Smart commercial development keeps Somerville affordable

On December 19, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

mayor_webBy Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and  do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)

The Board of Aldermen took great steps this month toward keeping our community affordable and leveraging new development to enhance residents’ job and career opportunities. Three votes made this happen.

First, the Board voted to approve an increase of the housing linkage fee, which is a fee on new development used to support the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. That fund has already assisted in the development of over 350 affordable housing units, and it 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. Second, the Board also voted on two Home Rule Petitions to establish a linkage program for job creation and well as the establishment of a dedicated job creating and retention trust fund. These initiatives aim to provide residents with greater access to occupational skills training and other employment related services, preparing them for the expanded job opportunities that are part of our city’s future economy.

I put forward these proposals because the passage of the new housing linkage fee and creation of the jobs linkage program and trust fund are important steps for addressing affordability and opportunities for residents as Somerville sits on the cusp of a wave of commercial development. They are not the only steps we should take, but they make a critical contribution to our broader goals. If we build smart, high-density mixed-use and commercial development while staying true to the community’s values, codified in SomerVision, we can help keep Somerville affordable and open to all.

We’ve already seen how capitalizing on commercial development directly benefits our residents. This coming year brings with it a significant shift in the tax burden off residential property owners, a 3 percent decrease that’s more than three times the decrease in any previous year. More than two-thirds of the tax burden still rests on the backs of residents, while businesses contribute less than one-third. But that’s changing. By bringing in more commercial contributors that help pay the cost of our police officers, firefighters and teachers, of repaving our roads, improving our infrastructure and providing great parks and green space, we can continue to ease the tax burden on our residents and provide a better balance for residential and commercial property tax owners alike.

Our aldermen rightly pointed out that accompanying the great news about this shift in the tax burden is the news that assessed property values increased for most property types as well. They raised concerns about higher tax bills that could come in future years as those values increase. It’s important to remember that Somerville isn’t alone in facing this problem. Market forces are driving up real estate costs metrowide. The affordable housing shortage throughout the metro area has been well-documented, as has the fact that the Boston area ranks among the most expensive real estate markets in the country. And we know that we can’t build housing unit after housing unit and hope that solves the issue.

It’s also important to remember that Somerville’s increased values also indicate something positive: People want to live here. They see our investments in our neighborhoods and schools, the services that we offer, and see Somerville as a home, not a transitional place-between-places. So as our value grows, so does the risk of pricing out the diversity that our community deeply values. We could suppress property values by not investing in our schools, not building parks, letting crime increase and making our city less livable … but I doubt anyone would support that approach. So what can we do?

Smart, high-density mixed-use development that includes commercial space is the key to maintaining our affordability. As we’ve already seen, it shifts the tax burden off all residents and brings it into better balance. It brings in more business owners to pay for the cost of the services that make Somerville a great place to live, work, play and raise a family. On top of a range of housing created in mixed-use projects, including affordable units mandated by the city’s inclusionary housing program, making sure commercial development is part of the equation also brings more job opportunities—including high-quality jobs—to Somerville, so residents can work near where they live, reduce their commuting costs and have access to more high-quality jobs. We will connect Somerville workers with those jobs, too, through a contract with a local workforce development agency that will provide both job training and promote all opportunities for residents to have first access to local jobs.

Of course, we must manage the redevelopment within Somerville to ensure that we stay true to our community’s values and our collective vision for our community’s future. SomerVision isn’t just a colorful document to point to and say, “Here’s some wishful thinking. Wouldn’t this be great?” Every decision we make is based on the community consensus that is codified in SomerVision. Every decision. And it’s not the end—it’s not a one-time temperature taking. We’ll take those values and apply them to every project and proposal, and continue to have public processes every step of the way as our city evolves. We have enormous potential in our city, and commercial development is key in our efforts to keep Somerville affordable and open to all residents.


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