Ward 5 alderman
I’ve lived in Somerville for over 30 years. I love this city, especially its fantastic mix of people from different backgrounds. Not only do we have cultural and racial diversity, we have socio-economic diversity. I love having relationships with people who do all kinds of work — laborers, tradespeople, social workers, teachers, cooks, servers, artists, doctors, lawyers, software engineers — we’ve got them all.
But perhaps not for much longer. Like parts of Boston, San Francisco, and many other cities, Somerville is experiencing rapidly rising real estate values and rents that threaten to forever change its character.
Mayor Joe Curtatone has talked about Somerville not losing our soul. Recently, former mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay said we’re losing our heart and soul. It’s true. Many of the people who made this city great, their kids, immigrants, and the newer people who make it a funky, dynamic, and eclectic place can no longer afford to live here. Families are being forced to move and take their kids out of our award-winning public schools.
Mayor Curtatone has said we must take bold and dramatic action to preserve some of Somerville’s affordability. He convened a task force I cochaired that came up with 18 strategies to curb gentrification and preserve affordability.
One recommendation we can implement now is to increase from 12.5 percent to 20 percent the inclusionary zoning requirement. With that change, one of every five newly-developed housing units would have to be affordable to households with incomes less than 80 percent of area median income ($69,700 for a family of four).
The Board of Aldermen is currently debating the 20 percent proposal, brought to us with the support of hundreds of residents who signed petitions, spoke at a public hearing, and sent e-mails.
Developers are making tremendous returns on their investments, and benefiting from our hard work over many years to make Somerville a great place to live, work, play, and raise a family.
In the view of the vast majority of Somerville residents, the danger we face is that in 10 or 20 years, only rich people will be able to live here — unless we take bold action now. A 20 percent inclusionary affordable housing requirement is strong medicine, but we are battling to preserve the heart and soul of our community.
Alderman at large, small business owner
As a native of Somerville, a lifetime resident, and a small business owner in the city, I know of no one in the community who opposes affordable housing. Yet the citizen-proposed inclusionary zoning petition to increase the required minimum rate for affordable housing units from 12.5 percent for structures of eight units or more to 20 percent for structures of six units or more is not in the best interest of Somerville just now, prior to long-overdue zoning reform.
Recently, RKG Associates was hired by the city to conduct an economic analysis of the proposal. It concluded that the expanded requirement “could have the opposite effect the city wants by creating a situation where residential development is slowed, resulting in the production of fewer residential units including affordable units.”
Presently, the city is looking at a complete overhaul of all of the current zoning ordinances, which go back to 1990. It defies the bounds of comprehension to me to pull this inclusionary discussion out of the weave of very intricate requirements needed to sew this complex new zoning tapestry together for decades to come.
Boston and Cambridge both require developers to set aside affordable units but at percentages below what is being proposed for Somerville. Such an increase will be a disincentive for developers to work in Somerville, especially in light of additional expenses and taxes developers face here. Those include recently increased permitting costs; a Community Preservation Act property tax surcharge; commercial linkage fees that go to affordable housing; and a proposed job linkage fee, not to mention the skyrocketing costs of property acquisition.
Median single-family home prices in Somerville appreciated by 29 percent from 2014 to 2015, the largest increase among the 156 Greater Boston communities, according to Boston Magazine. It is not likely that this rate is sustainable, or that interest rates will stay low forever. And let’s not forget the questionable status of the Green Line Extension coming into Somerville, for which a decision by the MBTA is expected this May.
Let’s get the comprehensive Somerville zoning overhaul done, which will include a thorough vetting of the inclusionary zoning increase proposal as part of — and not separate from — the complete rezoning package: Why put that at risk with a rushed, solo half measure?
Globe correspondent John Laidler solicited opinions for this exchange. He can be reached at email@example.com.