“Sustainable Neighborhoods” plan to broaden and deepen Somerville’s affordability efforts includes 100-home strategy, expansion of inclusionary zoning, tax credits for benevolent landlords and increased SomerVision housing goals
SOMERVILLE –In the face of a regional
affordable housing crisis, the City of Somerville is expanding its already robust housing affordability efforts to create a comprehensive program that addresses affordability from all angles and across all needed income brackets, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone announced today.
Building off the promise he made in his inaugural address in January 2014 to protect people who have chosen to live in Somerville, Mayor Curtatone will present “Sustainable Neighborhoods,” an outline of the next steps to broaden and deepen the City’s efforts to maintain affordability for the people and families of Somerville, at the Board of Aldermen’s Housing and Community Development Committee meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 15 at 6 p.m. The meeting is open to the public.
On the heels of Somerville recently instituting the highest residential property tax exemption in Massachusetts at 35%, the Sustainable Neighborhoods initiative will start immediately with six actions to be proposed to the Board of Aldermen:
1. 100 Affordable Homes Strategy: The City will launch a program with the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC), backing the SCC’s ability to compete for existing properties available on the market that are currently being lost in some cases to speculators. The SCC would rehabilitate those homes and act as a benevolent owner and landlord, ensuring a diversity of units that are affordable to a range of incomes, with a goal of creating 100 new affordable rental units within the first three years of the initiative.
2. Comprehensive Zoning Reform: The comprehensive reform of the Somerville zoning code coming by the end of fall will include four key proposals:
a. Expanded Inclusionary Zoning: The City’s inclusionary zoning ordinance will be expanded to both increase the number of affordable units that must be created alongside market rate units, and broaden the reach of the ordinance to include workforce housing for middle income households.
b. Increase Family Housing in Larger Projects: To encourage affordability for family housing, the zoning code would require the creation of more multi-bedroom affordable units in larger building projects.
c. Spurring Development in Transformational Areas: Consistent with the City’s comprehensive SomerVision plan and smart growth principles proven to help stabilize housing prices, the proposed zoning code would make it easier to build housing and commercial development in transformational areas of the city such as Brickbottom-Inner Belt. That broadened approach will make it easier to address the supply-side issues around housing affordability and encourage investment in the creation of more homes.
d. Maker and Artist Districts. The new zoning code would establish a district for artists and fabrication, or “makers,” and within that district certified working artists/makers would be allowed to live in their work space.
3. Tax Credits for Benevolent Landlords: The City will pursue legislation at the state level that will allow the City to offer tax incentives to landlords who maintain rents at affordable levels.
4. Local Transfer Tax: Massachusetts has a real estate transfer tax, but municipalities currently do not have the ability to institute such a fee. The City will pursue legislation at the state level that would allow a local transfer tax on certain real estate sales where speculators are flipping properties and realizing large gains in a short period of time, with revenues raised by that fee dedicated solely toward the creation of more affordable housing.
5. Setting New SomerVision Goal: The City’s 20-year comprehensive plan calls for the creation of 6,000 new homes by 2030, with 1,200 of those homes permanently affordable. The City partnered with the SCC and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) on a report earlier this year on the effect of the Green Line Extension on housing in Somerville, and that report concluded that Somerville will need between 6,000 and 9,000 new homes. In light of that report, Mayor Curtatone is calling upon the SomerVision steering committee to reconvene and revise the plan’s housing goal from the minimum amount called for in the MAPC report to its maximum goal of 9,000 homes.
6. Innovative Affordable Housing Design Competition: In seeking innovative ways to create affordable housing in densely populated cities, the City will invite designers to be part of the solution and submit innovative design solutions for modern affordable family housing. This demonstration will tap a City-owned surplus property, providing a brick-and-mortar example of ways to build affordable family housing in cities.
Sustainable Neighborhoods Working Group to Target Housing Innovation
Those actions present only the initial steps of what will be a community-driven process. Somerville’s greatest successes have come from elected officials, City Hall staff and the talented members of the community collaborating on the development of a shared set of goals.
That process will be driven by a new Sustainable Neighborhoods Working Group that will represent experts in the field, stakeholders and advocates, industry professionals, City Planning and Housing staff, and residents, bringing together a variety of expertise and experience around the issue of affordable housing to recommend bold and innovative ways that the City can address affordability for families. Those approaches must protect and preserve the affordable housing already in the city, expand the City’s resources to create more, and broaden the initiative to include middle-income housing for working families, while recognizing that building more housing alone is not enough to control this systemic challenge.
Call for Regional Action
Mayor Curtatone has advocated for a regional approach to the housing crisis, citing the joint MAPC-Somerville-SCC report that the 101 cities and towns in the Metro Boston region need to create 435,000 new housing units by 2040 to accommodate retiring baby boomers and new workers, with most of those units needing to be multi-family homes and in urban areas.
In addition to the City’s new affordable housing initiatives, Mayor Curtatone is issuing a clarion call for every city and town in the region to institute real, comprehensive plans to produce their share of the homes that are needed over the next three decades, and to publicly pledge to do so within the next six months.
“Somerville has led the way on affordability. We have approved the highest residential property tax exemption in the Commonwealth, set aggressive inclusionary zoning requirements, and our community overwhelmingly passed the Community Preservation Act, which we plan to dedicate first and foremost to affordable housing. But Somerville cannot do this alone,” said Mayor Curtatone. “Even our best efforts will be for naught if other communities do not meet their own obligations to create more housing and embrace smart growth principles. We have seen bits and pieces done throughout the region, but each city and town needs a comprehensive approach that cumulatively will bring the impact we need region wide. Boston is now releasing recommendations to tackle affordability, which is encouraging, but we need broad, regional collaboration by all metro area cities and we need a clear commitment to that today.”
Building Upon Current Affordability Programs
Somerville has a wide variety of affordability programs already in place, including its community-driven SomerVision plan, inclusionary zoning policy, residential property tax exemption and the Community Preservation Act. The City also creates affordable rental units through its housing rehabilitation and de-leading programs, and assists first-time homebuyers through closing cost and down payment assistance programs. Additional programs assist with heating system replacement for income eligible homeowners and support housing for those at-risk of becoming homeless. The City’s linkage fee on commercial construction also generates funding for the creation of more affordable units, the Tenancy Stabilization Program, and housing grants that serve the needs of low and moderate income households. The Board of Aldermen voted in the past year to increase the linkage fee to generate an estimated additional $1 million for the City’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
“Everything we’ve done over the past decade has been about building community, from making our city more walkable and bikeable, to bringing more jobs, services and homes to our neighborhoods through smart economic development, but all of these efforts must start with affordability,” said Mayor Curtatone. “Our current efforts are wide-ranging, but still too limited in scope for the regional challenge we face. It’s not a problem for only lower-income households, but for middle-income households. And even today there are members of our community for whom affordable housing dedicated to lower income households remains out of reach. A true community looks out for its neighbors. In my inaugural, I said that over the past decade, I have learned I’m never alone when I’m fighting for the people of this community. And I know that we are not alone today. This is a monumental task. We are taking on an issue that no city, anywhere, has ever completely solved. But we are united, and therein lies all the difference.”
“Not only is Somerville a tremendously desirable place to live, but we are experiencing the extraordinary housing market pressure of Boston and surrounding urban areas,” said Ward 5 Alderman Mark Niedergang, Chair of the Housing and Community Development Committee. “Ironically, Somerville’s success over the past decade in advocating for the Assembly Orange Line Station and the Green Line Extension and making our city an exciting, dynamic place heightens the affordable housing challenge we face. We must accelerate our efforts to build more affordable housing, to keep people and families in our City who have contributed to our community, and to maintain the diversity that we cherish.”
“The City has been a great partner with SCC over the years in trying to maintain the economic diversity that makes Somerville such a terrific place to raise a family today,” said SCC Executive Director Danny LeBlanc. “We’re at a tipping point, both in Somerville and in the region. The Green Line Extension we have fought for is coming, as is a wave of new development, and we need a robust plan for affordable housing so that residents of all income levels can stay here and we can sustain a Somerville for everyone.”
“As President of the Board of Aldermen I welcome the comprehensive proposal put forward by the Mayor,” said Board of Alderman President Bill White. “This proposal appears to address concerns expressed by me in my inaugural speech this year and by the entire Board of Aldermen. I look forward to the Board’s thorough review of these proposals and the input of our residents.”