Growing families, low-wage workers, young tenants, students, artists and creative professionals, older people on fixed incomes, and those who’ve recently immigrated to America are among the populations being adversely affected by Somerville’s rising housing costs. These are the people who have made Somerville a diverse, vibrant, and exciting place to live, and they’re the ones who are being pushed out. The Somerville Community Corporation found that 43% of Somerville residents are paying more than a third of their income for housing and are therefore considered cost-burdened; for the two-thirds of the city’s residents who rent their homes, more than half are cost-burdened (including Elizabeth!). This is unacceptable, and it is getting worse.
As an almost entirely residential city, we have a responsibility to ensure a diverse housing stock with suitable homes for residents of all ages and incomes. Moreover, our position as a residential city means that we should be able to experiment and innovate, and help to lead other cities in dealing with their affordable housing shortages.
Policies that Elizabeth would pursue as Alderman:
- Reward benevolent landlords
Recognize and reward good landlords who help the community by offering reasonable rents and maintaining their properties by starting a Benevolent Landlords program. Landlords who met criteria — based on reasonable rent increases, property maintenance, and other factors — would be eligible for tax credits or access to resources. Such a program would incentivize community-oriented decisions by those landlords who might not be so inclined otherwise.
- Use a transfer tax to fund affordable housing
A tax on property sales above a certain (high) threshold would allow the city to raise funds for costly affordable housing programs, such as subsidizing the construction of new affordable units and guaranteeing the mortgages of income-eligible new buyers. A transfer tax would also discourage flipping and speculation, while allowing the city to collect revenue on flipping that did still occur.
- Expand inclusionary housing
The limited space available for new residential construction is in demand by developers. The city should require developers to include 20% affordable units in large housing construction, as well as providing a diversity of units at all price points, with units suitable for families, seniors wishing to age-in-place, artists who want to live and work in the same space, and residents with disabilities.
- Enact progressive zoning
Eliminate the parking requirement for new residential construction in transit-oriented areas; end the cap on the number of unrelated tenants per unit (and replace with overcrowding controls based on square footage); expand the arts overlay district
Elizabeth is excited by these and many other ideas put forth by the Sustainable Neighborhoods committee and other affordable housing experts. Helping our housing market to become more sustainable, diverse, and affordable IS possible, but it will require the committed attention of City Hall. Elizabeth pledges to make affordable housing the center of her agenda as Alderman.
One major way that Elizabeth departs from current leadership is that she does NOT support is the limit on the number of unrelated tenants who can share a unit. This regulation has been maintained in the rewritten zoning code. Such restrictions are often justified as a response to dangerous overcrowding. If a unit is dangerously overcrowded with five unrelated tenants, it would also be dangerously overcrowded with five brothers. Safety and overcrowding should be regulated on the basis of a unit’s square footage and modes of egress, not by blanket limitation of the number of tenants. Another justification is that larger units should be reserved for families with children. But the way to give families access to larger units is not to prohibit friends, cooperatives, and found-families from larger units; it’s to encourage the construction of more such units and the general easing of rent prices.