We need a city-wide Affordable Housing Overlay District in Somerville
I’m very happy to say that my wife Alex and I are expecting our first child in November. So, even more than usual, I’ve been thinking about the future of Somerville. This city is an incredible place to be born — if you can afford to stay. Every year, rents and home prices ratchet up relentlessly, and it becomes harder and harder for anyone who isn’t already well-off to live or start a family here. We all want a diverse and economically just Somerville, yet today’s status quo is pulling us in the exact opposite direction.
According to the Somerville Public Schools, at least 42% of our students are classified by the State as “economically disadvantaged,” and 37% of Somerville families are “severely rent burdened,” meaning they spend more than half their income on housing costs. To put it simply, many thousands of Somerville families are perilously close to being — or already have been — forced out by housing costs. The affordable housing waitlist in Somerville is so long that, at the current rate, it will literally take three decades or more to find a home for every Somerville resident currently in need. And, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our housing crisis is threatening to transform into a catastrophic “tsunami of evictions” for lower-income families, disproportionately affecting people of color.
If we want a diverse and thriving Somerville, we need to do everything in our power to ensure that you don’t have to be wealthy to live here. And right now, the single most impactful action we can take at the municipal level is to make it easier to build more affordable housing in Somerville. I believe that the best tool that the City Council has within its authority to enact right now is a city-wide Affordable Housing Overlay District. This policy would make it easier to build affordable housing by offering permitting, density, and height benefits to 100% affordable buildings, and as Chair of Land Use, it is my top legislative priority for the coming months.
This past summer, I asked our City Staff to conduct interviews with a wide range of affordable housing developers, to better understand the major obstacles, at the municipal level, to creating affordable housing in Somerville. Overwhelmingly, we heard about two obstacles:
1.First, and most obviously, is the cost of land. Today, it is nearly impossible for any non-profit housing developer to purchase property in Somerville. This is no surprise: they are competing against “market rate” developers and investors who can afford to pay far more because they’ll soon be making windfall profits in our red-hot real estate market.
2. Second, the funding agencies that support affordable housing are looking for predictability and certainty in the projects they support. This means that the uncertainty, delays, and the discretionary nature of the permitting process in Somerville can be a major issue when attempting to secure funding. Together, these two obstacles mean that today we are almost completely reliant on market rate developers to create new affordable homes, through Somerville’s “20% inclusionary zoning” policy, which is absolutely necessary but nowhere near sufficient to meet Somerville’s goals for affordability.
We have taken this feedback and used it to generate a proposal for a Citywide Affordable Housing Overlay District that would directly address both issues. A working draft of this proposal was introduced to the Land Use Committee on September 29, and you can read it here. Essentially, the proposal does two things: first, it gives a “height bonus” to 100% affordable buildings, meaning that these buildings can be taller than would otherwise be allowed for market rate developers. This greatly helps to level the playing field when it comes to buying property, because non-profit developers get more “bang” (livable square footage) for their buck. And second, it simplifies and streamlines the permitting process specifically for 100% affordable buildings, providing predictability and security for when non-profit developers are securing funding.
Modern affordable housing buildings are well-made, beautiful, and held to incredibly high standards of energy efficiency. To see some local examples, click here, or pay a visit to the gorgeously renovated historic Somerville Waterworks building, which was recently transformed into affordable senior housing. That said, I know that the idea of taller buildings can be a hot-button issue for some people, so I want to be clear about what this proposal would and would not entail.
The proposed overlay would not change lot setbacks or open-space requirements, and it would not mean that buildings of any height can be built on any lot, willy-nilly. Instead, the proposed overlay will continue to follow the underlying zoning map for Somerville: taller buildings in squares and along major travel corridors (“mid-rise districts”) and more modest buildings on smaller neighborhood streets (“neighborhood residence” or “urban residence” districts.) You can view a map of the underlying zoning map here: www.SomervilleZoning.com
The overlay would mean that, in areas where a market-rate developer would be allowed to build a four- or five-story apartment building, a 100% affordable building might be allowed to build up to seven or eight. On a small residential street where two-and-a-half story buildings are normally allowed, a 100% affordable building could be three or four stories. The City Council is still actively deliberating these details, and we are looking forward to hearing public input at an upcoming Public Hearing in the coming months. Altogether, this policy will go a long way towards removing some of the common obstacles that non-profit housing developers face in Somerville.
(A personal note: my wife and I lived for years on Warren Avenue in Union Square, just up the block from Properzi Manor, an 11-story apartment building managed by the Somerville Housing Authority, and we never had a single problem with shadows, parking, noise, or anything else — just a lot of great neighbors. So, in my experience, while the idea of a taller building can sometimes be unpopular, as soon as these buildings actually exist and fill up with neighbors, they quickly become part of the neighborhood.)
Our proposed Affordable Housing Overlay District wouldn’t cost the city a dime, and unlike many other bills we want to pass, it does not require State approval to enact. Our proposal is similar to one that was just passed in Cambridge, and Boston may soon move in a similar direction, too, which is great news considering the regional nature of our housing crisis.
There is no silver bullet to addressing our affordable housing crisis, but that is no excuse for inaction. When City Council President Matt McLaughin gave his inauguration speech last January, he emphasized that local government officials can learn a lot from the Serenity Prayer:
“Grant this City Council the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
No City Council can single-handedly fix the profound structural inequalities driving our housing crisis. And, so many of the policies we need — rent control, a transfer fee on developers to fund affordable housing, and increased tenant protections — require State approval. But when it comes to powers that we do hold locally, I believe we have an obligation to act.
Earlier this summer, President Trump made it blatantly clear that outright opposition to affordable housing is a central plank in his platform: “You will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.” My hope is that Somerville will take this opportunity to stand up as the polar opposite to his hateful worldview, by saying “yes” to diversity and affordability in our neighborhoods.
I will soon be scheduling a Public Hearing to welcome your feedback on this proposal — keep an eye out for the date. In the meantime, please contact City Councilors at CityCouncil@SomervilleMA.gov to share your thoughts on this proposal.
Ben Ewen-Campen is Somerville’s Ward 3 City Councilor. He can be reached out BenForWard3@gmail.com.