Somerville’s Affordable Housing Fight Challenges Progressive Values

By Matthew McLaughlin

​The Somerville Planning Board approved a controversial 500 unit luxury apartment complex in Assembly Row this past Thursday. The debate was whether Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) should respect the 20 percent affordable housing rate passed last year or be held to the previous standard of 12.5 percent. The Planning Board ultimately approved an unprecedented “compromise” that reduced the on site affordable rate to 6 percent and accepted a cash payout for housing segregated from Assembly that will now fall on the city to provide.

    ​The overwhelming majority of residents, aldermen and state representatives made their position clear: FRIT should be held to the same standard as every developer in the city. The city took a far more nuanced and contradictory stance. After the vote, Mayor Joe Curtatone claimed credit for a deal he previously said was not his job to make.

Hundreds of residents testified in support of more affordable housing. Through it all, the Mayor and his staff maintained a position of alleged neutrality. The planning staff issued no recommendation on the waiver, a very irregular move. Planning Director George Proakis said in his “neutral” opinion that several residents were in favor of the waiver. I requested all public testimony and discovered at the time of my request 14 comments supported the waiver while over 150 were against.

    ​The Planning Board met for a second time and FRIT pushed for a vote. I asked for a continuance, a common request for any development hearing, because information I requested that would challenge FRIT’s position was not provided and a key Planning Board member was not present. Proakis said the developer needs to ask for a continuance. FRIT refused until two Planning Board members said they would vote against the waiver if they were forced to vote that day, which would have denied the waiver. FRIT finally agreed to a continuance. FRIT had no intentions on compromising and the mayor’s deal came only after I postponed the vote.

    ​Local activism increased. Hundreds of phone calls and emails were made to the Mayor and the planning department. Activists canvassed neighborhoods, organized advocacy groups, and pressured the Mayor and his department to take a stance. They stayed silent.

    ​Two days before the pivotal Planning Board meeting, the Mayor’s staff presented a compromise they previously never admitted to negotiating. Activists were astonished that it would reduce guaranteed on-site affordable housing even lower than the 12.5 percent FRIT previously insisted on. They reduced the on site rate to 6 percent and proposed a questionable off site plan that goes against the principles the planning department regularly espouses. Many questioned how the $10.3 million payout would produce 49 off site units. No one scrutinized if FRIT is actually spending less than if they had to build at 12.5 percent, which seems highly probable.

Residents in attendance hoped the Planning Board would begin another round of public comment to address this radical change. They were denied this opportunity. In under an hour of deliberations with more speeches than questions, the Planning Board voted 4-1 in favor of the compromise.

    ​Finally, after everything was done, Mayor Curtatone took a public stand. He admitted to negotiating with FRIT and the planning staff on a compromise that no affordable housing activist, nor myself, the elected representative of Assembly Row, was involved in. He claimed credit for the very compromise he refused to acknowledge. A one party compromise is no compromise at all.  

Curtatone praised activists and said this alleged compromise would not have been possible if not for them. What he doesn’t get is it shouldn’t be so hard for struggling people to find justice. This decision reflects the city’s top down philosophy that prioritizes elites over the people. Mayor Curtatone ignored our calls, but answered FRIT’s, who have donated tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign. This deal was negotiated exclusively with FRIT and the deal reflects their needs and not the community’s.

Progressive leadership means consensus building and bottom up democracy. This philosophical difference is present in every development from Assembly Row to Union Square. Resident needs like affordable housing or a Community Benefits Agreement are prioritized after the needs of developers or completely ignored.  

    ​There are two silver linings. More families will be housed than if we did nothing, if the numbers are even accurate. We also mobilized hundreds of citizens to fight for a local cause with national implications. My only regret is we have to fight city hall instead of working together toward an affordable Somerville for everyone.

3 thoughts on “Somerville’s Affordable Housing Fight Challenges Progressive Values”

  1. So the Alderman voted to create the waiver for FRIT, then played politics with them asking for it. If he was so opposed to it, he had a chance to make his stand against it when they passed the 20% rule. Instead he kicked the ball to the planning board. This guy also seems to be against any development in the city. So it’s more like he’s trying to grab credit for being in favor of 20% of nothing. In this case it looks like his plan of screaming and yelling wasn’t going to win and he just acknowledged more families will get affordable housing because of the mayor cutting a deal.

  2. Thankfuly they didn’t listen to you when you said to make it all offices and sixty plus families wouldn’t get housing. Now thanks to you and your idiot friends only thirty units will be affordable. You shouldve kept your mouth shut and left it at 121/2% and there would be over sixty at assembly.

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