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.


13 Responses to “Smart commercial development keeps Somerville affordable”

  1. j. connelly says:

    Sure and if the mayor had not discriminated against Walmart coming to the city Beyonce would have been giving out $50.00 gift cards at a Somerville Walmart instead of Tewksbury today. Another bad judgement error by Joe’s Strategic Planning Division. Medford and Everett shine with the smart development choices they made while Somerville was delayed by the ripoff of listening to Mystic View, etc. Medford and Everett probably did more with less money and staffing with their planning divisions than the conglomerate our mayor created with the Curtatone Development Group at City Hall.

  2. Ron Newman says:

    The mayor wasn’t against Walmart (nor was he for it; he didn’t take any position on it). Walmart decided all on their own not to build in Somerville and Watertown.

  3. Let's be honest says:

    Affordable housing opportunities doesn’t make Somerville any “more affordable.” The guidelines to qualify for affordable housing are very low, not exactly poverty level, but not enough to raise a family on either.

    Middle class Somerville folks who go to work everyday and make an average living, not enough to get rich but not struggling either, can’t afford to buy a home in the city they grew up in anymore that’s just a fact.

    Affordable housing opportunities is just a way for the city government to create the illusion that Somerville is still middle class friendly. It’s not. To buy in Somerville you’ve either got to be very well off or make best to nothing. Look it up those are the facts.

  4. Philb says:

    Where do Medford and Everett “shine”?

    The only way to lower prices for everyone is to increase housing supply to lower the supply/demand equilibrium price. But every time a developer wants to build something dense people whine about it. Basement apartments would be another easy way to increase supply. You can’t have it both ways.

  5. Scooby Doo says:

    Yes, Everett truly is the gleaming city on the hill.

  6. gregtowne says:

    I love how the mayor talks about reducing tax rates by 3% less than a year many people saw their tax bills increase by 35%. Does he think we’re stupid?

  7. Jumbo says:

    Whe people want to live somewhere and the housing supply can just be magically increased, then prices go up and to buy or rent will be realtively expensive.

    “…can’t afford to buy a home in the city they grew up in anymore that’s just a fact….”

    Why do people think that they should be given a special cheap subsidized house becuase they happened to grow up somewhere? I just don’t get this thinking. I can’t afford to buy anything where I was born or grew up either. The fact is that many Somerville residents chose not to buy back in the day….and they missed the boat. Now they are crying about it and saying “where’s my subsidized house”….yeah, we should all pay market rates apart from you guys. Give me a break.

  8. Kara says:

    “Why do people think that they should be given a special cheap subsidized house becuase they happened to grow up somewhere? I just don’t get this thinking. I can’t afford to buy anything where I was born or grew up either. ”

    Totally agree.

    Seems like some legacy residents don’t get that most of us cannot afford the same things our parents could afford. It’s just the way the economy is now. My father made a career with one company. He had a pension and lots of great benefits. My uncles and great-aunt had fantastic retirement benefits, and some of them didn’t even graduate form high school. That era is far-gone, folks.

  9. Let's be honest says:

    Jumbo, if you paid any attention to the entire comment I wrote, I wasn’t asking for “my subsidized house” you bufoon. I was stating that affordable housing does not make somervile any more affordable, it simply provides opportunity to those who make far below average income while still not accommodating the middle class. Then again with your Tufts education I’m sure you understand that already.

    There are folks FROM Somerville who somehow manage to graduate college, even graduate school (imagine that) who now can’t afford to buy in the city. I suppose there will always be a social divide between Villen and Barney which you will never understand. Donkey.

  10. Matt C says:

    Lets Be Honest/Jumbo – I bought a home in somerville 8 years ago and I could not afford to buy the same house again today despite a solid job and good education. Tough luck to me if I wanted to do so today – no one is entitled to live where they want. I am sure there are many people who were raised in Somerville that are in the same boat.

    LBH the root of Jumbos comment is one of the main arguments raised for more affordable housing is “Someone who grew up here cannot afford to live here”. Its a stupid argument that wreaks of entitlement especially to someone who may have lived in the city for many years renting and wants to buy a home in the community they have grown to love.

    I didn’t read anything negative in what Jumbo wrote – only your statement that was intended to make it appear he had and then your us vs them, lets call people names statements that help us fondly remember when somerville was the car theft capital and home of the winter hill gang and all the good that has happened over the last 30 years.

  11. Edward Bangs says:

    Hi, While not actually smart development why doesn’t anybody in city government acknowledge a problem with Rte 93 between Stop and Shop and Charlestown line , southbound up to 6 lanes of traffic including off and on ramps result in noise and pollution but all the city can do is set up a phone number to complain about airplane noise , check it out only a chain link fence and homes just feet from highway, Rte 93 has a noise barrier for the Ten Hills section time for some assistance in the neighborhood which is between Assembly Sq and Lower Broadway which are both undergoing development

  12. amen says:

    nobody’s asking for a few home or an entitlement. I’m going to try to explain the issue, and then i’ll probably give up. What people are expressing is many people have put their heart and soul into making Somerville what it is today. They positioned it for the boom we see. Cleaning up neighborhoods, politics, working with little league, youth development, seniors, charities, and schools. Now we’ve been “developed” in an out of control manner, and these people can no longer live here. we once had a gang problem. People here banded together and made things happen. Losing these people is a real shame. That’s what we’re trying to get across. Is that clear?

  13. A,Moore says:

    Edward, we can solve that problem. Just relocate the mayor out of Ten Hills to where you want sound barriers.

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