By 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)
On March 4, the city, Somerville Community Corporation (SCC) and Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) will hold the third public forum on housing affordability in Somerville, to continue to strategize around a strong and effective housing agenda for the city. I hope you’ll attend, as there is plenty to talk about, like “Dimensions of Displacement,” the report that the MAPC produced with support from the city and SCC on potential gentrification along the Green Line Extension corridor.
The report reaches some conclusions that we probably could have guessed before, but now we have hard data to back it up—and a baseline by which to measure changes in the future. It also dispels some possible misconceptions about gentrification in Somerville. But one conclusion is clear—beyond what we must do as a community to address potential displacement of our people, there’s an urgent need for a regional approach to this issue.
The report lays out the challenges that the Green Line Extension will bring along with its enormous benefits to our city and residents. So while transit access and air quality will go up with the Green Line, the report projects that rents will also go up along the Green Line Extension corridor and residents could be displaced by this, as well as by condo conversions specifically around Gilman Square, Washington Street and Union Square. Property values are also expected to increase in areas within a half-mile walking distance of the new T-stops. But the report states that the expected increases in assessments will lead to little displacement risk for property owners because the increase is small relative to household income and ability to pay.
Lower-income households tend to be renters, not owners, though, so we need to look at strategies for how to protect them and how to maintain affordability for our working middle class. New condo construction—as opposed to condo conversions in existing multi-families that take rental units off the market—was cited in the report as a means to put downward pressure on both rents and property costs by increasing supply. That’s just one solution we are focused on. Another is bringing new commercial development to the city, which will help stabilize the tax base and relieve the burden on everyone.
Right now, the report didn’t find that certain groups are being pushed out. We’re not only already more diverse than the region as a whole, but Somerville has actually become more diverse in recent years. Higher income households are more likely to be moving out and not moving in—not lower income households—while Asian and black residents are arriving faster than they are leaving and our Hispanic, foreign-born and senior populations are fairly constant. But if we don’t act, that could change. Meanwhile, the report does show young families moving out at higher numbers than they are replaced, so we know we must address the need for family housing.
Now that the report gave us this detailed snapshot of where we are today, we will be better able to track changes and understand whether we’re seeing displacement of certain groups of people in our community. That means we can gauge the efficacy of the policies we already have in place, lead a more informed discussion about how to prevent that displacement, and enact the right future policies because we’ll know who exactly is being displaced.
Addressing potential displacement in Somerville means we have to create more growth in general along the lines of what we’ve proposed in SomerVision, which sets significant goals for housing and affordability. If we don’t, there will be increased pressure on our existing housing, and lower-income residents will probably be the first to bear that burden and be pushed out. We do not want to let that happen.
We have as robust a program as any city to address affordability and displacement. Our inclusionary zoning requires that affordable units be built alongside new units at rates far above the state’s benchmark. Our linkage fee and passage of the Community Preservation Act bring in funds that are used to build more affordable housing through our Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Beyond housing, we keep Somerville affordable by not charging families for scholastic sports and extracurricular programs, and offering free or very low cost programs through our schools, Recreation Department and libraries. And as I announced in my inaugural address, we’re pursuing the creation of a new affordable housing program specifically for working middle class families, and will create new fabrication and arts districts that will preserve artist and maker spaces and live-work buildings.
But beyond what we must do and are doing as a community to address this issue, other communities must also do their part. The rising cost of housing is not an issue that stops at our borders. The severe shortfall in new housing construction that is helping to drive housing costs up—Green Line or no Green Line—is a problem that is region wide.
The statistics are staggering. A recent study of the 55 largest U.S. cities found that 61 percent of Boston’s low-price neighborhoods gentrified between 2000 and 2007. That’s the highest total in the nation. A gap of 300,000 housing units between the demand for homes near transit over the next 20 years and the supply in the Greater Boston area was reported by a study by the transportation and community development nonprofit Reconnecting America. The MAPC report calculated the minimum need for regional housing growth—calling for 435,000 new homes by 2040. And most of those homes need to be multi-family units. We have already set a goal in our SomerVision plan to build 6,000 units in Somerville by 2020, which MAPC cites as the approximate number needed if our population trends remain steady. But we can’t build the whole 435,000 homes the region needs by ourselves.
Affordability is a major challenge we’re ready to embrace—and already have in many ways. We need other communities in the metro region to embrace that challenge with us. Every city and town in the region needs a real housing policy and higher thresholds for affordable housing. We’re collaborating with the MAPC and SCC on our housing roundtable series that concludes on March 4. That collaboration needs to expand beyond city borders. A collaborative, coordinated effort by all the cities and towns affected is the only real solution for real relief from the regional housing burden.