By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers)
Diversity, community and affordability. Those were the three most frequently used words by residents during the workshops that led to the creation of our comprehensive 20-year SomerVision plan, and they all have a direct relationship with one another. Our diversity has always been what makes this city such an enriching place to live. We have young professionals, new immigrants and long-time residents, new families and old, artists and CEOs all living alongside one another. We are a community. And affordability is critical to maintaining and fostering the diversity that makes our community great, ensuring that everyone who wants to live in Somerville can do so, and those who are already here can remain.
The challenge of creating new housing, increasing the supply of affordable housing, and preventing current residents from being overburdened by housing costs is a regional and national problem, of course. We cannot solve the problem on our own, but with the support of our partners at the state and federal levels, we take on our responsibilities at the local level to develop and maintain affordability in our city.
The statistics demand our attention. Over 40 percent of Somerville households faced a cost burden in 2010, meaning that they paid more than 30 percent of their household income toward housing costs. Cost burdens are particularly prevalent among low-income households. Nearly three out of four households earning below 80 percent of the area median income were cost burdened. Meanwhile more than 4,000 renters and 1,300 homeowners faced a ‘severe cost burden,’ having paid more than half of their household’s income toward housing costs.
The job market plays a significant part in this problem, of course, and the city is focusing on better preparing our residents for the job opportunities of the 21st century that we are attracting to Somerville. We will create even more jobs through our investments in infrastructure, in bringing the first new MBTA station in more than a quarter-century to Assembly Square, and seeing the Green Line Extension through to completion. The bottom line, however, is that the demand for affordable housing far outpaces the supply.
This is why our comprehensive 20-year SomerVision plans sets the goal of creating 6,000 new housing units, with 1,200 of those units permanently affordable. We are building new mixed-use neighborhoods, recapturing neighborhoods of the past and making sure that affordable housing is a part of it all. Voters wisely approved adopting the Community Preservation Act, which directly supports affordable housing in addition to open space and historic preservation with more than $1.5 million in estimated funds annually. Our inclusionary housing program mandates that any development with eight or more units must set aside 12.5 percent or more of the units as affordable, which has created 99 affordable rental and ownership units for low- and moderate-income households, like the 24 affordable rental units at Maxwell’s Green and 56 affordable rental units at Assembly Row that became available earlier this month.
The requirement is even higher in designated transit-oriented districts—up to 17.5 percent—such as Union Square. Somerville also has more than 50 affordable rental and homeownership units in the pipeline, and interested residents should contact the city’s Housing Division to learn about upcoming affordable housing opportunities. As development of market rate housing continues to ramp up, our inclusionary housing program guarantees that quality, affordable housing units are integrated into these new communities at no cost to the city.
Somerville also funds new affordable housing through federal HOME funds, and through our own Affordable Housing Trust Fund. One example is Saint Polycarp Village that, when complete, will create 84 units of affordable housing in Ten Hills, with a lottery for the final 31 units this fall. The city also recently helped fund the new Massachusetts Bay Veterans Center, creating 22 units of transitional housing and seven permanent affordable housing units for veterans, and the upcoming redevelopment of the MWRA building on Alewife Brook Parkway that will yield 25 new affordable units for seniors.
The city was also recently awarded a new Lead Hazard Reduction Demonstration grant by HUD. This creates affordable housing through rental restrictions, but also makes our housing stock safer for families, and the new grant will allow lead paint abatement in 120 housing units.
We can do more. Our Affordable Housing Trust Fund is supported by our housing linkage fee. That fee is assessed to new commercial development above 30,000 square feet. The Fund has assisted in the development of over 350 affordable housing units, assists first-time homebuyers annually through the Closing Cost Assistance program, assists renters annually through the Tenancy Stabilization program, and makes annual grants of roughly $55,000 to nonprofit housing assistance agencies.
I have asked the Board of Aldermen to raise the housing linkage fee from $3.91 to $5.15 and lower the threshold to 20,000 square feet. With Somerville on the cusp of seeing rapid new commercial development over the next decade, we can capitalize on this opportunity at a time when rents continue to outpace inflation. We can transform our community in the midst of an urban renaissance while still protecting the diversity that Somerville has always had and always will to make it a great place to live, work, play and raise a family.