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Was the Planning Board’s approval of the affordable housing waiver for Federal Realty in Somerville’s best interest?


Joseph A. Curtatone

Mayor of Somerville

<b>Joseph A. Curtatone</b>

The cost of housing is an issue in every city and town in Metro Boston. We need 435,000 new units for supply to catch up to demand. Market pressure is particularly intense in Somerville, making affordable housing for our vulnerable residents a critical issue.

Simply put, we need as much housing as we can get.

That’s why the state incentivizes communities to keep 10 percent of their housing stock affordable, and why in Somerville we’ve long required 12.5 percent of new units built to be affordable and upped that to 20 percent last year. So far, our choice to push the limits is working for most developments, though some smaller projects may be choosing to build less.


Enter Federal Realty Investment Trust. Both sides on this issue had a strong case to make. But our Board of Aldermen found Federal had a legitimate claim when it granted Federal, and only Federal, the ability to seek a waiver on our new 20 percent rule.

Think of it as a grandfather clause. When Federal received its permits to build and negotiated the tens of millions in community benefits it gave to the city — including funds for a new T station — our 12.5 percent rule was still in place.

Meanwhile, new developers may now build bonus units to offset the higher costs of our 20 percent rule, but Federal’s older state permits don’t allow that higher density. Federal made a strong case that the new rules paired with the old expenses no longer worked for housing on the site. The project was at risk. And here’s some simple math: 20 percent of nothing is nothing.

The agreement we reached instead will push the project’s affordable housing yield to 16 percent to 18.5 percent. The plan is to build half the original 12.5 percent units on site and use the remaining money to purchase a greater number of units throughout the city via our 100 Homes program. We negotiated for real homes for real people in our desired neighborhoods.


Would I have preferred 20 percent? Of course.

Should we gamble 80 to 93-plus affordable units for the chance at 100? Not in this case.

Is there a better way? Yes.

We need local and statewide zoning changes that would allow greater housing density accessible to transit. I hope we can agree to all get to work on that.


Matt McLaughlin

Somerville Ward 1 Alderman

<b>Matt McLaughlin</b>

It is impossible to summarize my dismay over the 500-unit luxury apartment “compromise” the Planning Board approved. This opportunity to do so here, however, is more than Mayor Joseph Curtatone or the Planning Board gave residents to weigh in on this unprecedented move.

People can argue over the merits of the deal, but no one can debate that the process was unjust. The Planning Board deliberated in under an hour with few questions and no public comment. Fair deals are never made this way. We should not have to struggle so hard for justice.

The community wanted 20 percent affordable housing, a percentage the Board of Aldermen passed last year. Federal Realty Investment Trust wanted to do the previous 12.5 percent standard and insisted they had a deal. This deal required them to ask for — not insist — on a waiver, which the Planning Board had no legal obligation to grant.


Somehow, this debate led to a reduction to 6.25 percent of affordable units on site and a $10.3 million payment to the city. This is almost certainly a financial windfall for the developer. It also goes against the intent of the city’s affordable housing requirement that discourages off-site housing because of its discriminatory nature.

The city claims we can get 49 affordable units with the money, but housing isn’t guaranteed; $10.3 million is. We are now responsible for purchasing, refurbishing, and maintaining the off-site housing in a highly competitive market.

The city admits we will have to leverage more lending and grants just to make the numbers work, which is still well below 20 percent. The Somerville Community Corporation’s 100 Homes program only purchased 20 homes in the past three years. By this timeline, it will take 12 years to get units we need immediately if construction started today. We also will have to wait for the final $4 million until after the 500-unit luxury building is occupied. Housing prices will only get more expensive and we will, therefore, get fewer units.

This compromise was an amazing business deal for Federal Realty. Any community benefits are secondary. The amount of spin necessary to make this a success story speaks for itself.

We should not have to go to such great lengths just to get affordable housing in a city that claims to be progressive and care about people’s struggles.


Last week’s Argument: Should Malden impose a temporary moratorium on the sale of recreational marijuana in the city?

No: 88.68% (47 votes)

Yes: 11.32% (6 votes)

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at laidler@globe.com.