Affordable housing proposals; Better care for our City’s trees

Affordable Housing DevelopmentButchered Tree

Above: Affordable Housing Development (left) and a Butchered Tree with Electric Wires (right)

In this edition:

  • Affordable housing: Sustainable Neighborhoods Working Group recommendations coming soon; 20% inclusionary zoning proposed to the Board of Aldermen for all new developments of 6+ units
  • Aldermen pushing the Administration to care better for City’s trees

Affordable housing: Sustainable Neighborhoods Working Group recommendations coming soon; 20% inclusionary zoning proposed for all new developments of 6+ units

My top priority as an Alderman is to work with the Mayor, my colleagues and other City leaders to get enough affordable housing built so that the mixed-income nature of our community does not disappear. As the Mayor says, “We must not lose our soul.” Somerville is becoming less diverse socio-economically, as low-income, and increasingly, middle-income individuals and families are being displaced by the rising cost of housing. Many of those being displaced have lived here for years and contributed a great deal to the community.

For generations, Somerville has been a place where working class, professional, immigrant, and low-income households lived side-by-side, in recent years in increasing harmony. But the way things are going now, in 10-20 years, only two-income professional families and rich people will be able to live here. Unless we take bold and decisive action now, the demographics of our City will change.

As Co-chair (with Dana LeWinter, the City’s former Housing Director) of the Sustainable Neighborhoods Working Group (SNWG), appointed by the Mayor in March 2015, I am working with the City’s Housing Director Michael Feloney and his staff and 29 volunteer members of the SNWG on recommendations to the Mayor for actions the City can take to preserve and expand affordable housing in Somerville.

There are three key SNWG meetings in the next month, when it will be voting on policy proposals to recommend to the Mayor for action. (If you’re interested in attending these public meetings, the next two are Weds October 14 and Weds Oct 21, 6 PM, both at the Visiting Nurses Association, 259 Lowell St, 3rd floor Community Room.)

Among the proposals are some that would raise millions of dollars for affordable housing such as:

  • a one percent transfer tax on all real-estate transactions in Somerville
  • an increase in the affordable housing linkage fee for large commercial construction projects.

There are major policy issues on the table, such as:

  • revising the condominium conversion ordinance,
  • a right-of-first refusal for tenants to buy apartments that are being sold,
  • zoning changes, and
  • alternative home ownership models.

Also under discussion is whether the City’s goal for housing development over the next 20 years should be kept at 6,000 units, or increased to 9,000, as the Mayor has proposed. The City is already moving ahead with the “100 Homes” program, the goal of which is for the Somerville Community Corporation (the only affordable housing developer in Somerville) to purchase 2-, 3- and 4-family houses and, using government subsidies, make the apartments permanently affordable.

20% inclusionary zoning proposed to Board of Aldermen for all new developments of 6+ units

At the October 8th Board of Aldermen (BOA) meeting, we received a petition from 511 residents supporting an increase in the inclusionary zoning rate from 12.5% to 20% throughout the City, as well as a zoning petition from 11 registered voters that requires the BOA to consider this and several other zoning changes in the inclusionary (affordable) housing zoning.

The most important change would require developers of six units or more anywhere in Somerville to reserve 20% of them as affordable housing units forever. (Tenants or owners are selected in a lottery by the City’s Housing Department). Other changes would give preference to people who have been displaced recently and streamline the application process for affordable units. You can see the two petitions, proposed new inclusionary zoning language, as well as all the signers’ names here.

I wholeheartedly support these proposed changes. Over the summer, I worked with the group that proposed these changes, lead by the Somerville Community Corporation’s (SCC) Affordable Housing Organizing Committee. These petitions are truly a grassroots response to Somerville’s affordable housing crisis, the community crying out for an increase in affordable housing now.

The first step in considering this proposed change to the zoning code will be a Public Hearing before the Planning Board and the Board of Aldermen at which anyone will have an opportunity to speak. The Planning Board will make a (non-binding) recommendation to the BOA and then the BOA Land Use Committee will meet to consider the proposal, which will require a 2/3 vote of the full BOA to pass.

Fred Berman, a member of the SCC Board of Directors, Ward 5 resident and activist and expert on affordable housing issues, wrote a terrific 1½-page letter to the BOA that sums up what this new zoning aims to do and why it is so important at this time in Somerville. You can read Fred's letter here.

Aldermen pushing the Administration to care better for City’s trees

Many people in Somerville are passionate about trees. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve heard from several people about Eversource (the electric utility formerly known as NStar) butchering (they call it pruning) trees in our neighborhoods to clear branches from around the electric and other utility wires. Aldermen all over the City received similar calls and emails.

This is just the latest of the many concerns about our City government’s care for our public trees. To be fair, Mayor Curtatone has done a lot: he committed the City to increasing its tree cover and backed that up by putting funds to plant 500 trees a year in the budget for several years. At my request and that of several other Aldermen to hire a full-time city arborist, the Mayor put $60,000 into the budget this year to hire a contract arborist.

Despite the Curtatone Administration’s good intentions, there are many areas for improvement in the way that the City takes care of our trees. I often receive complaints from constituents about tree care. These complaints range from poor communication to neighbors when a public tree is cut down, to requests for new trees that have not been fulfilled (I have been asking for three dead trees in Magoun Square to be replaced for over a year!), to carelessness by paving contractors that kills trees, to garbage and large weeds in tree wells, to young trees dying because they are not watered.

While the folks in City government who care for our trees work hard, they don’t have enough time in their busy workdays to pay adequate attention to our trees.

But I do feel progress is being made. We had an excellent and encouraging discussion at the BOA Committee on Open Space, the Environment, and Energy on Tuesday evening October 6th. For the first time in my two years on the Board, we had the key players together for a comprehensive public discussion about caring for our trees. Committee Chair Katjana Ballantyne did a great job of structuring the discussion so that we talked about the big issues and also addressed the eight separate agenda items relating to trees.

Responsibility for the City’s trees is split between the City’s Tree Warden, Steve MacEachern, who works in DPW and whose main responsibility is the City’s streets, and Rachel Kelly, the City’s Green Infrastructure Coordinator who works under Brad Rawson, the Director of the Transportation and Infrastructure in the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development (OSPCD). Mr. MacEachern and Mr. Rawson were at the meeting on October 6th, and they gave us a full and detailed account.

DPW is responsible for all tree maintenance, and has its own crew, but the City tree crew also has many other responsibilities. The City contracts with an arborist who spends about two days a month in Somerville inspecting trees and making recommendations. OSPCD is in charge of planting all new trees and contracts with a landscaping company which for about $1,000 per tree, plants all new trees and maintains them under warranty for three years. The two departments work together to determine which type of trees are planted.

We learned that the City’s 11,000 public trees may be worth as much as $10-20 million in terms of their replacement value. Alderman Tony Lafuente suggested that rather than hiring two separate contractors who work part-time for almost $100,000 a year, the City could create a full-time arborist position. I agree. A full-time arborist could provide what the City desperately needs: a champion for our trees, someone who will fight for them and watch out for them so that they are not neglected and harmed by contractors, someone who can organize, teach and engage residents in caring for the trees on their block and in their neighborhood. Many of us Aldermen will be pushing the Mayor to put funds to hire a full-time City arborist in next year’s budget. You can help by writing to the Mayor, your Ward Alderman and the four Aldermen-at-Large who serve citywide.


Sincerely,

Mark Niedergang

Ward 5 Alderman

617-629-8033

Mark@MarkNiedergang.com

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