Affordable Housing Measure Moves Ahead in Somerville








by Jackie Dee King

In the midst of a real estate boom and soaring housing costs, Somerville is moving toward a measure that would significantly increase affordable housing units in new buildings.

The Board of Aldermen is considering a citizens’ petition that would raise the percentage of affordable housing required in new residential properties from the current 12.5% to 20%. The affordable housing trigger would kick in at six units and up, rather than the current eight units and up.

Housing advocates are rousing residents across the city to attend meetings of the Board of Aldermen and voice their support for the 20% affordable housing petition. (Somerville residents testify in the photos above and below by Van Hardy.)

Residents and housing advocates launched the petition in late 2015, collecting hundreds of signatures in support, because they were unwilling to wait for completion of the multi-year overhaul of the city’s entire Zoning Code, now underway, before addressing an overheated housing market that is pricing many longtime, working class residents out of the city.

“The sad thing is, the political process takes so long,” Berman told a February meeting of the Cambridge Residents Alliance. “And all during that time, people are being pushed out of the city and are no longer here to be part of the fight. The developers win by attrition.”

In order to stem the tide of displacement, 62% of new residential units built in Somerville would need to be affordable, according to a study by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council: 41% affordable to households under 80% of the Family Median Income (FMI) and another 21% affordable to households under 110% of FMI.

“In that context, the proposed 20% inclusionary zoning rate [we are putting forward] seems modest, indeed,” Berman wrote in a memo to the Aldermen, on behalf of the Affordable Housing Organizing Committee (AHOC) of the Somerville Community Corporation.

crowd.jpgThe citizens’ petition also calls for more family-size units of three and four bedrooms; for including the costs of utilities, parking, and other amenities in the affordability calculation; and for the same “just cause” eviction standards for inclusionary units as for federally subsidized units.

While the Aldermen seem poised to approve some version of the 20% inclusionary requirement, there are several unresolved questions which could influence the outcome substantially. The City’s Planning Director had recommended changes that weakened the original proposal; they were adopted by the Planning Board, and are now being countered by the housing advocates.

One proposal from the City was to follow the Cambridge example (which many housing advocates, including those in the Cambridge Residents Alliance, deplore) to allow a “bonus” for developers of an additional market-rate unit for every affordable housing unit, thus making the final percentage of affordable units less than 20%. Berman’s memo noted: “AHOC believes that this approach to defining the IZ requirement, which has also drawn fire in Cambridge, lacks the transparency that zoning provisions must have.”

The City commissioned a study which claimed a 20% inclusionary ordinance might deter developers and their financial backers from investing in Somerville real estate, because they might not be able to make the 15-20% profits they believe they need. AHOC countered by saying that if some developers decided not to build in Somerville, others would be willing to take their place. 

“It is clear to us and, we believe, to most of the community that the problem we must solve is the lack of affordable housing, not the need to preserve conditions that keep Somerville such a lucrative market for housing developers,” Berman wrote to the Aldermen.

The 20% inclusionary zoning effort is just one of many thoughtful and ambitious proposals recently put forward by the Somerville Sustainable Neighborhoods Working Group in its December 2015 report. (AHOC activists were included in the working group.) The proposals will be debated in Somerville in the months to come. These recommendations are being studied now by the Cambridge Residents Alliance, to see which measures we want to adopt.


Jackie King is a Board member of the Cambridge Residents Alliance and co-editor of Neighborhood Voices.

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