Somerville Speakup Line: City Has Vested Interest in Lowering Value of Privately Owned Property

Dear Billy T and Somerville Speakup Line,

I hand delivered this letter below to the mailboxes of each member of the BOA, the Mayor, Mackey and Dorothy Gay and Mike Capuano.

The City has a vested interest in lowering the value of privately owned property. An effective way to achieve a diminishment equating to 100’s of thousands, is to pass the new zoning. The new zoning removes a large pool of one and two families from RB zoning (up to 3 units by right) to NR (limited to 2 units by right and a potential ADU). It’s a conflict of interest. The transfer tax funds the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The SCC then is funded to buy up private property to permanently earmark affordable. By lowering property values, the SCC’s funds can acquire more property at the reduced value. These measures fit together like a puzzle, damaging to small property owners, and benefiting the Cities goal to acquire property and create affordable rental units. The City has not notified property owners-which could have easily been done by including a notice in the water bill or tax bill – or happiness survey 😡

Long term home owners stand to lose a big chunk of their retirement asset, yet the City thinks a happiness survey takes precedence over notifying homeowners of the catastrophic zoning consequences. Can this be legal? Isn’t there any responsibility on the part ot the City to provide notification. These homeowners are wholly unrepresented by their elected officials.

Thank you,

Lynne Thompson

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To the Board of Alderman

The purpose of my letter is to impress upon the decisionmakers the effect of the zoning changes and the consequential damaging effect it will have on homeowners, renters, and first-time buyers. I ask the aldermen to read this letter and reconsider the proposed zoning – or minimally to exempt long term owners who reside in their home.
Born and raised in Winter Hill, I still live here today – as an owner of a 2-family house in an RB zone. I have lived in my 2-family on Heath Street since I purchased it in 1991. I’ve paid taxes in Somerville for 30 years and am an active member of the community. I lobbied the city to get a stop sign at the corner of Heath and Fenwick because there were so many traffic accidents. I attend Green Line meetings, as well as public meetings at City Hall.
What I am not is a developer. However, my 2-family is on an oversized lot of over 8000 sf. Literally begging to be utilized for badly needed housing. Land in dense urban areas is in short supply and merits being put to its highest and best use. I always planned to add a 3rd unit, or alternatively, selling that potential to the next person. What is the value of that 3rd unit – I imagine at least a couple hundred thousand dollars. That amount of value would be consequential to anyone. Undoubtedly your home is a large part of your retirement portfolio, as mine is to me. That huge loss of value is catastrophic. The Mystic Ave side of Winter Hill, my neighborhood, has a large swatch of RB zoning. There are also a good number of larger lot sizes. Winter Hill is like the ugly stepsister when it comes to rising values and development. Winter Hill has seen the lowest market appreciation compared to all other areas of the City, including east Somerville. WH has no ‘square’, no transit station, not even a major intersection-basically no infrastructure to build on. If the current zoning passes without exemptions for owner occupied properties, these homes in WH will be further devalued. The large lots will become permanently underutilized, in an urban area where this land represents incredible value and development potential. The new zoning carries a substantial loss to residents of Somerville who have their home in RB as their largest asset. As our elected board, please appreciate the financial damage to small property owners who can least afford to absorb the consequence of eliminating RB zoning. This is not hurting developers who knowingly make decisions going in. This is a consequence to long-time Somerville owners and voters – who are greatly financially damaged by the decisions of their elected officials.
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?

This current rezoning proposal is devastating to me, as a long-time involved Somerville resident, living in their 2-family home, and worrying about the state of my retirement. This rezoning literally could make or break peoples’ retirement! If your purpose is to serve your long-time Somerville constituents, shouldn’t you recognize the consequences of this rezoning to small property owners, and alter the zoning to make provisions for those cases? Minimally by providing a grandfathering for owner occupied long term owners?

Also it must be noted that property owners impacted by this diminishment of their real estate were never notified by the City. Therefore, property owners were unaware of how their property may be affected by the change in zoning. The City should not be ‘taking’ value from personal properties without directly informing owners. By failure to notify, homeowners were not given a place at the table, didn’t have the opportunity to have a voice – literally silencing all potential opposition. This is truly an injustice – the BOA has an obligation to the people, to represent all the people, to weigh all sides of the issue. The process of rezoning was bereft of fairness to homeowners who are most negatively affected. In many respects, the downzoning of RB to NR is very similar to an eminent domain ‘taking’ without representation.

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