Housing Affordability - Alderman Bob McWatters

Housing Affordability

Housing affordability is one of the most pressing issues facing Somerville today. Multi-generational Somerville families and other long-time residents are being priced out of the city. Young people cannot afford to live here, and families are leaving faster than they are being replaced. Somerville is in danger of losing its soul. If anyone knows that to be true, it’s me. I’ve lived here my entire life, and I’ve watched many friends and neighbors pushed out.

SCC_Groundbreaking.jpgUnfortunately, regional market forces are driving up Somerville’s housing costs. People’s interest in living in urban areas—near jobs and activities—is stronger than it has been in over 50 years. Collectively, communities in the metro Boston area have not kept up with housing demand. Restrictive zoning laws and development bans have stunted housing growth.

Moreover, underinvestment in mass transit has made living it outlying cities and towns unattractive. People simply cannot get to good-paying jobs without an hours-long commute, so places like Somerville, just a bike ride away from Kendall Square, are that much more popular.

Unlike other local communities, in Somerville, we have moved aggressively to address the region’s housing affordability crisis:

  • In 2016, I supported a proposal by the Somerville Community Corporation to increase the inclusionary zoning requirement for affordable units from 12.5% to 20% for large developments and to 17.5% for smaller developments. The ordinance received unanimous support by the Board of Aldermen and made Somerville a leader in inclusionary housing.
  • Earlier this year, I supported new zoning in Union Square that will add up to 1,000 more housing units next to the new Green Line station, including 200 affordable units. The Union Square zoning received near-unanimous support by the Board of Aldermen. No one can say that Somerville, already the most densely populated city in New England, isn’t doing its part to support increased density. 

Even with these changes, the resulting gains will not satisfy Boston’s regional housing demand or Somerville’s desperate need for more affordable housing. We simply need to do more.

Over the past few years a committee of affordable housing experts and dedicated residents known as the Sustainable Neighborhoods Working Group has worked through the details of dozens of affordable housing policies. Their recommendations should not just be in a report sitting on a shelf. Many of these policy recommendations would tangibly benefit those at risk of displacement today.  We need to do more to:

  • Tax Deferral: Promote the city’s property tax deferral program for seniors.

  • Right of First Refusal: Push for state legislation that gives tenants the first option to purchase their unit, either on their own, or with assistance from the City forming a limited equity partnership.

  • Transfer Fee: Implement a “transfer fee” that targets home flippers and get-rich-quick investors. This would redirect a portion of a home’s sales price into affordable housing development.

  • AirBnB: Regulate the growth of short-term housing rentals like AirBnB, which eats into our housing supply, by requiring hosts to live in the same or adjacent home.

  • Regional Efforts: Work with our state elected officials to create incentives and mandates so other suburban communities build more high-density, smart growth housing.

These are just a few of the many important policies we need to pursue to tackle the affordability crisis. In my next term, I’ll continue to work with community advocates, housing experts, city officials, and state leaders to move these important policies forward. 

Photo Above: Bob McWatters attends groundbreaking in September 2015 for 30 units of affordable housing in Union Square. The project, located at 181 Washington Street, was built by the Somerville Community Corporation and provides housing to low-income individuals and families.

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