Addressing housing and affordability in 2018 and beyond

On January 4, 2018, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By Joseph A. Curtatone

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

During Mayor Joseph Curtatone’s inaugural address on January 1, 2018, he discussed some of the successes and challenges Somerville faced in 2017 – as well as areas of work the City is prioritizing this year, including affordability, which is perhaps the City’s greatest challenge. The excerpt below offers a glimpse into how the City plans to work with the community to tackle affordability in the coming year. To read the entirety of Mayor Curtatone’s speech and learn more about other upcoming and ongoing initiatives like universal pre-k, the climate change action plan, and how Somerville plans to fight for net neutrality, visit

For our part, my administration has ten targeted initiatives we’re ready to bring forward. They are neither our first efforts on affordability, nor will they be the last. Some of these ideas come straight from you. Others we’ve borrowed from cities that have shown they can work. Some we’ve been discussing in the community for some time, and others are brand new. With them, we’re looking to push the envelope as much as humanly possible. I look forward to working with all of you and the Board to refine and advance them swiftly – just as I look forward to the other ideas and proposals that will come from the community and the Board, as well.

  1. We will create an Office of Housing Stability dedicated to helping our most vulnerable residents stay in our community. When our residents need help navigating housing programs or the complex housing market, we must be there for them.
  2. We will seek a home rule petition for a Transfer Charge on real estate speculation, which could net us millions of dollars a year to pursue new affordable housing projects.
  3. We will establish a community-based, independent Housing Land Trust that can buy property and declare it permanently affordable. This will give us a vital tool to fight back against runaway market forces.
  4. We will file a stronger Condo Conversion Ordinance because the current legislation does not empower us to protect tenants the way they should be.
  5. We went out and just got a $2M grant for our Lead Paint Removal Program and let me tell you why this matters for housing. We must ensure that more landlords can make units safe for families with children, so that more families will be able to stay here. We will be aggressively re-launching this program to do just that.
  6. This month, we will submit the new Comprehensive Zoning Code to the Board that our community has worked so hard to develop. We have been refining the proposal for years, and we have a progressive plan to foster open space, affordable housing, our vitally important artist/maker community, and more. It all starts with better zoning that helps us achieve the things we stand for.
  7. We will establish an emergency rent stabilization program to fight displacement of our low- and moderate-income residents.
  8. We will seek sensible regulations around home sharing, like Airbnb, with a mind to affordability. This issue cuts both ways. Some rely on home-sharing to help make their rent or mortgage, but speculators are also buying up multi-families for this, which takes homes off the market. We must find a balance.
  9. I am calling for a DIF for affordable housing to create more units to meet community needs. This is uncharted territory. No other city in the State has done it. But we are determined to find a way.
  10. We will submit Home Rule legislation to establish a Right-to-Purchase program for tenants. If we want to help people stay in their homes while respecting the right of landlords to sell, it makes all the sense in the world to support the ability of tenants to be the ones who buy.

We also need to remember that affordability extends beyond housing. When we can help our residents reduce other expenses and seize new opportunities, we can give them more pathways to afford the rent or mortgage. Somerville will be the first city with an integrated strategy on affordability. We must recognize that factors such as transportation, wage inequality, job training, healthcare access, and more, affect whether our residents have a real opportunity to live here. Alongside this Board, I look forward to addressing affordability holistically and from a systems approach by tackling needs ranging from job training and food access to energy efficiency. But we have to work together and be for solutions to make it happen.

…There’s not going to be a single, shining moment where we can claim to have the problem solved. There’s not going to be a single policy or a program that fixes it all. We are going to have to listen to each other and work together.

We all own this. Just as we all own Somerville’s future on so many fronts. Oddly enough, I’m more excited heading into my eighth term than I was for my first. As a public servant I don’t like anything better than getting things done…and we have promises to keep and solutions to fight for.

It falls on all of us to stand and deliver. I have every confidence we will.


7 Responses to “Addressing housing and affordability in 2018 and beyond”

  1. Matt C says:

    Many of these are great ideas, however we need to take a moment and accept a few things.

    The availability of housing accessible to the “average” family in the city – e.g. a household making 60-90k/yr is nil. That ship sailed over 5 years ago and much like coal jobs, not coming back.

    Affordability is a regional issue, nothing Somerville does can have a dent in it, we are 4 miles sq., and while we must do our part – we cannot and should not try to bear the burden for the whole region.

    Lead Paint – What guarantee do we have that our investment in private homes/business will improve access for families to housing. Is this attached to some sort of requirement to rent to a family? (at a discount or market?) To me, this sounds like a handout to developers and wealthy landlords with multiple properties around the city.

    Honestly – I don’t want to pay more in taxes so we can go above and beyond while other cites like Medford, and Arlington do nothing.

  2. BMac says:

    Despite the fact that several other cities have consulted with our planning department and already passed most of these zoning changes with out there being any issues our board seems to think it will somehow strip them of power and refused to consider it several times so far.

    Will see if the new Aldermen are really more progressive.

  3. Tom Stambaugh says:

    No matter how much we say we want affordable housing, it’s just not going to happen in a town where a 100 year-old 2-family costs more than a million — which is most of Somerville.

    The numbers aren’t hard, and they tell the story. A 20% down payment on a $1M home leaves a mortgage of $800,000. That’s a monthly PI of $3,793 at current rates. Add another $750 for taxes and insurance, and the owner is at $4,550 before ANY water, maintenance or upkeep. That 2-family typically has (legally) 2 BR up and 2 BR down. Given the age of our housing stock (or the price of a construction loan to update it), the owner needs to get $6,000 to break even.

    That’s $3,000 for a 2-BR apartment. I don’t know what “affordable” means, but I don’t see any realistic way to keep apartment rentals much below that whatever we do.

  4. BMac says:

    “That’s $3,000 for a 2-BR apartment. I don’t know what “affordable” means, but I don’t see any realistic way to keep apartment rentals much below that whatever we do.”

    Yeah, if you look at what “affordable” is all the new construction it will at best help keep a few house holds that are in the $80k and up range live here.

  5. Matt C says:

    BMac, I think there are a lot of households here making less than $80k, they just moved here 1-15 years ago when you could still get a single family for 300k

  6. BMac says:

    Matt C, true, I was mostly talking renters who have to move due to sale of house or increase in rent etc but want to stay in the city.

  7. Joe Beckmann says:

    The central error in almost all these notes, and the elision in the Mayor’s speech, is that rental properties will never be affordable without rent control, and rent control will never come back. That means that the ONLY way to deliver affordability over time is through purchase and ownership, and there are many ways to accomplish that which are both affordable and stabilizing.

    First, recognize that rental agreements are always subject to inflationary pricing, as, as the metro area increases the work of it’s industries (from a closed Ford Plant in Assembly Square to a dynamic Kendall Square today), there’s no prospect of rents stabilizing.

    Second, recognize that ownership need not ALWAYS presume even a downpayment. In Chicago, for example, the Housing Authority awards equity to Section 8 tenants for help in maintaining their buildings. In Roxbury, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative can control pricing since they own the land (as the Mayor’s Land Trust model implies). There are plenty of ways for a creative housing policy to create ownership options.

    Third, realize that almost any equity option (from limited, to shared, to transitional) also offers long term retirement funding by growing through payments. A corollary of that growth is that the first few years also include a substantial interest fee tax deduction (often thousands per year, even under Trump) that makes those years which are most vulnerable to income instability the least risky to own.

    With those kinds of options “on the table” there are plenty of ways to make an apartment affordable that cost considerably less than that $3 to 4,000 monthly bill. Those charges are pegged by landlords whose interest is ONLY in income, while most 2 and 3 family building owners in this city also want a neighbor, a family member, a caregiver, a business partner on whom they can rely. That is both easier and cheaper to both partners, since the primary owner does not have to upgrade everything to the top of “the market,” and the new owner has to get off his (or her) ass to help.

    The real gap in the Mayor’s speech, incidentally, is that a Land Trust works fine for areas where there’s open space, but, at 4.2 square miles with 80,000 (and formerly 110,000) residents, Somerville’s already very crowded. A Land Trust can – as he implies – generate more than just housing, but that’s unusual. More likely will be a “Community Investment Trust” that covers anything from housing to job development to net neutral fiber optic. And that “coverage” is best achieved through loan guarantees rather than direct loans, since such guarantees can reduce or eliminate downpayment requirements and protect mortgages and other loans at the actual cost of about 10% in the first few years of any loan. Such a guarantee is even easier with limited equity low cost mortgages, since the Trust would also have a backlog of eligible buyers should any current owner get “caught” with too little income to cover their mortgage. And the Investment Trust would grow every year anyway, so that eventually it would no longer need the transfer fee.

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