Housing: A Common Challenge In Need of a Collaborative Solution

By Representative Christine P. Barber

Signs of the housing crisis in our communities of Somerville and Medford are everywhere. Most of us know a family who has been displaced due to high rents and moved to another community, or we ourselves are unable to afford rent or buy the type of housing we need. Housing near good jobs and transportation is getting more and more out of reach for middle-income families. And for people with low-incomes or disabilities, it can be nearly impossible to find appropriate housing.

Housing access and affordability are issues that I hear most consistently as a burden to families’ wallets and minds. It’s a common thread, one that impacts all types of people–families with children, seniors, people with disabilities, young people, and others.

But what is being done to address housing affordability?

Somerville and Medford are taking bold action, including passing transfer fee legislation (Somerville) that would charge 1% of the sale of a home for people who are not owner-occupants, and raising the inclusionary zoning percentage (Medford) to up to 15% to ensure that new developments include a proportion of affordable units. Changes like these are critical steps to address our housing challenges locally.

But Somerville and Medford can’t tackle this massive challenge alone. The entire region needs to take action to address the housing crisis. We need a statewide approach.

As a member of the Joint Committee on Housing in the State House, I am working with colleagues in the House and Senate to put forward needed updates to our state housing rules. One is the Governor’s “Housing Choices” plan, which takes only one small steps toward a housing solution by making it easier for communities to make local zoning changes. We need a broader solution, and there are a few bills that I sponsored that take bolder steps to help individuals and families secure affordable and accessible housing:

• Incentivizing Multi-family Housing: In many communities, local planning barriers to building any multi-family housing have made the areas off-limits to working families and those with low- and moderate incomes. I introduced a bill that would create housing for people with a range of incomes by requiring at least one district where multifamily housing can be built in cities and towns that have public transit access like subways, buses and commuter rails.
• Banning “Exclusionary” Zoning: I filed a bill that would update state fair housing and civil rights laws to add protections for affordable housing, and make it illegal for communities to make housing decisions that discriminate against new affordable housing. Many communities find ways to limit affordable housing purely because it’s serving people with low-incomes.
• Accessory Dwelling Units: The affordability crisis is particularly severe for people with disabilities, who have more limited options due to accessibility needs. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are independent living spaces built as part of or directly adjacent to single-family homes. I filed a bill to allow ADUs, a good option for elders and people with disabilities to have their own accessible space but live near others to provide support and care.
• Updating our Accessibility Requirements: Working with local advocates, I filed a bill to ensure that people with disabilities have options for accessible housing. This bill would align our state building codes with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and close loopholes that create barriers to housing and employment for people with disabilities in Massachusetts.

I am working to move each of these bills through the legislative process quickly, because I know that time cannot be wasted. Every day, families are struggling to find housing or to stay in their homes. Families are being forced to choose between housing and medication, housing and food, or housing and school supplies. I believe that these bills are integral parts of the statewide solution, and I hope that you will join me in supporting them.

22 thoughts on “Housing: A Common Challenge In Need of a Collaborative Solution”

  1. I would like Ms. Barber to comment on the following:
    Housing: Somerville is, and likely always will be, a transient city. Due to the makeup of renters predominantly being younger, they tend to pass through, and settle long-term in other communities. I would say, and think you would disagree, that more affordable housing is needed for ALL – not simply low income affordable. Yet average-income renters are wholly under- if not un-represented concerning this measure of eliminating RB zoning.
    See attached. In RB zoning, by public record, there are 394 Two Families with lot sizes of 4500 sf and up.
    In RB zoning, there are 189 Single Families with lot sizes of 4500 and up. By conservative estimate, that could be literally 500 ready to build rental units the City is forfeiting. Also forfeited, permitting fees, higher tax assessments and higher tax revenue. A housing unit built onto a presently owned property is by far a more affordable unit. Having to factor in an upfront acquisition cost, and the cost of all new construction creates a one-bedroom unit with a market rent of $2300 (corner of Temple & Broadway). If the City recognizes its residents ALL need more affordable housing – why then is the City only increasing density along corridors. By adopting this approach, the City is guaranteeing highly expensive rental units, contrary to the ideology of creating affordable housing.
    The City conversely should be encouraging small property owners to build on an additional housing unit, in some cases, two additional units. Homeowners could be incentivized by offering low interest loans. Adding hundreds of housing units would be beneficial to the majority of renters. The SCC is purchasing multi-families and earmarking those units as permanently affordable. Putting more pressure on the rental market for the average renter, while eliminating those hundreds of units that could be built more affordably in RB zoning. With overburden regulations restricting roof lines and footprints – the City prohibits building additional square footage. Yet additional square footage is what is needed to ease the demand. By the zoning restrictions the City is endorsing two end results which housing advocates do not support: 1) the subdivision of larger units into 2 separate units; or 2) no additional unit will be built at all. ‘Accessory’ units will likely be a unicorn, i.e. never to be built – unless a homeowner has a very specific personal need, say, for a family member. An ‘accessory’ unit is not saleable as an affordable first homeowner opportunity. Condos, whether you agree or don’t agree with condo development, represent first time homeowner opportunity, and sell well (or they wouldn’t’ be being built in the first place). Who are we to say condo conversions are undesirable? Condo conversions have inarguably improved the condition of our housing stock and generated more revenue in permitting fees and permanent tax revenues.

    To address the 3 concerns expressed in opposition to more multi-family development:
    Density. IMO this concern is entirely unfounded. Renters are flocking to Somerville, always have, and likely always will. Going back to the profile of our renters, they tend to be younger, roommates, or couples, few with children, very active social lifestyle. They love the ‘urban vibe’ of Somerville. How can we legitimize density being a problem? Seriously?! If Somerville wasn’t dense, with its many squares, entertainment, dining establishments, pubs etc., Somerville wouldn’t be as popular as it is, and there wouldn’t be the demand for rentals!

    Parking. IMO this needs to be given an honest assessment and perspective. Before permit parking, it was impossible to find a parking spot without circling the block endlessly. Every student had a car parked on our streets. Once permit parking was instituted, thousands of cars came off our streets because once cars had to be registered here, students couldn’t afford our high insurance rates. Now we have bike rentals. We have zipcar rentals. We have uber and lyft widely used by renters. If that’s not enough of a difference, add to those transportation means, the new Green Line stations!!! All add up to fewer and fewer automobiles in Somerville. People in general have fewer cars than ever before. Parking as an issue has been radically diminished, especially if any of you remember Somerville before permit parking.

    Out-of-Character. Didn’t the MIT study show that RA and RB were almost identical? My 2-family probably could be considered ‘out-of-character’ for the number of 3 units in the neighborhood. Plus at least 3 6-units within a block or two. The iconic triple decker served the city well, and was a valuable asset for both renters, and now first-tine condo buyers.

    This current rezoning proposal is counterintuitive. Renters are the majority of people living in the City. All renters need more affordable housing. If your purpose is to serve your constituents, then shouldn’t you be adopting rezoning that serves the best interest of renter by creating, not prohibiting the creation, of additional housing units?

    1. Just a correction, we have more vehicles in Somerville now. Excise records show we have several more thousand vehicles here now..Even since permit parking. Otherwise I agree with the rest Lynne.

      1. I’d like to see this parking data myself. Where do I find it? My tenants have fewer vehicles than ever before. Where one property had 6 vehicles, there are now just 4. With Uber/Lyft, Zipcars, bike rentals, and more subway access coming, the trend is/will be towards fewer vehicles.

        1. Somerville excise records. We are up around 8000 more vehicles in the last 10 years. It’s not easy to figure as my house is dependent on having our own vehicles as we are not so able bodied. With many older people still on my street they are also dependent on vehicles for whatever they need to do. We have 5 vehicles now in our house and most on our street have at least 4 or more. I can only assume once it changes to a younger crowd that may change. For the moment here that is a parking problem which some of us resolved by hot topping our yards just to get by otherwise we would not be able to have visitors. Since I know many other older people in Somerville they also are car dependent. But I can only go by the group of people I associate with for that information.

          1. Somerville is primarily younger people-like my tenants who don’t own 2 vehicles per household. Before permit parking took vehicles off the city streets, we’d drive around the block trying to get a parking space. Its def not like that now. My tenant is always parked within one block. How do you get access to excise tax records? I hope you don’t have a single or 2family in RB zoning. The condo ordinance is small potatoes compared to the downzoning of RB properties with a decent lot size. Now a buyer or developer will only get 2 saleable units, not three, and will pay potentially hundreds of thousands less to buy your property.

  2. I agree with you Lynne everything that has been voted on by this City Council has not helped the working families struggling to live in this city.

    The transfer tax, the taxes, the proposed water and sewer increases that will come after the election, the over restrictive condo ordinance, the excessive bonding / spending some of the zoning changes.

    The reality is the present homeowners are leaving as a result. When these cost are passed onto the homeowners they have to be paid. Unfortunately rents are raised. For some its time to sell and go somewhere more affordable.

    There is also a demand to live here due to the high paying jobs in the Boston Area. With that demand the worker looks for something they can afford and that is high end living.

    Many own cars but uber, many thrive in the new night live at Assembly and other locations. What they will be remind especially if they live in condos their taxes were not increased this time around. I wonder why???

    Does the representative know how many families live in a home that are related and cannot afford the constant increases,? How many older folks are struggling because of income levels?

    After attending the Transfer Tax hearing the one common denominator in the building is we need to raise more funds. Every community is looking for added revenue including the Governor with his stamp tax proposal.

    Money is not just the answer and never will be. There is no crisis its bad decisions and some too late.

    1. It would have been nice to have a representative that came from this area and knew our needs rather than some out of towner who has not been here long enough to know the local scene. Of course that does not mean we would actually still get a good representative

    2. Totally agree. I am nearly 75 and was born and raised in Somerville and my family and now myself have owned and rented an older 3 family house for over 60 years. We have always treated our tenants fairly with rents lower than Somerville standards because they are good tenants. One family has been there by over 30 years. With the new condo conversion “penalties” being initiated, my family stands to lose a small fortune in potential market value given the new guidelines. I am now becoming a small landlord being punished financially in order to be forced to do what I have always done, ie looking out for my tenants.

      My only rational resort is to keep my property that I already intended to keep, but because I have to rather than than because I want to. As a result, I will have to hit my tenants with a large rent increase just for me to survive financially. I still love the city but are ashamed by the delusional and/or dishonest people making the city’s laws. If current rent control plans take also pass, that will probably be the nail in the coffin that forces me out and puts tenants on the street rather than helping them. Shame on Somerville

  3. A.M very true but the Dems are very good with their bullshit when they come calling at your door. They sell you a bill of goods but work on their progressive socialist values.

    They will realize some day the price for giveaways cannot meet the needs of their agenda and the party is over. You will have no middle class.

    They will move on and some more logical people will come along to want to truly serve the needs of this community.

    Stay calm and be sure they hear you loud and clear.

  4. I am a landlord and have been providing affordable rentals for my tenants for 30 years. I have one tenant for 15 years, and another for 12 years – these apartments were initially rented below market and had no rent increase for the first 8 years. I absorbed the increased costs of water, taxes and insurance. I appreciate it’s costly to live here and purposefully kept my rents affordable. Now I am getting kicked in the teeth by the City. By downzoning my property from RB to NR, the City is stealing HUGE market value by taking away a 3rd unit that could be built – reducing the value of my real estate (my retirement asset!). Though my real estate has a significantly diminshed value, there is no lowering of assessment or taxes! I regret now not increasing my rents each and every year. Furthermore, as the City becomes more hostile to small property owners, more people will get fed up and sell. Each time a property is sold, the new buyer has a new mortgage and a big mortgage payment. Rather than having an owner like myself who bought a long time ago and can provide affordable housing, a new owner has to pay that mortgage aligned with that current purchase price. That property gets converted to condos, eliminating 2 or 3 rental units. The City is buying property via SCC to earmark affordable. By reducing the value of privately held real estate, SCC’s money (planned to come from the transfer tax) can go alot further. So the little people who bought with certain given rights, now get screwed over. If the City wants to deter development, then why are they hurting long time small property owners like myself? Who doesn’t rely on their property as a big part of their retirement? Small property owner provide the majority of rental apartments. Drive us out of town, eliminate those units that SCC buys up and removes from the general rental pool, downzone and eliminate 100’s of units that could be built right now in RB, and rental rates will escalate quickly. You think it was bad before. Just wait. And you can thank the City Council and the Mayor. Small property owners are not being represented. Renters are not being represented. The City is misguided in its approach, or, perhaps, purposeful because when we never had these initiatives before…. suddenly we have transfer tax, rezoning, condo ordinance, tenants 1st right of refusal WITH RIGHT TO ASSIGN to the CITY!!! You’ve heard the expression crazy like a fox? The right to assign gives the City the ability to purchase at bargain basement prices. Owners will not have the opportunity to sell on the open market if that passes. But all these initiatives work hand in glove – to the benefit of one entity. The City. The hostile environment towards property owners will lower prices for sellers, and raise prices for rentals. Its a lose-lose proposition for all, but SCC and the City.

  5. We need more housing units. Allow people to build in their yards. Lynne makes sense.

    Allow micro apartments and granny flats.

    Allow people to convert the big houses into 2 or 3 units. Allow basements to become rentals. It will increase the prop taxes to the city and then there will be no need for any transfer tax idea.

    I am totally against any transfer tax. Its a tax on a very small group who will already be paying capital gains taxes.

    If the city wants to keep rents down it starts with keeping property taxes, and water and sewer prices down. As the cities increase operating costs those costs are passed along in higher rents and property prices which hurts the middle class the most. If the majority is going to elect people who continue to increase spending the operating expenses will increase, followed by rent increases. That should be obvious.

    This is not only a local issue, its also a state issue. 40B zoning is not happening with 90 percent of the 351 communities. Our state reps should be mentioning this at the state house.

    Of new affordable housing that is added 30 percent of the units will go to people outside of the city.

    If the OP wants to keep the prices more affordable I suggest that the politicians work with the landlords and managers of more than 20 years so they can get a basic understanding of why the rents have increased. There are long time property managers and landlords who have the knowledge.

    To me transfer taxes and condo conversion laws are going to increase the prices. This will result in fewer middle class residents.

    Everyone does NOT have to live in the city. There is life outside of the city that has parking and trees and open space.

  6. I have no idea on what the actual number is but we do have a number of empty apartments here as some of us do want to deal with tenants. My house was going to be my retirement but due to how the city is now I will be selling and moving out. Keeping the apartment empty for 7 years will get me by the capital gains as I can sell my 2 family as a single. 70 years here and most were good years expect for the last 10 years or so which made out decision for us. I don’t see any real affordable housing happening here. A big project starts out that way but the amount of units decreases by the end of the construction. I see quite a number of empty apartments up for rent and not moving now. Maybe the rent is too high or something else. Not an expert on this. Just going by what I see. Transportation is horrid here also. I have tried to use it for doctor appointments in town but not being able bodied anymore it is too dangerous. And lots of my elderly friends are also looking to make their move out of the city for pretty much the same reason.

    1. I’ve heard of many seniors keeping apartments empty also. When the city talks affordable, almost without exception, they and housing advocates are focused only on low income affordable. While everyone needs more affordable housing, as usual, the middle class is ignored. The city is upzoning only by subways and main corridors. This approach virtually guarantees new construction – with upfront acquisition cost – in other words the most expensive housing with rents 2500 and up. As property owners sell and move out, those middle class affordable rentals, such as mine, will be rehabbed and become high ticket rentals. If the City truly wants to promote affordable for all they would not pass the NR zoning, and work with property owners to incentivize current property owners to build on those units that can be created and created affordably. A unit added onto a property already owned is the best and only way to create a more affordable rental unit versus pricey new construction. When there is a housing crisis, the city in passing the new proposed zoning, is voluntarily forfeiting hundreds of units and exacerbating the inequity of supply/demand. The restrictions on ADUs are little to no help because the regulations are so restrictive, they won’t be built or if built, won’t add additional living space which is so badly needed (not just dividing up existing space which the city claims it doesn’t want, yet exactly what is promoted). An ADU also cannot be sold as a first time ownership opportunity.

  7. the politicians have pitted housing providers against tenants. I cannot seem to find one politician who owns and rents to middle income people. Yet them make rules when they are not a part of it.
    One would think that they would want to work with the small landlords who in some cases are renting their places below the market.

    1. I am also a small rental home owner in Somerville that stands to lose substantial equity due to the city’s new condo guidelines and even rental income if the city gets it’s way for rent control. These reckless new rules in the name of tenant rights protection will eventually drive the remaining rental home owners that already look out for their tenants. I love the city but resent the out of control individuals running the city into the ground and will eventually drive decent homeowners out of the city and actually hurt the renters that they pretend to care about. Shame on the city of Somerville.

  8. All this because we no longer have anyone representing us. We vote(hire) them in to work for us but that does not happen. In the real world if you work for a company you do your job the way the employer wants you to, not your way and whatever you want to do or you are gone and they get someone that will do their job. So we do not stand a chance. They do try to make us feel good by allowing us to voice our opinion before they do want they want anyway. We do not stand a chance.

    1. Arthur, The many out-of-town property owners do not have a chance to voice their opinion. Despite sending out water bills, tax bills, and happiness surveys, the city has failed to respond to requests to direct mail property owners. There is the rezoning issue. There is the condo ordinance. There is the transfer tax. All three of these issues are substantial and affect most, if not all, property owners. Values are being threatened and outright diminished, and the City feels no obligation to notify property owners. Because of their refusal to do so, property owners do NOT have a seat at the table or any opportunity to express their opinion. They haven’t been given a chance to have a voice. The hostility and all out war on private property owners, who provide the majority of rental housing, will result in higher and higher rents as more people reach their limit and decide to sell and get out.

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