was an “impressive” commitment to community engagement in the future of the city that makes Somerville distinctive.

Simultaneous translation into Portuguese and Spanish was offered for the full three hour program by Somerville Family Learning Collaborative, and child care was provided to enable parents to attend and engage fully in the proceedings.The evening’s events were divided into three parts. The event opened with an address from Professor Bratt, followed by an intensive session of small group discussions, and capped off by a set of roundtable discussions with key members of city staff.Professor Bratt, currently on leave from Tufts to serve as Senior Fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, spoke briefly, as she had to leave for another public meeting, but her remarks provided a number of important points for attendees to consider during the workshop sessions.

The central point of Professor Bratt’s remarks concerned the complications and challenges provided by Somerville’s extremely “hot” housing market, and the criticalneed to negotiate some form of public intervention to provide a measure of insulation for the bulk of the city’s residents from the worst effects of this heat. As Bratt noted, the fact that Somerville is such a high-demand locality makes the housing market “both an enemy and a friend.” The price of homes has gone up alongside the price of rental housing, reaping benefits for those who own rental properties or who wish to sell their houses and leave the city. However, it creates difficult circumstances for others seeking to rent or to purchase a starter home in the city, as housing is increasingly priced out of reach of more and more potential residents. This situation is made increasingly difficult by the presence of speculators and developers able to pay cash for properties and willing to take possession without contingencies or inspections, buyers confident enough in the value of Somerville real estate to be willing to compete for those scarce properties, driving the sale at times significantly higher than the initial asking price.And this competition is only going to get more intense with the completion of the Green Line extension, as students and young professionals increasingly vie with currentresidents for limited housing units. Indeed there is no potential source of relief on the horizon for Somerville families, as Bratt noted, so long as the housing market is left to function without public intervention.

Having articulated the problem, Bratt went on to point out that despite widespread agreement about the need and a commitment to address that need, there is little or no hope for an intervention at the federal or state level. Federal block grants have been pushed off the table and tax credits and allocations to support low income housing are on the decline. There is support at the state level but few if any resources to accompany that support, leaving the problem at the municipal level where solutions must be developed.As Bratt noted, the basic question of what makes housing good for families is largely not in dispute: families thrive in and seek out housing that is affordable, safe and of good quality, in similarly safe and good quality neighborhoods where people feel empowered to build communities, with access to good transportation options (especially public transport) and with good quality schools, open spaces and environmental conditions.

The availability, and accessibility, of such amenities is primarily constrained by political realities and market conditions, which either assure their presence for a wide range of residents or place them out of reach for any but the most fortunate. Somerville is, according to Bratt, extremely fortunate to have in place two crucial forces which could enable a solution to this tension. The first, and perhaps most crucial, is the presence of a capable city government intent on addressing the problem and working toward a solution, aided and supported by an extremely motivated and involved citizenry willing to come out and participate in all aspects of the planning and development process.

Bratt went on to highlight the six initiatives that Somerville city officials have undertaken to provide support and assistance for residents, including the comprehensive planning process which produced the SomerVision plan, the increase of linkage fees assessed on developes to provide resources for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, the development of inclusionary zoning ordinances to encourage the construction of affordable housing units and to guarantee preferential access to those units by current Somerville residents, the development of a Community Preservation Program to provide funds to support housing, and the commendable work that the city has done with private, for profit developers to encourage the preservation and rehabilitation of existing two and three family homes in order to keep them affordable for middle income households. Bratt also praised the efforts of city officials to mitigate the pressures placed on current residents by the upcoming Green Line extension and their efforts to combat the potential displacement threat and work to keep current residents in the city from being priced out.Key in this effort has been the comprehensive overhaul of the city’s zoning ordnances, currently underway, which will address (among many other challenges) the increased pressure for density and affordability at the new transit nodes. Bratt noted that future development is not the only challenge, and that city officials will have to keep a close eye on the “expiring use problem” where the owners of properties built with subsidies face the sunset of restrictions placed on cost controls.

The most important strategy identified by Bratt to secure affordable housing into the future in the face of these challenges is to move as much of the city’s housing stock as possible off of the private, speculative market and into ‘social housing’ which protects affordability and the preservation of housing as a social good. Bratt proposed a range of tactics to support this strategy from the institution of anti-speculation fees and property transfer taxes to further fund affordable housing, to suggestions for community based housing solutions such as cohousing. Bratt urged the group to “push the envelope” in protecting housing, suggesting that the city extend preferential treatment to organizations such as SCC, to create community land trusts which would hold land as a social good rather than a speculative asset and extend price controls on structures built on publicly-held land, and to explore more aggressive steps, such as the creation of “limited-equity cooperatives” to help keep the cost of housing within reach for a wide range of residents.

Unfortunately, Professor Bratt had little time for a follow up session, however a question about potential models and design choices that the city ought to promote elicited a response that perfectly encapsulated the message of the evening. The city’s push for density and new development was not in conflict with the desire to provide more housing for families.

“The notion in the United States for quite a few years now is that family housing that is high density, high rise is not conducive for child rearing. I happen to have grown up in a six story building in Brooklyn, New York, and that was really before Brooklyn was trendy, it was not trendy, trust me, when I grew up there, and we did okay,” Bratt noted.“That’s not the preferred housing for families across the United States according to conventional wisdom. But if the housing is designed well, has enough amenities, is managed well, is in a good neighbor hood, has decent quality fixtures and everything, I think it can be fine. I think that kids do fine if all of the other pieces are in place. There’s no one best place to raise the happiest children, in my opinion.”

Following the keynote and follow up session, Jennifer Raitt from MAPC conducted the group through the remaining evening, divided into two forty-five minute workshop sessions with a brief wrap up presentation after the first session to share the results of a selection of the small groups with the larger audience.Participants were encouraged to discuss and document their beliefs about what made for the ideal in family-friendly housing, in everything from size and type to tenure and location, and to develop a list of features that they valued in the contemporary city and those they wished to develop in the future, as well as concerns they had about the process. The wrap-up session demonstrated significant agreement among the participants as to the key concerns of affordability, inclusion and the availability of public amenities. Both teams called on to report their results focused on the kind of stability that ownership is uniquely able to provide, and the kinds of measures (such as securing preferences for current residents in both housing units and jobs) which would enable accessibility to a wide range of residents. The teams also agreed strongly that any development process must include public benefits and amenities, such as strong, well funded school systems, a range of transit options including bike and pedestrian paths, and recreational opportunities such as public parks and playgrounds, extracurricular programs and wellness opportunities.

Following the workshop recap, the room again broke into smaller groups to meet with city officials on particular topics of concern. Senior Analyst John Harding met with residents to conduct a discussion on issues of family satisfaction with the city; Senior Planner Dan Bartman presented a detailed explanation of the city’s comprehensive redesign of the zoning code; Director of Special Projects Kelly Donato conducted a discussion on the benefits and challenges of ownership versus rental tenure for families; Director of Housing Dana LeWinter engaged with residents on the issue of housing costs; and Lead Abatement Program Manager Daniel Hauck met with residents to discuss the preservation and management of the city’s existing housing stock.

A second session will be held this evening to discuss the pressures of gentrification and displacement, followed by a third session on March 4th, previous two workshop sessions and discuss ways to move forward on the priorities identified by participants.

Rebecca Cooper is a Ward 5 Resident, Architect, and Founder of Somerville Soap Works. She graciously offered to recap these important roundtable discussions for Ward 5 Online.


Spencer said...

Thanks for the recap and taking the time to write all those details. Very interesting.

Matt said...

Thank you for the great job! I was able to attend the second workshop on the 11th. I found the presentation by MAPC to be very insightful and helpful in framing what is happening in our city however when the meeting was turned over I became very disappointed.

The MAPC speaker talked about how to manage gentrification to reduce displacement and increase the community benefits but the organizers spoke nothing of what positive changes we have seen. 10 years ago when i first moved to somerville half of the storefronts in magoun sq were empty and union sq was not much of a destination for food, drink and entertainment. Today all but one of the storefronts is full and we have a great community market and butcher, bakeries, a coffee shop and great places to get food and drinks. In union sq. we have some of the top restaurants in greater boston and east somerville is attracting new businesses.

In a segment focused on the burden of housing costs on a household the presenters showed a number of audience participants sitting in chairs representing households. Each was allotted a sum of money as their household income. The intent of the exercise was to show how as rents increase because of the availability of new transportation options an increasing number of families would face paying a higher percentage of their income towards housing and that some would be forced to move. a very real scenario. Rather than just focus on this they decided to portray the landlord in a top hat with money falling out of his pockets greedily taking money and kicking out lower income tenants in favor of ones willing to pay higher rents. At this point one audience member walked out.. and many other left soon after - myself included.

The topic of community change is hard and it is important to realize that it can be managed by tools like inclusionary zoning, tax abatements for small businesses and low income seniors etc. We as a community cannot exclude or demonize any segment of our population if we want to continue to be a community.