Not Affordable, Not Accessible: The Housing Shortage in Somerville and the FRIT Waiver

TL;DR summary first

Basic background on the fight for affordable housing in Somerville and this case — http://www.affordablesomerville.org/ (first 2 pages, 2min read)

For a lengthier, in depth look at the scope of the affordable housing crisis in Somerville, you can read this memo from Mayor Curtatone written in February of 2016. http://www.somervillema.gov/sites/default/files/inclusionary-housing-staff-report-draft-2-18-2016.pdf

Last night the Somerville Planning Board voted to accept the FRIT (Federal Realty Investment Trust) revised proposal for Assembly Square’s ongoing development, submitted just two days before this vote and without allowing public comment. This plan — http://www.somervillema.gov/sites/default/files/FRIT%20Memo%20Regarding%20Block%208%20Application_0.pdf — results in less affordable housing and a massive win for FRIT.

The long version:
George Proakis, Director of Planning for the city of Somerville, recommended that the Planning Board (who are appointed by the Mayor) accept this new proposal. In one breath he talked about the city’s need for more units of housing, which was clearly stated by the city in 2014 as part of their launch for affordable housing, and in the next he said the proposal was great because it would provide additional funding for the city’s already-running 100 Affordable Homes Strategy.

The Somerville Community Corporation — the organization running the 100 homes project — is highly involved in the community and soundly rejected the waiver. Let me say it again; the organization that stands to benefit by having money diverted to them by this deal with FRIT does not believe that is the best outcome.

According to http://www.affordablesomerville.org, “As of last spring there were 2,200 households on the waitlist for an affordable rental unit in Somerville.” This is likely to be an extremely conservative number of those in need. To qualify to be on these waitlists you need to have a Section 8 Voucher or meet very specific income guidelines. Here’s info on the income guidelines and rent for the complexes that already went up at Assembly, from the initial lottery application — http://www.somervillema.gov/news/assembly-row-affordable-housing-lottery-application-deadline-august-8
Here’s where it’s at now, four years later — https://www.avaloncommunities.com/~/media/Affordables/SINGLE-AvalonAssemblyRow%20AH%20Flyer.pdf?la=en
If you’re in the bottom of the income bracket to qualify to be on the waitlist, you would pay 50% of your income in rent — and yet, if your wages do not increase in keeping with rent inflation, you would lose your eligibility to stay in the unit. Simultaneously, you don’t want to become too “wealthy” because there’s an upper income limit — and if you surpass it, you don’t just jump to the next level, you go back on the waitlist. The wait lists for that level are closed, and if they ever reopen, the wait for a unit is measured in years. If you get into a unit for someone at or under 50% Area Median Income, that is the bracket you need to stay in unless you can make the leap to being able to pay market rent (Currently $2,705 — $3,220 per month for a 1bedroom unit — https://www.avaloncommunities.com/massachusetts/somerville-apartments/avalon-at-assembly-row/floor-plans). You would need to be making $64,920 per year for the cost of rent at the lowest level to be 50% of your pre-tax pay, but you wouldn’t actually get approved for a market rate unit at that salary. A market rate unit, anecdotally, will expect your rent to be around *one third* your total salary. So if you want a one bedroom that costs $3,000 that’s $36,000 a year in rent, plus utilities, and thus you’d be expected by many landlords to have an income of over $100,000 annually.

Do you see where for many people it’s not smart or safe to get into one of these units in the first place if they have any other options? This setup makes your housing opportunities dependent on forces out of your control.

That also doesn’t account for the people in the 80–110% AMI bracket who often don’t know they qualify for “affordable” housing, or the people who do know but don’t want to/can’t live alone (roommates are not allowed in these units, you have to be a “family”). Utilities are not included in most new buildings being constructed, so you have to have decent enough credit to have everything in your name. Parking is also a separate fee (let’s not have the cars are evil debate here and just accept that some people need them). I don’t know if that 2,200 number includes people on public and federal housing lists, just the Somerville Housing Authority’s citywide waitlist for affordable units, or the waitlists at individual developments. Adding your name to one list does not automatically add it to the others and, in fact, sometimes disqualifies you from being on them.

For reference, another complex in Somerville with a median income program (they do not call it affordable), Windsor at Maxwell’s Green, had a 1–1.5 year long wait list in September of 2016, by far the shortest wait list in Somerville at the time. I know this intimately, as I spent months attempting to get on wait lists and hoping a unit would open -anywhere- in the Greater Boston area that met my needs.

Moving on from the sheer numbers of people who could benefit from affordable housing, there are many issues with the accepted proposal. I’ll leave aside the arguments of “neither side is wrong, it’s business vs values, etc”. Others will cover it and I think it’s clear I’m firmly on the side of “housing is a right”, and I’m not going to cry for a billion dollar corporation that made $250,000,000 in profits last year. Props to Michael Capuano, the one board member willing to stand up for those things. Where are we left?

The issue I care about most is accessibility. The required percentage of accessible units among the affordable units is small. If 40 affordable units are built, you can expect 2–5 accessible units out of that number. Remember that roommates aren’t allowed, so if you are a single or partnered person with a mobility disability that requires an accessible unit, and you do not have children, your options are a studio (often just not large enough for use of a wheelchair or other medical equipment) or a one bedroom. Hypothetically, there could be 4 one-bedroom affordable accessible units (it may be less than that); that is four units in a 500 unit property. Most properties do not have that many units, and also have very few accessible units even at market rate. I toured the existing Assembly Row property Avalon — their standard apartment layouts are not modifiable because of they way they built the bathrooms: even if one was able and willing to live with an inaccessible kitchen.

Many of the other buildings of this type around the Boston area are workable depending on specific mobility needs, but I have no confidence in FRIT as a developer putting any thought into that, so losing out on units on site directly correlates to less accessibility. By granting this approval we’ve now moved backwards — only 6.5% of units, half of the 12.5% previously required without granting this waiver, will be built on-site and the disabled community is unlikely to be served by most of them.

I’m also not going to get into the numbers in terms of the cash-in-lieu, aside from pointing out that this won’t be one giant windfall and the amounts approved per-unit are less than enough to outright purchase units. I will talk about that cash as it may relate to SCC and the 100 Homes program. They’re unlikely to be able to take $10,000,000 (remember, not all paid out at once) and build the 50 units George Proakis assured us those funds could be turned into. They’d need a free empty parcel of land big enough, a developer willing to do it at cost, and building materials under a tight budget. So what they can feasibly do is attempt to beat out speculators on the open market and stabilize properties in the area.

Stabilizing existing properties is wonderful, to be sure, but it does nothing to address the shortage of housing stock — including accessibility issues with housing stock — that was primarily developed 50+ years ago before the passage of the ADA! It’s not going to do a lot to address the 2,200 families on the waiting list for units, as some of the effort is aimed at not displacing people. Example — SCC’s program finds housing with rental tenants who can’t afford to stay. They purchase the property and subsidize it so the rents can remain stable. The tenants benefit and the wait list numbers do not change. Think about -where-, location-wise, they are likely to be able to make these deals; it continues and increases segregation because it’s unlikely they’re going to find many benevolent people willing to take a massive loss in such a desirable area. Furthermore, existing stock is generally not wheelchair-friendly and it is impossible, difficult, or extremely costly to add accessibility to existing structures. I’d like to say the city Planning Board threw that population under the bus but the reality is they didn’t think about us at all. SCC doesn’t seem to have put a ton of thought into it either, but to their credit they are willing to talk about it and work to find solutions now that their eyes have been opened. Good intentions sadly don’t make it feasible to approach accessibility on the same level as building new housing stock.

Where does this vote leave me? Not surprised exactly, but definitely hurt. As one sign summed it up perfectly, “Sanctuary for Whom?” Somerville is proud of its Sanctuary City status, of its support for progressive causes like Black Lives Matter, and of its socially-conscious residents: it can and should do better when presented with opportunities to make decisions that impact the marginalized and oppressed populations it claims to support.

¹http://www.somervillema.gov/news/city-launch-affordable-housing-program
² http://somervillecdc.org/affordable-housing

Editors: Mandi Curtis and Meg Grady-Troia