February 12, 2010
Honorable Board of Aldermen
City of Somerville
93 Highland Ave
Somerville, MA 02143
Dear Members of the Board of Aldermen,
I am writing to the members of the Board and, specifically to Aldermen O’Donovan, Heuston, and White in their roles as members of the Land Use Committee, to urge you to vote against the proposed Somerville Zoning Ordinance to promote Senior Housing.
I believe that both the premise for the Ordinance and the approach that it takes are wrong.
Why the Premise of the Proposed Ordinance is Wrong: A zoning amendment that exacerbates the existing imbalance of development incentives — which already favor small senior housing units over multi-bedroom family housing — is bad public policy in a community that has lost nearly 50% of its young residents over a 30 year period.
In large measure, the rationale for the zoning amendment is the decline in the number of seniors in Somerville, as described in the City’s “Population Trends Factsheet,” (pdf) which describes a decrease from 1970 to 2000 of approx. 3,000 seniors (from approx 11,000 to approx. 8,000).
During that same period, the City’s overall population declined by about 11,000 (from 88,000 to 77,000), average household size decline by 20% (from 3 to 2.4 members per household), and the number of children and youth declined even more precipitously, by 15,000 (from 26,000 to 11,000), according to that same “Population Trends Factsheet”.
Indeed, these trends mirror what has been happening throughout much of urban America — shrinking household sizes, and modification of the housing stock to turn multi-bedroom family housing into smaller condos for individuals, couples, and small families.
Over the past 10-15 years, Somerville has enacted tax abatement programs to help seniors (and other owner occupants) remain in their homes despite increasing costs, and has worked with the Somerville VNA and Somerville Housing Authority to create more affordable housing for seniors than for any other segment of the population. Waiting lists for senior housing and subsidies are much shorter than wait lists for families, and new senior developments have had to look outside Somerville to fill vacancies.
A healthy city requires a mix of residents of all ages. The closures of three school buildings over the past 10 years is unmistakable evidence that the ability of families to remain in Somerville has been undermined by spiraling housing costs. Families need to have affordable options for moving into larger-sized apartments and houses as their children grow older, or else they leave the community. The steady decline of the Somerville school population and shrinking kindergarten enrollments (until last year) — and the periodic re-emergence of proposals to close the Brown School — are evidence that the unhealthy erosion of Somerville’s base of families is continuing.
While the aforementioned senior housing developments and targeted property tax policies have enhanced the ability of seniors to remain in Somerville, the housing-related barriers for families have only increased.
Left to its own, the private market simply does not build affordable housing for families requiring more than two bedrooms. While SCC has been able to add a relatively small number of family units to the City’s affordable housing stock (with the invaluable help of the City’s Affordable Housing Trust and the generous support of a few local lenders), the economic playing field is clearly lopsided in favor of smaller units.
The proposed Senior Housing Zoning Amendment would only exacerbate the imbalance in incentives for developing family housing.
Of course, the Board of Aldermen is not responsible for the Somerville Housing Authority’s decision to award project based subsidies for the proposed senior housing development at 44 Park St. However, that decision — to take 89 subsidies which would otherwise be available to assist both Somerville families and seniors, and to instead target them only to seniors — represents an illogical and imbalanced approach which undermines the City’s efforts to keep Somerville affordable for families. Instead of implementing a zoning amendment that undercuts a balanced approach to keeping Somerville affordable for families and seniors, the Administration and the Board of Aldermen should work with the Somerville Housing Authority to develop and accelerate implementation of more even-handed approaches to maintaining and expanding Somerville’s affordable housing stock.
Why the Substance of the Proposed Ordinance is Wrong: A zoning amendment that circumvents the public’s right to participate in deliberations about the permitting of developments which require zoning variances — and that appears to be tailored to allow routine approval of a specific development that was broadly criticized when it was first proposed — is bad public policy.
The Mayor and every member of this Board of Aldermen has run for office touting their commitment to accountable and transparent government. Of course, accountability and transparency are not just about what’s provable in a court of law, they are about public perception — that is, whether or not there is an appearance of impropriety, nepotism, or unfair treatment.
Somerville residents deserve a process that is — and that appears to be — even-handed in its evaluation of development proposals. As Bill Shelton has summarized in his recent Somerville News column the proposed Ordinance — relaxing the density, height, and parking requirements that necessitated the request for a variance for the 44 Park St. proposal — has the appearance of impropriety, particularly given the relationships between the developer, his partners, and various elected and appointed officials.
Rather than endorsing a proposal that takes a questionable and imbalanced approach to addressing Somerville’s real and growing affordable housing challenges — and that raises doubts in the minds of residents about the integrity of City government — I would urge the Board of Aldermen to table the proposed Ordinance, and to work with the Administration to convene a Commission that brings together elected officials and their designees, concerned residents, the Somerville Housing Authority, and key players in the non-profit, faith, and business communities to develop recommendations for keeping Somerville affordable to all segments of its traditional population. I would encourage that Commission, and interested members of the Board of Aldermen, to seriously consider the recommendations for a Non-Displacement Strategy being developed by Somerville Community Corporation’s Affordable Housing Organizing Committee, which previously submitted testimony opposing the proposed Ordinance.
Thank you for your consideration of these comments.
Fred Berman, 25 Cherry St., Somerville, MA 02144
Ph. 617-776-0503 C. 617-501-1404 email@example.com