Somerville Planning Board Approves New Phase of Housing in Assembly Square by Mayor Joe Curtatone

By Joe Curtatone 

this past week the Planning Board approved a new phase of housing in Assembly Square that ultimately should net the city 80-93 affordable housing units.It was a contentious issue and I appreciate that some people are raw about an outcome that wasn’t 100% of what they went in demanding, but I will submit that the public pressure on this application helped achieve a positive result.
The crux of the issue was whether Federal Realty would build its new block with 12.5% of the 500 units being affordable (63), as had been our standard when we signed the agreements on Assembly Row six years ago, or at 20% (100 affordable units) per the City’s new inclusionary zoning ordinance that we passed last year. The argument for the 20% was pretty straightforward: we need more affordable housing and Federal Realty stands to make a good chunk of money off this project.
The argument for the waiver is a bit more complicated: we unilaterally changed the terms and conditions around which the original deal was struck, and Federal Realty has shown good faith in the past (e.g. providing the funds to build the new Assembly Orange Line station and building a new waterfront park). Also, when we made the change to 20% last year, we added bonus units for new developers to make it possible to pay for more affordable units. Because of Federal’s state permits, it can’t add units and take advantage of these bonuses, while every other developer in the City can. That is the reason that the zoning ordinance allowed Federal Realty (and only Federal Realty, the only entity in the City in the middle of a decade-long project) to request a waiver to build under the old rules.
The Planning Board, which had to decide the matter, faced an all-or-nothing choice. While it wasn’t appropriate for me to lobby the board regarding its decision, the avenue open to me as mayor was to put a better alternative on the table. The fundamental problem with denying Federal Realty’s waiver request on affordable housing that, at 20%, the project would not have been competitive for Federal to build in 2017. A national development company like Federal can choose to invest in more lucrative projects, leaving this one to wait. 
That’s not a threat from them, it’s just a business decision. Meanwhile, no affordable housing is being built, the City isn’t receiving the fees for the building permits ($3.5 million), no taxes are being collected on the new housing and the new residents aren’t spending their money in our local businesses.
The best case scenario for advocates of the 20% seemed to be a hollow victory, a paper decision but not actual new housing. Meanwhile there was a strong possibility that Planning Board would grant the 12.5% waiver. That didn’t sit right with me. We needed a tangible victory that maximized the amount of affordable housing we could get associated with this project.
So I had our planning staff crunch the numbers and what we determined is that, by leveraging the city’s 100 Homes program, we could use some of the Federal Realty money to significantly increase the amount of affordable housing. We verified the figures with the Somerville Community Corporation, which is our community partner in the 100 Homes program, and asked Federal Realty if it was amenable to the idea.
The agreement we struck will build half of the new affordable units in the original waiver (6.25% or 31 units) on-site in Assembly Square. The value of the other half will be put toward acquiring housing to be converted into affordable units in our existing residential neighborhoods. In the past, we’ve been reluctant to take money instead of on-site units, because we worried about how to convert that money effectively into additional development. Now, with the 100 Homes program, this money (over $10 million) means new affordable housing in places like East Somerville and Magoun Square and Teele Square. Our estimate is we can increase the total to at least 80 affordable units, or 16%, and potentially 93 units (18.5%) or more. That’s far more than the 63 units at 12.5% or the 0 units had this project not gotten built.
I understand we live in polarized times and that there’s a ton of cost pressure in our housing market. If I could waive a magic wand and build 450,000 housing units in greater Boston to meet the pent up demand, I’d do it. If I could make the Federal Government commit to housing those most in need (as they stopped doing decades ago), I would do that. Yet I don’t have that power. What I can do is try to help the most people I can as often as I can. We are going to get more people into affordable housing in Somerville as a result of this agreement. Risking the roughly 90 units we will be able to offer would have been haphazard, and dozens of families would have been adversely impacted.
In government, we don’t always get exactly what we wanted or what we originally planned. When Ikea pulled out of Assembly Square we figured out how to get the infrastructure built and ultimately the biggest employer in New England, Partners Health Care, built its headquarters there, where it now employs more than 4,000 people. When the Green Line extension ran into cost overruns, we made sure a scaled-down version still met our needs and now it’s moving toward the major construction phase.
We have to be creative and we have to be willing to work with people. In the case of building affordable housing we have to be willing to work with developers, because that’s who will be doing the actual construction. If we have an antagonistic and unpredictable development climate, we stand to get 20% of nothing.
I want to end by thanking the people who came out and advocated for more affordable housing. We need that kind of passion and involvement on every local issue, and it made a difference in this case. People called for something better and we burned the midnight oil trying to deliver it. This was a complex issue and we found a way to help significantly more families in our community. Good intentions are great. Good deeds are better.
We – and when I say we I mean everybody from the community advocates to Federal Realty to the staff at city hall – managed to do some good deeds here. Real people are going to get real help. It may not be perfect, but it’s good. Nobody gets to die perfect, but when I go I want people to say I did a lot of good. We did some good here, and it might be a model we can use in the future to do even better.

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