Transparency – Better Communication
Did you know that:
- A 27-story luxury high-rise apartment is planned for Union Square?
- Major changes are coming to the zoning of Beacon Street, Washington Street, and Union Square, including lots of taller, closer buildings?
- Large developments in the city are now approved by an unelected Somerville Redevelopment Authority and not the Board of Aldermen?
- The City has approved 250 properties in Union Square to be taken by eminent domain?
- Even after 150+ Somerville residents showed up at the meeting to protest it, the Planning Board gave the developers at Assembly Square a waiver from the city ordinance that requires 20% affordable housing in new developments… and let them get away with just 6.5% instead?
It took me hundreds of hours at public meetings to learn about these things, but the city communicates just fine when it wants to. The city has a state-of-the-art system for notifying citizens about parades and snow emergencies, and we all hear about those. When it comes to city business, zoning, and transformational laws that the Board of Aldermen are considering, there’s only silence until after things are decided. We can do better.
Planning and zoning board meetings are only mailed to property owners, not the rental tenants who will have to live next door to the projects that get approved. Agendas, legal agreements, and even detailed 100-page zoning documents are only published 24-48 hours before public meetings, buried deep in the city’s website. How can residents engage with local government and consider the issues if they aren’t actively informed of the city’s business? We can do better.
You shouldn’t hear about these things only after they have been approved. The city needs to share information earlier in the process in easy-to-access formats we can understand. It is the City’s job to let residents know what is going on! We can do better.
Accountability & Campaign Finance
You should have easy and frequent access to your Alderman. I live and work in Union Square. I will hold frequent office hours and return your phone calls. Above all, I believe that holding political office is a public service – not a career.
I’m not accepting any contributions from real estate developers because I believe your alderman should only work for you. Your voice as a resident of Somerville should help define how Somerville evolves, and then the city can find developers who will fit into that vision.
Whether you own or rent, you are feeling the squeeze. I’ve talked to renters who are forced to move every year by rising rents and who doubt they’ll ever be able to afford to buy. I’ve talked to older residents on fixed incomes being forced out of their homes by rising real estate taxes and utility rates. And I’ve talked to families who have lived in the same house for generations now finding their adult children can’t buy homes nearby, and are instead being pushed out to other cities. We need bold action to preserve the community we all love whether we’ve been here 3 years or 3 generations. We can do better.
Below are just three options that could help Somerville retain more affordable housing:
Right of First Refusal Law: This would mean that when selling a property with rental units, the first opportunity to buy would go to the tenants already living there. It doesn’t hurt the seller in any way — and it doesn’t cost the city a dime. It has worked in cities like Washington DC and it can work here in Somerville.
Community Land Trusts: These organizations help tenants purchase properties by reducing the costs, since their mortgage only need cover the building and not the land beneath it. This is another proven method for preserving affordable housing over the long haul while putting community members and residents in the driver’s seat in terms of governing their own neighborhood. The Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington VT and the Dudley Neighbors Incorporated in Boston are leading examples of Land Trusts, and as of 2014 there were over 260 Community Land Trusts in 46 states. Somerville should have one, and I’ll be pushing to make that happen immediately.
Benevolent Landlord Tax Credit: The city could develop a robust program of incentives for landlords who rent units in the multi-family homes and triple-deckers where they live to keep rental costs as low as possible. Multi-family homes make up a large part of Somerville’s rental properties, and most landlords don’t want to raise rents past a level they know their long-term neighbor tenants can afford – but with rising property taxes they often don’t have a choice. A Benevolent Landlord Tax Credit would reduce the property taxes for live-in landlords who commit to keep rents affordable.
Somerville has some of the highest residential property taxes in the area partly because we have too few employers and commercial taxpayers in the city. Commercial tax receipts are typically triple what the same size property would bring in if it were residential. Increasing commercial development would allow Somerville to substantially reduce residential property taxes.
In addition to increased tax revenues, expanded local employment would also reduce the amount of traffic and pollution our city already suffers, reduce parking pressure in the neighborhoods, and enable us to improve walking and biking safety in our intersections.
Union Square zoning has been completed but there are opportunities for an activist board of Aldermen to ensure that new development around Union Square and all across Somerville is also biased heavily in favor of developing as much commercial real estate as possible. While the mayor and Board of Aldermen didn’t negotiate the strong terms I would have liked to see in Union Square and Assembly Square, there is still a role for an activist board to ensure that developers pay their fare share in Somerville..
Somerville should be prioritizing green spaces, civic spaces, playgrounds & parks to keep this community livable – and fighting for them in the deals we negotiate with developers. We need action to address the growing opioid epidemic affecting us all, and services to help families in the most need. We should strive to lead the way in removing soda from our schools and fighting the childhood obesity epidemic.