Somerville Election Thoughts

by jefftkjefftk17 min read21st Aug 20211 comment

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Personal Blog

Instead of a primary, Somerville holds preliminary elections. For each role, if there are more than twice as many candidates as spots there's preliminary election. This year that applies to Mayor (four candidates), and the councilors for Wards five (three candidates) and seven (four candidates). For the at-large councilors there are four spots and eight candidates, so they'll all go to the general election.

I think housing is the most important long-term issue for the city: rents and house prices have risen enormously and people are being forced out. Compare 2011 when a typical two-bedroom apartment was about $1700/month:

to 2019 where it's more like $2800:

Source and details. Note that 2021 rents are lower because of covid, but this is temporary.

In looking at candidates, the biggest thing I want to see is a commitment to lots of new housing. While I do think there are pros and cons to whether you build market rate, affordable, or public housing, I think this question is pretty small compared to how much housing you're talking about. I'd love to see us build so much housing that the cost of housing falls to the cost of construction. This means I'm looking for candidates who are enthusiastic about density, whether by general upzoning or as a carrot to encourage the construction of affordable housing (density bonuses). We do now have an affordable housing overlay, and I think it's great, but I'd like to see it expanded.

Overall, I was excited to see broad acknowledgment that this is a critical issue, and general support for the density bonus system. I think most of the candidates, even the ones who aren't my favorites, would still be great if elected, and I'm glad we have so many good choices.

Here are my thoughts on each, with personal endorsements in bold:

Mayor

  • Katjana Ballantyne: Katjana has worked in affordable housing development, and her work on the Clarendon Hills redevelopment project was both good (listening to existing residents, good progress so far) and pragmatic (using the construction of 300 new market rate units to fund the redevelopment). She is endorsed by Somerville YIMBY, and also endorsed by my outgoing city councillorMark Niedergang, for all-around competency.

  • Mary Cassesso: Mary has also worked in affordable housing development, is also endorsed by Somerville YIMBY, and I'd also be happy to see her win. Katjana's experience in city government, however, makes the difference for me.

  • Will Mbah: Will is in favor of increasing the required proportion of affordable units in market-rate development. This is already at 20%, and I don't think it's a good tool compared to density bonuses. Higher proportions decrease the total amount of units built, can even decrease the number of affordable units built (larger percentage of a smaller total).

  • Billy Tauro: While Billy is in favor of streamlining the Inspectional Services Department, which might help housing construction, I think if you read his about page you'll see why he would not be a good choice for mayor.

Ward 5 Councillor

  • Beatriz Gomez Mouakad: Beatriz is an architect with who has worked in affordable housing. She's endorsed by Somerville YIMBY and is in favor of both market-rate and affordable housing construction, increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing and expanding it to offer some increase for 50-75%, and wants to remove parking minimums citywide.

  • Tessa Bridge: Tessa is opposed to market-rate construction, increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing, and doesn't favor further removal of parking minimums.

  • Todd Easton: Todd is opposed to market-rate construction, increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing, and doesn't favor further removal of parking minimums.

Ward 7 Councillor

  • Alex Anderson: Alex is in favor of both market-rate and affordable housing construction, increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing and expanding it to offer some increase for 50-75%, and wants to remove parking minimums citywide. He told me that long term he's in favor of doubling or more than doubling the number of units in Somerville, and generally wrote thorough and thoughtful answers to my questions.

    Full responses to my emailed questions:

    Thanks for reaching out! And, please accept my apologies for how long it has taken me to get back to you.

    I appreciate your outreach and your sharing thoughtful questions for consideration. I will answer them to the best of my ability. I have no objection if you would like to share these questions publicly. I have answered similar questions for the Somerville YIMBY group's endorsement process and will answer similar questions as part of the Fair Housing Commission questionnaire as well (due July 16). If you do decide to share them publicly, I ask that you share the the full responses (including the section immediately following this paragraph) in addition to any excerpts, etc. that you want to share. I recognize this may be challenging - I just want to make sure folks have access to the whole response vs. just snippets.

    Before I get to your specific questions, I want to share a couple of things about how I think because I think a good City Councilor should have a consistent approach to decision making.

    • For me, my consistent approach starts with my values of equity (especially understanding and taking action to address the ways in which racism, classism, sexism, and other systems of oppression at the individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels prevent everyone from reaching their full potential), health and wellbeing, affordability, and sustainability.
    • Next, I view everything as a system - I believe we can understand everything from housing policy, to education, to healthcare, to transportation as the interaction of various stakeholders and institutiones/entities. No change exists in a silo - so, we must make decisions by: seeing the system, understanding the right quantitative and qualitative data about people's experiences within those systems, identify where there are gaps of experience (especially equity gaps because of racism, classism, sexism, other -isms), and work together to design improvements that address the core issues upstream.
    • I am not an expert in everything - I'm not an expert in most things! However, I believe a good City Councilor must have a process of bringing together the experts - including the organizations that work in the specific space on behalf of the community, the people themselves who are most affected by any of the issues at hand, and the rest of the stakeholders who are tasked with moving the work forward. By bringing everyone together, we can identify the win-win scenarios using the process described above (systems; data; people coming together; implementing changes; focused on equity).
    That's the perspective I bring to all of my work - it's what I do in my professional career as a health care researcher and racial equity advocate within my organization. And, it's what I intend to do as a City Councilor if I'm fortunate enough to win the support of our community.

    With that in mind, my answers to your specific questions are listed below.

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond to some of your questions! Please let me know if you'd like any clarification or continued discussion. I'd also be happy to stop by your house to talk to you if you'd like.

    Thank you!

    Q: Would you like to see Somerville house prices/home values rise, fall, or stay the same?

    This is a tricky situation. We have a lot of different tensions in Somerville related to housing. For nearly everyone, home ownership for existing, first time, and prospective owners is too expensive. And, rent prices continue to increase forcing many people and families out of our community and making it harder for folks to join our community.

    My wife and I have rented from the same home on Simpson Ave since 2013. We've explored buying property in the neighborhood several times over the last several years, and it's always felt out of reach.

    For many homeowners in Somerville, especially folks who have lived here their whole lives, who have invested in the community, raised their families here, seen the neighborhood change - their home is their biggest financial asset. And, I believe they should receive the benefit of their commitment to the neighborhood over the years. At the same time, it seems only developers or high income earners (often times from outside of Somerville) can afford market rate for houses when they are for sale.

    I believe we need policies in place that protect the value of home ownership so working people who have lived here for a long time can enjoy the benefit of their homes' appreciation while making sure that entities that are committed to Somerville's success and our community are able to buy properties.

    I think the solution to this is more house supply - especially housing supply that is accessible for low and middle income individuals/families. As an economist by schooling, increasing supply should bring prices down. However, I believe there is A LOT of pent up demand that wants to buy in Somerville. So, the impact on pricing with new supply may be challenging.

    This is why I think the solution to pricing is more about identifying the levers the City and City Council can pull to increase low and middle income housing supply throughout the entire city.

    Q: Would you support rent control, if it was re-legalized at the state level?

    Yes, I support policy-based approaches to protecting renters' ability to stay in their property. I think the strict interpretation of rent control (ie. blanket caps on rent increases across an entire community) has mixed results for long term affordability. So, this is the type of circumstance where I would rely on the experts who work in this space about the best practical approach to making sure people who want to stay living in Somerville can afford to do it. My understanding of rent control in cities across the US is that there are positive and negative situations in the short term and different positive and negative situations in the long term.

    Whatever we can do to make the city more affordable - especially for folks who are historically oppressed by housing policy (people of color - especially Black people, people on low incomes) - we should be doing.

    Q: Would you support allowing taller or otherwise denser construction around subway stations?

    Yes, 100%. As I mentioned, we need more supply of housing. And, I think we should be pursuing high density housing projects across all of Somerville - especially closest to important transit stations. And, we should incentivize construction that includes affordability mixed in with market rate housing.

    I will also say, I think we need more density across all of our housing stock. I'm not suggesting that every block in Somerville becomes a 6+ story building with 25+ units. But, I do think we need to re-evaluate some of our assumptions about the residential housing stock in our neighborhood. Most of our 2-3 family homes were built 100 years ago. They are not designed to last another 100 years. We should be exploring ways we can maintain the character of our neighborhood while also permitting rebuilding of new homes throughout our community that allow more people and families to live in our community.

    Q: Somerville currently has about 35,000 housing units. How many units would you like us to have in 2030?

    I don't know what the right number is! Again, this is where I would rely on the experts in this space and the voice of the community.

    I think we need more housing because the demand (especially for home sales) surpasses the supply. Houses go on the market and people in our community are often out-bid by cash offers from people/developers who don't live in Somerville. We need more housing supply to make buying in Somerville more attainable for low and middle income families.

    Q: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share on how you would address housing issues in Somerville?

    As I've mentioned, I think our primary challenge in Somerville is that the supply of house cannot meet the demands of people who want to rent or buy in Somerville -- unless the person, family, or entity that is buying/renting the property has access to a lot of capital.

    We need to city-wide increase in the housing supply. We need to build more densely populated, mixed-income housing properties all over Somerville. And, we need to incentivize current home owners and landlords to invest in their properties to make our existing housing stock more prepared for the next generation of Somerville.

    Q: Follow-up on number of housing units—would you be up for giving a very rough estimate?

    Thanks for following up! I appreciate your question and interest in specificity. Unfortunately, I don't think I can land on a number because I'm not an expert in the housing market space. I would love to hear discussion about best practices and recommended number of housing units given the geography, population trajectories, and density of our community.

    I believe Somerville currently has ~35,000 residential units. Would it be possible to double the number of units on any timeline? Maybe. Is that possible by 2030? I feel confident that it is logistically impossible to double the number of units in Somerville by 2030.

    Is that something we want in the long run - to double or more than double the number of residential units in our city? In theory, yes, I believe this is something that could be a benefit to the city. The resulting change would either involve new city center locations (like Assembly Row) where thousands or tens of thousands of units can be built on previously-non-residential spaces. Or, a gradual process of changing the standard duplex/multi-family home buildings common across Somerville and replace them over time with larger taller building that may hold 4-6 familles instead of 1-3 families.

    Over the long run, I'm supportive of both of these approaches. Cities, when designed well, can be the most sustainable form of living for large populations. And, we can increase the density of our housing supply over time. I also think it's important that we explore this conversation with a large proportion of the community - people's input is important!

    I'd love to discuss this in the coming weeks if you'd be willing to meet! And, even better if we could have a group conversation with any of the folks you were thinking about when you asked if you could share my response publicly. These are very interesting questions! I'd also to love to hear some of your thoughts - what do you think is right?

  • Judy Pineda Neufeld: Judy is endorsed by Somerville YIMBY and is in favor of both market rate and affordable housing construction, increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing and expanding it to offer some increase for 50-75%, and wants to remove parking minimums citywide.

  • Becca Miller: Becca is opposed to market-rate housing construction and doesn't favor further removal of parking minimums, but she is in favor of increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing and expanding it to offer some increase for 50-75%. She told me she'd like to see ~5k new units by 2030.

  • Maria Koutsoubaris: Maria is in favor of expanding parking requirements, and wrote to me that she would like to see higher home values and "a few" more units by 2030.

The remaining seats don't have a preliminary election, but here are thoughts on the candidates for contested seats:

Councillors at Large

  • Jake Wilson: Jake is endorsed by Somerville YIMBY and is in favor of market rate housing construction and both increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing and expanding it to offer some increase for 50-75%, but he doesn't favor further reducing parking minimums. He wrote long and thoughtful answers to my emailed questions.

  • Kristen Strezo: Kristen is in favor of market rate housing construction, zoning for increasing density in West Somerville, and both increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing and expanding it to offer some increase for 50-75%, but she doesn't favor further reducing parking minimums.

  • Justin Klekota: Justin is in favor of market rate housing construction and both increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing and expanding it to offer some increase for 50-75%, but not further removal of parking minimums.

  • Willie Burnley Jr: Willie is endorsed by Somerville YIMBY and while he is opposed to market rate housing construction and doesn't favor further removal of parking minimums he does favor increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing and expanding it to offer some increase for 50-75%. In his responses to the YIMBY questionnaire he rightly points out that this is not a simple issue, but is also skeptical of a market approach to housing to a degree that makes me wonder whether he would clash with the profit-motivated affordable housing developers I'd like to see more of.

  • Charlotte Kelly: Charlotte is endorsed by Somerville YIMBY and is opposed to market rate housing construction and further reducing parking minimums, but is in favor of increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing and expanding it to offer some increase for 50-75%. In their responses to the YIMBY questionnaire she wrote that "we cannot agree to build anything without serious community decision-making and agency over the direction of projects", which is a view that can often lead to much less housing construction.

  • Eve Seitchik: Eve didn't respond to my emails or fill out the Somerville YIMBY survey, but they told the YIMBY group that they're opposed to market rate housing construction.

  • Virginia Hussey: Virginia is opposed to market rate housing construction, thinks the rate of housing construction should not increase, wants to restore parking minimums, but also is in favor of high density housing throughout the city and both increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing and expanding it to offer some increase for 50-75%.

  • Tracey Leah Pratt: Tracey is opposed to market rate housing construction, wants to reduce the amount of housing construction in Somerville (which is already at historical lows!), and wants to restore parking minimums, but she does favor both increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing and expanding it to offer some increase for 50-75%.

Ward 2 Councillor

  • Steph Aman: Steph is in favor of market rate housing construction, and both increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing and expanding it to offer some increase for 50-75%, but also wants to restore parking minimums. They would like to see 10-15k more units built.

  • JT Scott: JT is opposed to market rate housing construction and further removing parking minimums, but does favor both increasing the density bonus for 100% affordable housing and expanding it to offer some increase for 50-75%. In his answers to the YIMBY questionnaire he wrote "housing is a segmented market and you can't solve a shortage of Toyota Corollas by just building a million Lamborghinis", which I think is a bad way to look at it (today's cheap housing was mostly 'luxury' market-rate housing when it was built).

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This seems to be a nationwide trend for desirable major metro areas. For instance, even 10 years ago making 70k in the Denver area would at least get you a decent condo, and you could probably find a very old house in an okay neighborhood to buy.

These last 5 years alone have really destroyed the possibility of home ownership (or even condo ownership) for a lot of people. Now, if you spouse up and you both make the average wage or above you are okay, but overall it seems like the shift is towards pricing out anyone but experienced workers working in a specific few sectors (technology, medicine mainly).

I'm not going to say it's impossible for people to get homes, but it seems like the only way people making salaries along the lines of 60-80k (many of which have no real possibility of going higher) are going to own homes is through marriage. Which isn't terrible, but people are panicking and going into buying mode because the door is closing fast. Denver, Seattle, Boise, Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, etc. are good examples of cities where the door is closing quickly.