Jan 14 Newsletter

Hi Ward 2! It’s been an eventful two weeks, with an inauguration, the first major snowstorm of the season, the first meeting of the new Board of Aldermen, some major development projects getting proposed for the Ward, and the new citywide zoning being put forward by the Administration for our consideration.

Here in this newsletter, I’ll give more info about all of that and let you know how you can get involved as we push forward to do better here in Somerville!

  • Pushing Forward on my Platform
  • Snow Removal Responses
  • Upcoming Developments and Meetings
    • 10-12 Ward St
    • 140-150 Line St
  • Citywide Zoning Meetings
  • Committee Assignments
  • Other Items on the Legislative Calendar
  • Pushing Forward on my Platform

The first meeting of the Board of Aldermen was on Thursday, Jan 11 – and it was a busy one! I’m proud to have put forward 3 items that directly advance the platform of Affordability, Transparency, and Accessibility that I ran on. You can see all of them, as well as video of the Board meeting, at this link.

(Speaking of which, the City’s web interface for viewing these meetings is really great. You can click on any specific agenda item to fast-forward directly to video of that item being proposed and discussed.)

First was #31, a Board Order calling for a Home Rule Petition to enable a tenant Right-Of-First-Refusal law here in Somerville. You can see more and read the sample Home Rule Petition draft linked in the agenda above. I’m glad to have collaborated with Aldermen Hirsch, Ewen-Campen, and Niedergang in taking this important first step towards passing good legislation.

Second was #40, launching the process of creating a Community Land Trust here in Somerville. You can read more about these on my blog, but in short it’s a way to create real and permanent affordability in Somerville. I’m honored that the rest of my colleagues have also signed on to endorse this order and I look forward to getting to work on it.

Third was #41, a directive to OSPCD and the administration to ensure that notification for public meetings be sent to all abutters – not just property owners. This is an especially important step for transparency here in Ward 2, where nearly 80% of the households are occupied by renters, if we want to have robust public processes and ensure that everyone gets their voice heard.

Again, I’m excited about taking these first steps and I look forward to keeping you updated on how we progress towards making these substantive changes towards a more affordable and transparent reality here in Somerville!

  • Snow Removal Responses

Our first big snow of the year brought some very specific challenges to the city, and DPW was hard at work to keep the streets usable. With rapid snowfall from the “bomb cyclone”, they weren’t able to keep up as well as we’d all like, and the result in many places was a barely-open street that wasn’t plowed all the way to the curb. (My phone was ringing constantly with reports from residents.)

I’ve spoken with some folks who work for the city, and the intention is clear: with Odd-side parking this year, they are looking to plow all the way to the curbline on the Even side of our streets. What’s also clear is that this didn’t get done in this particular storm, and the post-mortem will be important to see what we can do to improve our snow response next time.

With that said, it wasn’t all bad. The city’s improved plans for snow removal via front-loaders and dump trucks proceeded throughout the week after the storm, and a lot of snow was moved to a collection point outside the ward. We also got pretty lucky with a lot of 50-degree-and-rainy days after the storm, and that has helped minimize the lasting impact.

All in all, 311 was flooded with calls and no one is entirely happy with how snow removal was handled, but I think we have an opportunity to learn from this and do better going forward. I’m happy to have already seen some positive change in DPW’s coverage of crosswalk clearing, and I look forward to working with DPW on continued improvement.

  • Upcoming Developments and Meetings

Both of these developments are in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals for public comment. If you’d like to get email alerts on when the meetings are scheduled on these projects, you can ask at zba@somervillema.gov or planning@somervillema.gov to be added to the alert list.

  • 10-12 Ward St

10-12 Ward St has had several smaller meetings in the neighborhood to help the developer and architect adjust their plans to better accommodate the neighbors. It is a proposed 24-unit development with underground parking and 4 affordable housing apartments located back near Twin City Plaza on a site that is currently an open asphalt lot. The hearing for the project will be on January 31, and you can find more information on the project here at this link.

  • 140-150 Line St

This is a 14-unit development with surface parking, straddling the Cambridge line. I have not met with this developer and can only tell you what I see in the plans, so I very much would like to hear your input and feedback on this project! It is also scheduled for the Jan 31 ZBA meeting, and you can see the plans online here.

  • Citywide Zoning Meetings

The administration brought forward their proposal for a new citywide zoning overhaul, and you can see all the details at this link. It is an enormous amount of information, and as a Board we will be going through it in many upcoming meetings of the Land Use Committee. This Committee will be meeting as a “Committee of the Whole”, so you can be assured that I’ll be in there weighing in and relaying your concerns.

With that said, I need to hear from you if I’m going to represent you. To that end, I’m setting up a series of meetings to be held in the neighborhoods where we focus on the specific impacts of zoning on each area. I’ll be putting out the schedule for these meetings as soon as I have the times and locations set, but in the meantime here’s a quick map of the general area breakdowns to be covered by each meeting:

I’m happy to be working with Alderman Hirsch on a meeting specifically for the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and I look forward to all of these as a way to help make sure that we get the zoning we need. While it was put forward by the Mayor’s office on Jan 11, it was immediately referred to the Committee on Land Use and will undergo nearly 3 months of review and revision before it comes to a vote – so let’s use that time to get it right.

If you’d like to be involved in helping to prepare for, organize around, and drive input at these meetings, please send me an email! We’ll all need to work together to get zoning right.

  • Committee Assignments

The assignments for Aldermen to the various committees have been made by the President, Katjana Ballantyne. For 2017, I’ve been assigned to serve on the following Committees:

  • Confirmation of Appointments and Personnel Matters (Chair)
  • Flood Forum (Chair)
  • Licenses and Permits
  • Open Space, Environment and Energy
  • Public Utilities and Public Works
  • Clean and Open Elections Task Force
  • Other Items on the Legislative Calendar

We’ve got a lot more on our plate besides Zoning and the specific measures I’ve already put forth. We’re also going to be looking at a great many appointed positions in the city, considering legislation around AirBNB rentals, reviewing the city’s spending plan, and getting ready for the spring construction season including all the major infrastructure projects that will launch then. If you’ve got something you want to make sure gets taken up, please do get in touch anytime.

As much as there is going on in City Hall, the most important stuff to me happens right here in the neighborhood. I’m happy to help you with questions big or small.

Thanks, and I’ll see you in the streets of Ward 2!

-JT Scott

Jan 1 Newsletter

Here’s a first newsletter with some updates and info you may be interested in.

  • Inauguration Celebration January 1
  • Campaign Wrapup Thanks
  • Upcoming Projects
    • Somerville Ave Streetscape/Sewer Work
    • Citywide Zoning Overhaul
    • Neighborhood Zoning Meetings
    • Union Square Neighborhood Council

INAUGURATION CELEBRATION JANUARY 1

You’re invited to the Somerville Inauguration! The city is hosting a ceremony at Somerville High School on New Year’s Day starting at 6pm that will feature speeches from Mayor Curtatone, Board of Aldermen President Ballantyne, School Board Chair Green, and Governor Baker. It will be immediately followed by a reception at the Holiday Inn with appetizers and a live band from 8-10pm.

You are invited to either or both! Details are online here, and the city has asked folks to send an RSVP email to inauguration2018@somervillema.gov if you plan on attending. I hope to see you all there to celebrate!

CAMPAIGN WRAPUP AND THANKS

Speaking of celebration, I’m also reaching out to say Thank You for all of your support during the campaign.

Municipal elections generally don’t draw many voters, and Ward 2 traditionally has the lowest turnout in Somerville. Not this year: we had 4x the votes cast in the last municipal election in 2015, and the highest number of votes since 1979. This was entirely due to the energy of our grassroots campaign and the tireless effort of our volunteers. As an engineer, I like data – and I can tell you that the data shows that the vast majority of these votes were cast by people we talked to face-to-face, one-on-one. I’ve always said that we can only change the world one conversation at a time, and this election really proved how powerful those conversations can be.

We truly have a political revolution here in Somerville. I was one of five new Aldermen elected, removing five incumbents – and now 9 of the 11 seats on the city council are occupied by candidates endorsed by Our Revolution Somerville. With this supermajority in place, I have high hopes for this term. We can do better for Somerville – and it’s all thanks to you.

Here in Somerville, there’s a lot of work ahead of us and I’m excited to be already digging in on it. I’m committed to governing in the same way I campaigned – one conversation at a time. In order to do the work ahead to increase Affordability, Transparency, and Accountability, I’m going to foster the creation and growth of neighborhood groups who can stay mobilized to keep those conversations going, support our legislative work on the Board of Aldermen, and continue to get new neighbors engaged in the political process. The revolution took a big step on November 7th, and I couldn’t be prouder of the results, but it can’t end here.

PROJECTS

Since the election I’ve spent a lot of time meeting with city staff and local residents, hearing more about your hopes and goals for the coming year and getting up to speed on all the projects coming up in the new year.

Somerville Ave Streetscape/Sewer Work – The city is planning a major piece of construction along Somerville Ave from the intersection at Washington and Webster all the way to McGrath starting in March or April of 2018. The city has placed the job out for bids, but still has a long way to go in terms of planning the schedule and publishing plans for traffic management during the construction. I’ll be staying in touch with Capital Projects to make sure that I can keep you informed of the plans for Union Square and Somerville Ave construction in 2018.

Citywide Zoning Overhaul – The city is also planning to propose a full overhaul of our city’s zoning code. This is an exciting opportunity to simplify our zoning code, enable more flexibility for homeowners to modify their houses, and open the way for more jobs and commercial development in Somerville. It’s also a vitally important time to make sure we get zoning that protects neighborhoods and encourages the kind of development we want to see – after all, the last time zoning got completely rewritten here in Somerville was nearly 100 years ago. The decisions that get made now will have long-lasting impacts on our neighborhoods. I expect the proposed zoning to be published in the first few weeks of January, but you can look at the preliminary draft information here.

Please take a look at it and let me know what you think of the zoning as written for your home and your neighborhood! I want to hear from you. To that end…

Neighborhood Zoning Meetings – I’ll be hosting a series of meetings in January and February across the neighborhoods of Ward 2 in order to try to get more people informed about and engaged in the process. I’ve posted an ambitious goal on my website of how to proceed, and I’d like to try to get each neighborhood involved. Right now, I’m looking at 7 distinct neighborhoods in Ward 2 as a way to break down the zoning discussion:

  • Union Square – Mansfield/McGrath to Lake/Church
  • Lincoln Park
  • Spring Hill Ward 2 – from Church to Central, north of Somerville Ave
  • Beacon St South – from Washington to Cambridge, including one block to each side
  • Beacon St North – including Harrison/Ivaloo and Duck Village
  • Prospect St/South St – including Oak, Webster, and neighboring street
  • Brickbottom

I’ll be sending more information out as those meetings get scheduled, but if you’d like to help with organizing these meetings and getting your neighbors involved in the conversation, please send me an email! We’re all going to have to work together to get great zoning that meets our needs as neighbors.

Union Square Neighborhood Council – A founding board has been elected, and you can find out all about it here. The best way to get involved is to subscribe to their announcement list and go to one of their open meetings. Anyone can attend, and we want all of your voices to be heard! The ultimate purpose of this Council is to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement with the Union Square developer US2, and to do continual community outreach to engage new people in the process of redevelopment. If you’ve been involved in Union Square development for years, or if you’re totally new to the process, please come out and/or get to know folks on the Council.

Thank you so much for your help! I look forward to working with you to do better for all of us. Please get in touch anytime.

JT Scott, Ward 2 Alderman-Elect

Transparency and Accountability: a Community-Driven Zoning process for Ward 2

Just this week I got a question from a Ward 2 resident who was fed up with the lack of transparency and accountability from the Board of Aldermen. She had contacted the Board with questions about an upcoming change to the zoning of her neighborhood along with a petition signed by 22 of her neighbors. Unfortunately, the only Aldermen who replied to her or acknowledged her message in any way were Bill White (at-large, Board President) and Matt McLaughlin (Ward 1).

So she reached out to me with the same letter and question:

“I and many of my neighbors have been losing faith in the City.  It clearly has not been looking out for the best interests of those of us who do live here, in favor of developers who do not.  The Beacon Street Reconstruction Project, the cutting of our trees, and developers being granted waiver after waiver and deal after deal have profoundly disappointed us.  In each case there is some version of “process”, usually public meetings.  However, the meetings are often held after major decisions or deals have already been made, and no action is taken as a result of the public comment. […] Before we vote, please tell us: What will you PROMISE with regard to zoning along Beacon Street, from Durham to the Cambridge Line at Inman Square?”

This post is my long answer that boils down to a very short version:

“I will ask you – as a neighborhood – what you want, and I will use that to guide my recommendation to the Land Use Committee and my vote on the Board.”

Of course, that’s easy to say… but how can we make that work in practice? That’s the long answer, below. It is in three parts. First is how I think our process needs to be better – more transparent and more accountable – and then sharing some of my personal thoughts about what I’d like to see in zoning on Beacon Street.

WHAT I WILL DO

Here’s what I’ll promise about the upcoming zoning. This is my concrete plan of how to approach understanding what is proposed, amending what needs to change, and voting on final approval that truly embraces residents input at every step of the way. I am committed to governing in an inclusive and transparent way that puts our neighborhoods and families first.

In order to get your voices heard, I propose implementing a policy similar to that of Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa in Chicago’s 35th Ward: for each zoning region that would incorporate major changes to allowed heights/setbacks/uses in an area, I would host a community meeting (or a series of meetings, if needed) to discuss and gather input on the specific zoning proposed and its impact on the community. All residents within 500 feet of the zoning area would receive a printed invitation to these meetings, and I would use these meetings to guide my input and votes on zoning.

I recommend checking out Alderman Rosa’s website about the inspiring process he undertakes in his ward to ensure zoning is determined by the community, and not by developers. I’d like to emulate that here.
http://www.aldermancarlosrosa.org/cdzd

In the case of an effective citywide overhaul, this will likely mean a separate meeting for each zoning area. However, I think this is the only way to ensure that residents are informed and included in the decision making process. I want to be clear that this is not the city’s “public process” – this will be my process to make sure I am representing the interests of Ward 2’s residents.

As inputs to those meetings, I’d want easily accessible documents to help people understand what is being discussed:

1) source material (zoning code as written)
2) comparison to current uses (how many buildings and uses in the area would be “compliant” or “non-compliant” under the proposed zoning change)
3) translation of allowed building options and layout (examples of what could be newly built under the changes)
4) some interpretation of the city’s goals/intent in the proposed change
5) preliminary analysis of the effectiveness of the proposed change

I’d also like to have an online forum for people to see all of this material ahead of time so that we are able to get informed and come with a common starting point of information. 

At the local meeting itself, I’d like to hear what residents think about the proposed changes on the following points:

a) do you feel the goals/intent are desirable?
b) do you feel the goals/intent are adequately met with the code as proposed?
c) what are the possible costs and benefits to the neighborhood of the proposed change?
d) what are better ways of attaining desirable goals/benefits without unacceptable negative impacts to the neighborhood?

As outputs from these meetings, I’d like to take with me a set of guidelines determined by the attendees that I can use to draft amendments to the proposed zoning that take into account all of the discussion at that meeting – ideally with the explicit approval granted by a vote at that meeting for or against certain changes. If this takes more than one meeting to settle on, then I say let’s take the time to discuss it and get it right.

I’d then put those amendments forth during the deliberation process at the Board of Aldermen with the neighborhood’s support and urge their adoption by the Board. With the full support of the neighborhood, how could they not be accepted?

If the majority of neighbors strongly support a set of necessary changes, I’ll be promoting those – and I won’t support approval of the zoning unless those changes are incorporated or until the community is convinced that a compromise position is acceptable. 

Now, I know this won’t be easy. For example, few people want to have a new fire station put next to their house – but the community will need a fire station someplace central. Are we willing to compromise on noise in the interest of public safety? Likewise, most people want to improve affordability in Somerville. Are we willing to compromise on building height if a project provides a large amount of affordable housing for middle class residents and artists?

We owe it to the neighborhood to hold these meetings, understand the underlying interests, and ask ourselves these questions. We can take neighborhood concerns into account and work to build consensus around a solution that serves the neighborhood and the individual neighbors.

WHY I WILL DO IT

I believe the public process and scrutiny to this point regarding zoning overhaul has not been sufficient. I have shared every one of these frustrations around developer waivers, Beacon Street reconstruction, and especially in the zoning process around Union Square, where I live and work.

I think that we can do better to incorporate the input of homeowners and tenants alike, and neighbors of every inclination, who may have differing priorities for what they want to see in the neighborhood. Ultimately, this city can be (and should be) what we make of it. I think strong neighborhood organizations can and should make a huge difference in what gets approved and built.

I believe that this can be a directly democratic process, and I have a lot of faith in the intelligence, dedication, and goodwill of my neighbors to dive into the details of these discussions. There are a lot of things to consider, and I have confidence in your ability do that if you have all the information transparently available to you. I will advocate based on my own preferences, but ultimately the decision on how I vote at the Board is going to come from the neighbors.

WHAT I THINK ABOUT BEACON ST RIGHT NOW

If you want to hear my personal opinions about zoning on Beacon St from Washington to Inman, I’m glad to break some of those down as well. I think that we need to get it right before passing it, and that what’s proposed now has some serious problems that have not been addressed. 

I’d like to see zoning that allows homeowners more flexibility to modify their homes, and I’d like to see zoning in place that prevents buildings that discourage interactions with the neighborhood. (As much as I love the people who live in 94 Beacon, I don’t think it’s the best model for what buildings can be on Beacon Street.) I’d also like to see zoning that encourages the creation of small businesses that serve the neighborhood like Thai Hut, the Biscuit, Thirsty Scholar, and more. I’d like to find ways that we can enable responsible development that creates affordable housing for low and middle income residents. I’d like to think we can do all of that without destroying the character of the neighborhood.

I’m very interested in walking down the street with a group of neighbors and a tape measure! I’d love to hear what neighbors think is desirable and objectionable on the street, and make a list of what the important factors are in preserving the character of the neighborhood including really understanding what’s actually there already.

=-=-=-=-=

It’s not going to be short or easy, but I actually think it sounds pretty exciting to work with all of my neighbors to find great solutions and make sure that the neighborhood is what we want to make of it… which is a big part of why I’m running for Alderman.

Real Ideas for Fighting Displacement Part 2: Community Land Trusts

One of the biggest problems we see around development in Somerville is that the path of development is shaped not by the residents and homeowners, but instead by the real estate developers who come in and put high cash bids on properties. If you own a home here, you have received many pieces of mail, phone calls, and even in-person door knocking asking to buy your house – and if you rent, trust me when I say your landlord has gotten plenty of those offers.

The result of this is that most homes that hit the market – and many that never even go on the open market – go through a middleman step of being purchased by a developer, rehabbed (brought up to “luxury” status), and then remarketed as a finished product. This simultaneously displaces the current residents and puts the price range forever out of reach for the former tenants – working-class and middle-class people here in Somerville.

How We Can Stop It

When it comes to gentrification, this process is the worst outcome; it only does the exact thing we want to prevent. If we want innovative and community-serving development solutions that don’t displace residents, we need to present an alternative path. That’s where Community Land Trusts enter the equation.

A Community Land Trust is a non-profit organization set up to help people buy homes affordably in their community. The way it could work here is that a potential purchaser works with the Community Land Trust to make an offer on a property. The purchase is split: the new homeowner will buy the structure itself, and the Community Land Trust purchases the land underneath it.

An Example of How It Works

In Somerville, this would mean a dramatic reduction in the cost of housing and enable many people who are currently renters to become homeowners. Recent listings in Ward 2 show “pre-rehab” 2-family homes going for $950k-1M. One nearby case that I’m looking at today (pictured here) is pretty standard: 3beds/1bath and 2beds/1bath units in a 2-family for $950,000. Looking at the Somerville Assessor’s Database, we can see that the land underneath it is valued at $390,000.

A person buying this building would be looking at a big, hard-to-get Jumbo mortgage that would not qualify for many assistance programs, and the cost would be about $4,000/month for just the mortgage. That’s developer territory – and in order to make money a buyer is going to rehab the property and remarket it at luxury rates as soon as possible.

But when you get the Community Land Trust involved, things change dramatically. Buying the property as a tenant association working in conjunction with the land trust means the cost to the new occupants would be just $560,000. Split that across two units equitably based on living area and bedrooms, and we’re looking at just $308,000 for the 3BR unit, and $252,000 for a 2BR unit.

Those are mortgages for homes at just $1,200/month and $1,000/month. $1,000/month for two bedrooms… in Somerville! This isn’t a fantasy – this is something we can do. Even with homeowner’s insurance and property taxes, this is truly affordable housing for the middle class.

The homes still sell at market rate – the owner doesn’t lose anything in the sale.
The homes go to working class people who can now afford to stay in Somerville.

What Happens in the Future?

A home purchased in cooperation with a Community Land Trust generally comes with some terms attached, particularly when it comes to resale. The point of the CLT is to keep prices affordable forever by removing the property from the speculative investment market. When a property goes up for sale – because a family outgrows it, for example – the sale isn’t at “market rate”. Instead, the housing unit is sold at the rate of inflation plus any value of improvements made to the property (home renovations) and a small percentage for the homeowner’s stewardship and care of the property. In some cases the CLT can purchase the home and simply lease it at affordable rates instead.

This means homes remain affordable forever thanks to the covenants attached to a transaction made in cooperation with a Community Land Trust.

Community Land Trusts Stabilize Our Neighborhoods

This is a way of approaching housing as a right to affordable shelter that creates stable communities instead of a get-rich scheme that displaces residents and encourages gentrification.

There are a lot of different ways to manage Community Land Trusts and the devil is in the details, as always. But we’re got lots of great examples to pull from and I have confidence that we can structure one that works for Somerville.

Community Land Trusts aren’t new. In fact, they’ve been around since the 1980s in urban areas of the United States. Bernie did it as Mayor of Burlington. This is an approach we can start using right now in Somerville. It pairs very well with a Tenant Right of First Refusal Law and it’s something I’ll be pushing to establish starting my first day in office as your Alderman.

Endorsed: Our Revolution Somerville

FIRST CHURCH SOMERVILLE UCC– This past Sunday, members of Our Revolution Somerville (ORS) voted to endorse a slate of candidates running for office in Somerville. Both candidates for Ward 2 Alderman – Maryann Heuston and JT Scott – applied for endorsement. JT Scott received the endorsement from ORS along with 9 other candidates running for local office.

JT addressed ORS members at the meeting, detailing his platform. At the forefront is our response the the city’s affordability crisis, which can be addressed at the municipal level in part by new policies he is proposing like the creation of Community Land Trusts and creating a Right of First Refusal law.

Additionally, the city needs to improve on issues of accountability & transparency. The city can do better to notify and involve residents on important legislation being considered like the zoning overhaul for Union Square that allowed a 27-story luxury apartment tower to be built, and notify tenants (instead of only property owners) of board meetings reviewing proposed changes on neighboring properties. It might make the aldermen’s jobs a little harder, but we owe to residents.

JT is also refusing to accept contributions from real estate developers and real estate lawyers – not because they’re bad people, but because he believes an Alderman should work for the residents instead of business interests primarily looking to profit off our city.

Candidates seeking endorsement provided responses to several dozen questions posed by ORS on topics such as campaign finance reform, regulations for real estate development, support for Somerville’s Sanctuary Status, and whether candidates would support allowing non-citizens to vote in municipal elections. Completed questionnaires from all candidates are publicly available on the ORS website, www.ourrevolutionsomerville.com.

Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017.
You can learn more about JT and his campaign by visiting https://www.jtforward2.com
For more information, contact JT Scott at (857) 615-1532.

Pictured: the candidates endorsed by OR Somerville. Peyton Corbett (Mayor), Ben Ewen-Campen (Ward 3), JT Scott (Ward 2), Will Mbah (At-large), Mary Jo Rossetti (At-Large), Bill White (At-Large). Not pictured but also endorsed: Jesse Clingan (Ward 4), Mark Niedergang (Ward 5), Lance Davis (Ward 6).

Artist Displacement: a letter from Ward 2

I received this letter last night from a resident of Ward 2 that I met a few months back while knocking on doors for the campaign. He’s a kind and warm artist – a great neighbor, and part of what makes Somerville amazing and beautiful.

Hello JT,

Remember me?

Since we met in the Spring, I’ve had a sadly typical Somerville experience: my lease ends on July 31 and my landlady won’t renew my lease; she’s going to flip the apartment, jack the rent, and get new tenants in here.

The current rent on this 2-bedroom apartment is $1,650.00. The realtor convinced my landlady to raise this to $2,200! Some lucky couple will get to pay that amount for the realtor fee, plus their first and last month’s rent. 

I don’t have $6,600 on hand to keep my apartment so I’m being displaced. A friend in Arlington is letting me stay with her for a couple of months. After that, I’m not certain I’ll stay in town. I need time to ponder this.

Somerville needs rent control. The city needs to provide housing that creative people can afford. So many friends have been driven out to Watertown and Arlington. Or Plymouth, New Bedford, and Providence, RI.

I hope very much that you can get elected. I hope very much that when you do, you will do something about the obscene housing market in Somerville. PorchFest is a cute celebration of our artist community. What about the rest of the year? I’m not feeling the love from City Hall.

This is what people are facing all over the city – as he says, an all too typical experience. We have to do better to keep Somerville’s residents in their homes and make it affordable for all of us to live here.

This is why I’m running. This is why I need your help to get elected.

Can you help him find an affordable apartment in Ward 2? Get in touch. Can you help me get elected so that I can fight for all of us? Get in touch. We have to work together to make this happen.

Real Ideas for Fighting Displacement Part 1: Right-of-First-Refusal

I find over and over as I knock on doors and talk to voters that people yearn for ways to fight the wave of gentrification in Somerville. They are scared of being displaced, or have already been displaced before and fear not being able to find a place if forced to move again. Finally, there’s a lot of fatalism around gentrification: “What can we do?”

I’ve heard that same fatalism from city officials, and quite frankly that’s disappointing. The fact is that there are many things we can try to keep residents from being displaced.

I’ve written at length here before about the benefits of commercial development and the carry-through effects of reducing residential real estate taxes, and thankfully that message seems to be heard at the city level. I still don’t think we’re doing enough to encourage commercial development instead of luxury residential, but at least it’s being heard.

What I’m not hearing are innovative ideas for how to keep residents here in Somerville. Fortunately, I’ve got more than a few of those that I’d like to implement. The first one I’ll write about in this blog is implementing a Right-of-First-Refusal law here in Somerville.

What is “Right-of-First-Refusal”?

Put simply, ROFR is a law that says that tenants in a building have a fair chance to purchase that building if the owner is seeking to sell it.

All too often in Somerville, when a property goes up for sale the timeline looks like this:

  1. Property lists on Thursday.
  2. Open House on Saturday.
  3. Cash offer buys the house on Monday at noon.
  4. Tenants are immediately displaced, construction crews arrive to start renovating the property to luxury standards.

This process doesn’t leave much room for regular working families to buy a house even if they’re in the market already with a pre-approved mortgage in hand. For tenants in a building that is getting sold who are caught by surprise, there’s no room at all.

That’s where a ROFR law comes in to help: if a building is offered for sale, the tenants get a window of time in which they can match that asking price (market price) and come up with financing to buy it.

Maybe the tenants can get a mortgage on their own. Maybe they can get family to help. Maybe in a multi-unit building the tenants can form a co-op and finance it together to purchase their homes. Maybe they can get assistance from the neighborhood’s Community Land Trust. (More on this particular concept is coming in part 2 of this series.)

Regardless, the result is that tenants have a fair chance to buy the building they currently rent and live in, preventing displacement from the neighborhood and increasing home ownership in Somerville.

Did you know? Only 20% of residents in the Union Square area own their homes. This is targeted to reduce to 12% after the completion of the Union Square Revitalization Plan.

Implementing a Right-of-First-Refusal law

This is not a new and untested concept. Washington DC has had a law of this kind since 1980, and it has been effective in reducing displacement and increasing opportunities for homeownership. There are some problems with how that particular law (TOPA) is written, and I’ll be proposing specific language for this ordinance that prevents assigning ROFR rights to non-tenants and which clearly defines tenants as people who have signed leases in place, but the long track record of ROFR laws in Washington and other cities will allow us to craft a thoughtful and effective ordinance that does what we intend it to do.

The Board of Aldermen has the authority to pass a ROFR law here in Somerville, and if elected I intend to make it a priority to get one through the Committee on Legislative Affairs and brought to a vote. I look forward to working with the skilled lawyers already on the Board to help craft a fair and resilient law that benefits all Somerville residents.

Questions about Right-of-First-Refusal

As I talk to neighborhood residents here in Ward 2, both homeowners and tenants rightfully have questions about how this kind of law would impact them. Here’s a few of those that I’ve heard:

Q: Would this limit how much I could sell my property for, as a property owner?

A: No.  If anything, it will make pricing properties a more realistic proposition. Under a ROFR law, a property owner is free to place whatever asking price they want on their property. The tenants simply have the first shot at matching that asking price. If the tenants decline, the property goes onto the open market and the usual bidding war can commence.

Q: How much time would I have as a tenant to buy the house?

A: This varies based on the actual text of the ROFR law, but I’d be inclined to suggest a 30 day period to sign a Letter of Intent for tenants to match the seller’s asking price. That should be enough time for tenants to explore their options and decide to begin the purchase process. After that, there would be statutory limits on time to negotiate the terms of the sale and secure financing for the transaction. If the process falls through, the property would just go on the open market.

Q: Would this program cost the city of Somerville any money?

A: Absolutely not. This is not a subsidy, nor is it a process the city is required to monitor or enforce. It would be a law governing certain specifics of real estate transactions, and like other such laws would just become part of the process that realtors and real estate lawyers help both sellers and buyers navigate all the time.

Q: Would this program slow down the process of selling my house, as a homeowner?

A: If you have tenants in your property, yes – and it is intended to do that. If you are selling a condo or single family home you live in, the law won’t impact you at all.

Q: What happens in the event of an off-market offer (also known as a private sale)?

A: The process would trigger when the official private offer was made to sell the property. That price offered by a private buyer would become the market price which the tenants would have an opportunity to match.

Q: Would this keep me from handing my house down to my children and grandchildren?

A: No. The law as I envision it would allow you to pass ownership of your home to your descendants.

Q: Would this process actually prevent displacement and slow gentrification?

A: ROFR laws have been shown to be quite effective and protecting tenants and stabilizing neighborhoods.

Do you have more questions about Right-of-First-Refusal laws, how they work, and how they would impact Somerville?

If so, please shoot me a note at jtforward2@gmail.com or post to the comments below. I’ll be glad to hear your ideas and talk more about how this simple tool can help ensure that Somerville has a home for all of us!

Pride Day

I am queer. I am proud.

I am a white man. I own a business. I took my daughter to swim class this morning. I am a candidate for local office. And I am still queer.

Pride is in knowing who you are and being willing to be seen as such. Not unafraid – because fear is real and frequently both justified and wise – but willing to proclaim your self and your right to exist.

Our Pride tells everyone else around us that it’s okay to be whoever they are, however they are.

Pride, as a day, is the celebration of a riot at Stonewall led by POC and trans people who refused to be bullied or silenced. Ever since, the queer community has celebrated that riot by taking to the streets.

No matter how many corporate banks or establishment politicians join marches or sponsor events, the essence of the day is in the Pride of the queers who throng to celebrate their existence and the riot of colors, shapes, and sizes that honor that act of Resistance at Stonewall.

I’ve had a long history of LGBTQ rights advocacy. It’s part of who I am, but it’s also an indelible part of my belief that we should all be free to pursue love, employment, and the rest of our daily lives without discrimination or harassment.

I don’t say it out loud every day, but on Pride I do: I am queer. And regardless of what flavor of queer we are, your journey is important, my journey is important, our existence is important.

Skin in the Game: A Risk Assessment Story of Somerville and Union Square

Many years ago, we were promised that an exclusive sweetheart deal with FRIT would bring jobs and commercial development to Somerville in Assembly Row. The much needed commercial development would go on this large plot of open land the city controlled, bringing tax revenue to relieve the burden on homeowners and renters.

10 years later, Somerville has invested significantly in infrastructure in Assembly and has renegotiated the sweetheart deal with FRIT twice – in FRIT’s favor – and we still haven’t seen the promised commercial development. FRIT has managed to build plenty of luxury apartment housing and retail, but only two office buildings.

The larger of those two buildings, for Partners Health, pays no taxes to the city.

This plan was pushed by the mayor’s office, the developer, and the planning department as crucial for bringing commercial development to the city. 10 years later, we’re still waiting for what was promised.

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Now it’s 2017 and Union Square is the new Assembly Row. Another massive developer and another set of sweetheart deals from the city are being pushed on us as being critical for commercial development in Somerville. And the pressure is on the Board of Aldermen to pass the zoning that constitutes their final approval of this plan.

But once again, it’s a set of deals that doesn’t prioritize timely commercial development, and doesn’t provide guarantees  needed to protect the city’s finances and the residents ultimately responsible for the taxes.

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Who has skin in this game? It’s easy to count what the city has at stake.

Since beginning the Union Square process, the city has taken on nearly $300 MILLION in new debt obligations – much of which is directly enabling this development.

These debt obligations are already happening and the city starts racking up interest fees immediately, whereas the buildings we hope to see result from them may never arrive. The revenue to repay them must come from taxes on the new development – and as have seen in Assembly Square that may take a long time, or never come at all – or from us, the residents left holding the bag.

By contrast, what does the Developer have to lose?

The Developer has no up-front financial obligations to the city. The only payments they have committed amount to less than $10 per square foot they get to build – and only paid as they actually build the properties over the course of 30 years.

(In contrast, a small medical marijuana distributor in Davis Square is contributing over $100 per square foot in community benefits payments – and all within 3 years. Source: http://somerville.wickedlocal.com/news/20170410/medical-marijuana-dispensaries-coming-soon-to-davis-square-and-east-somerville )

Pictured here: the 27 story luxury apartment tower designed for Union Square. Has anyone shown you this picture before?

The Developer has no obligation to create commercial space. In fact, according to the current agreements in place they can build nearly 400 luxury 1-bedroom and studio units in a 27-story luxury high-rise in Union Square (and 80 affordable housing units, somewhere) and then walk away, leaving the city holding the bag for all of the other costs.

If the developer wants to build more luxury residential and retail, the story gets even better for them: all the city is currently requiring of them is one small office building before they get back to dominating the skyline and neighborhood with as much luxury residential as the zoning allows – which at this point is nearly 1000 units, total.

That lonely office building isn’t required to be built until years after the Green Line extension arrives… and we know how long we’ve been waiting for that.

And as for future risk? The deals contain all sorts of protections and clawbacks for the developer that insulate them from future cost increases or payments to the city. They even get to purchase the parcels seized by eminent domain at the city’s cost. We will be stuck with the terms of this deal, non-negotiably, for 30 years.

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As in Assembly Row, the city is telling us to trust the developer’s good faith and financial interest to bring us commercial buildings, jobs, and tax revenue. As in Assembly Row, there are no guarantees in place to ensure we get them. And as in Assembly Row, the Board of Aldermen are being pressured to rush approval of this process.

Worst of all: the city has not even prepared a financial impact study of what all these costs mean to the city’s finances, and how long it will take for this proposed development to start bringing revenue into the city to give residents some relief on their taxes and rents.

Last night, Katjana Ballantyne (Ward 7 Alderman) asked for this analysis and was told by the city that it doesn’t exist. Tonight, she and the other Alderman are being asked to vote to approve this plan and zoning anyway.

This is a sweetheart deal that hasn’t been publicized to the residents of Somerville, hasn’t had proper scrutiny, isn’t negotiated to benefit the community, and is being rushed far in advance of the customary 90 day review process allowed of all zoning. Most of all, it’s a deal designed by the developer and endorsed by the mayor – not structured by our aldermen and endorsed by the residents.

Some of our Aldermen have been fighting hard to get answers to these risk questions and get guarantees that protect us, the residents. Notably, Katjana Ballantyne (Ward 7), Mark Niedergang (Ward 5), and Matt McLaughlin (Ward 1) have been working to amend the zoning to address neighborhood concerns – and I thank them for their efforts. All of the Aldermen have been in meetings this week and last that went until after midnight debating this proposal as we in Somerville wait and watch from the outside.

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The deal is being improved with every late night of work by the aldermen, but there’s a long way to go before we get something that’s right for Somerville.

Alderman Katjana Ballantyne said it well last night:

We can’t keep kicking the can down the road to generate more revenue. Priority is commercial office development. It about the people who live here in Somerville now.

Jobs and tax relief will come when we have office space for new businesses to locate here. New businesses in turn will provide new jobs here and new commercial tax revenues to help us pay for schools, roads, police, fireman and all of the things that we now pay for as residents, almost all alone.

There has been no fiscal analysis to support the developer’s position since the city tripled its debt obligations.”

Now, with less than 40 days of consideration, our aldermen are being pressured into a vote that leaves all of the risk on the City of Somerville and its residents while handing over the keys to the future of Union Square to a developer with no skin in the game.

I encourage the aldermen to hold the line and give this zoning its full and proper time for consideration. I believe that there is no need to rush into a deal – with incomplete information – that will bind the city and its residents for the next 30 years.

Mothers

Love to the mothers, and to those who choose not to be. Love to those who are trying to become mothers, and love to those who can’t. Much love to those who are finding the ways to be mothers in nontraditional ways.

Love to those whose mothers supported and sustained them, and to those who needed to leave in order to be healthy and safe. Your mothers all did their best, and I hope we can support each other to do better with every generation.

Love to my mother, and the mother of my child, and everyone who’s thinking of their mothers today.

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My mother worked hard to raise me right in a rough situation. She dropped out of college when she became pregnant and spent the rest of her life dedicated to her family. She eventually went back after 15 years to finish her degree part-time and was proud of her education, but her passion was always her husband, children, and grandchildren. She was an artist, quilter, crafter, and master of all the small and large things it takes to keep a home and a family together through some very tough times.

Not everyone is as lucky as I was. Not everyone gets to have a mother for as long as they need, and not everyone’s mother does as well as they’d like. I meet mothers every day in Ward 2 who are struggling to make it all work; it’s not easy. We don’t do enough to support women – from medical care to paid maternal leave – and help all those who make the choice to become mothers be the best mothers they can be.

That’s one reason why I feel blessed to have a partner who is a spectacularly strong woman herself. The mother of my child is an artist and businesswoman, yes – and also an observant, patient, kind, and wise woman who supports me in my endeavors and is helping to raise our daughter to be strong, inquisitive, unafraid, and independent. As I’ve said many times, my life doesn’t work without her. I’m honored to work with her and support her in every way I can.

My own mother died in 2013, and I miss her all the time. I only have so many ways to tell Indy who her grandmother was, but I can honor her legacy best by doing all I can to be a good parent and support Indy’s mother.

I have been blessed to be supported and surrounded by incredible women my entire life – and am grateful for the efforts of not just the mothers, but all women working to make the world a better place for this generation and the ones who come after.