Key Somerville issues & decisions this spring

Friend,

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Proposed Ward 5 New Zoning, Proposed Water & Sewer Rate Increases

In this issue:

  • Introduction and overview of the next three months
  • Citywide zoning overhaul: Nearing a vote on version 4 in year 5?
  • Affordable housing: strengthened Condominium Conversion Ordinance passes; short-term rental ordinance under discussion; Cambridge and Boston considering real estate transfer fee
  • Transportation: Traffic calming and pedestrian and bicyclist safety -- Vision Zero meeting April 24, 6 PM at East Somerville Community School auditorium; Ball Square Bridge closure -- so far so good; GLX station designs – community concerns about accessibility
  • Proposed water (6%) and sewer (7 ½%) rate increases for FY 2020 – Administration presentation and Public Hearing Monday, April 22, 6 PM, Somerville High School cafeteria

Introduction and overview of the next three months

The next three months will be an intense period of activity for City Councilors, the Mayor, and City staff who work on policy issues.  The spring months always seem to be the busiest and most important in terms of legislation. 

We’re in the midst of an intense push to try to get to a vote on the citywide zoning overhaul, first proposed by the Mayor five years ago.  We’re continuing to work on ordinances on issues ranging from short-term rentals (to regulate AirBNBs), demolition review (to better protect historic buildings), a strengthened, comprehensive tree ordinance (to protect trees on City and private property), and many others.  We’re working in a number of Committees on ways to increase green and open space in our little City of 4.1 square miles.  We’ll be voting on the Administration’s request to raise sewer and water rates, and in June, we’ll focus on the City budget for FY 2020, which begins July 1.  As the Ward 5 City Councilor, I deal practically every day with the challenges of urban living -- affordable housing and displacement, pedestrian and bicyclist safety on our streets, monitoring and managing real estate development, street construction projects and their impact on residents, environmental concerns and climate change, and last but not least, parking.

In this newsletter, I highlight a few of these issues and concerns.  Please write to me with your thoughts about these topics or others.  I wish I could say that I reply to every email I get, but when there is a deluge, I am just not able to do so.  I do read every email that I get from an individual (although I do get behind when things are super busy).  If you write to me requesting a response and don’t get it, please email me again.  Thank you for your patience.

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Citywide zoning overhaul: Nearing a vote on version 4 in year 5? 

Under the strong and capable leadership of Ward 6 Councilor Lance Davis, Chair of the Land Use Committee, the Council has built up a head of steam and is plowing ahead in considering the Administration’s proposed Citywide zoning overhaul.  We’re in year 5 of work on this large and important set of zoning policies.  Many have asked, why has this taken so long?  Because the Administration’s initial proposal, as well as versions 2 and 3, had major deficiencies, which the Council has been working to fix for the past five years.  This stuff is incredibly complicated and deeply impactful on our City and our lives: we have to take the time to get it as close to right as possible.

Chair Davis, working with Dan Bartman of the Planning Department, has set out a schedule to consider key unresolved issues.  Upcoming meetings of the Land Use Committee will focus on open space, parking, and affordable housing.  You can see recent presentations by Mr. Bartman here: https://www.somervillezoning.com For the schedule of meetings and topics, click on "Land Use Committee Meeting" (04/02/2019)–Presentation and go to page 2.

The next big step is that, in late April or early May, the Administration will submit a substantially updated version 4.  This will include major and minor amendments that Councilors have requested, either in individual meetings with Mr. Bartman, in Land Use Committee meetings, or as formal written amendments.  After the Administration submits version 4, there will be another Public Hearing.  If you are a zoning geek like I am and care about this stuff, I encourage you to read the revised version, attend the Public Hearing, view Mr. Bartman’s presentation about it and share your thoughts, either in person at the Hearing, or in writing afterwards.

I have submitted a number of major amendments, including extensive and detailed amendments to increase affordable housing in Somerville.  My amendments would require that any third unit built in the new Neighborhood Residential (NR) zone be deed-restricted to be permanently affordable for people with middle-class incomes. (The NR zone would allow new development up to a maximum of three units, in only a limited number of locations.) These would not be inclusionary units, so property owners could choose the tenant they wanted, as long as the tenant meets the income guidelines.  I also propose requiring payments into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund from all developments of four and five units (most of which currently have no affordable housing requirements), and requiring that six- and seven-unit developments provide an affordable unit.  (Currently eight-unit and larger developments must provide at least one affordable unit.) You can see my amendments, as well as those submitted by Councilors Ewen-Campen and Scott, here: http://somervillecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Meeting.aspx?ID=2879 

Why is zoning so important?  Zoning determines what can be built in Somerville, from small projects in our dense, residential neighborhoods to huge developments in our transformational areas such as Assembly Square, Inner Belt, Union Square, Boynton Yards, and others.  One key goal in this zoning overhaul is to protect our neighborhoods from excessive, unwanted development and prevent the constant battles that are happening in every neighborhood of the City over proposed developments.  These small development proposals force neighbors to spend huge amounts of time and effort into fighting bad developments that our current, out-of-date zoning code allows.  The new zoning would also allow more commercial development in the transformational areas and on “enhancement” streets like Highland Avenue, Broadway, Beacon Street and Somerville Avenue.  We desperately need commercial development in Somerville to create good jobs and to increase commercial property tax revenue, to prevent residential property taxes from continuing to increase at such a fast pace. 

With so much real estate development going on in Somerville, zoning needs to be a constant preoccupation of City government.  Even if we pass a zoning overhaul this year – and that is far from certain – we’ll need to be doing zoning on a ongoing basis.

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Affordable housing: strengthened Condominium Conversion Ordinance passes; short-term rental ordinance; Cambridge and Boston considering real estate transfer fee

The Council voted 10-1 on March 28th to approve a strengthened Condominium Conversion Ordinance, after working on this for a year.  There was a Public Hearing on January 31, with many thoughtful and divergent comments from the public, followed by extensive deliberation by the Council and the Administration.  A number of significant changes were made to the ordinance as a result of the public comments.  Ellen Shachter, Director of the new Office of Housing Stability, deserves enormous credit for her leadership in getting this done.

The revised Condo Conversion Ordinance will protect tenants better from wrongful evictions; require a one-year waiting period for most conversions, thus slowing the rate of turnover in the City; provide substantially more money in relocation assistance for tenants who are put out of their home for a condo conversion; and provide more time for a tenant or a non-profit affordable housing provider to purchase the condo via a right of first refusal (at a fair market price).  If you are interested in the details, you can find the text of the ordinance and related documents here: https://www.somervillema.gov/condo-conversion

This has been a loooooong time coming!  The Curtatone Administration first began working more than 10 years ago with former Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz on revising this ordinance, which has not been updated since enacted in 1985.  The housing market in Somerville is pretty different now from 34 years ago!  I am delighted that the City Council and the Mayor worked together to get this done and hope that it will have a stabilizing effect on our runaway housing market.

The Council will continue to work in the coming months on a new ordinance to regulate short-term rentals (STRs), such as AirBNB.  I hope that we will pass something before summer.  Boston and Cambridge have already enacted STR ordinances.  In our deliberations, the Council voted unanimously to change the Administration’s proposal so as to not permit entire unoccupied units to be rented out short term.  Councilors argued that given the tremendous shortage of housing in the City, property owners should not be allowed to take units off the rental market for use by transients who would not be participating in or investing in our community.  Currently allowed in the draft ordinance would be sharing your own unit 365 days a year if desired (isn’t this what AirBNB was supposed to be about?) or rental of one’s apartment when one is away for up to 90 days a year.  You can see the current working draft ordinance here: https://www.somervillema.gov/strs

The most important affordable housing action that the Council has taken was last spring, when we voted unanimously to send the Real Estate Transfer Fee home rule petition to the State Legislature. If the Legislature approves it, we could raise somewhere between $6-10 million a year for affordable housing.  By borrowing against that steady income stream, we could generate tens of millions of dollars to invest in permanently affordable housing.  This is the money the City desperately needs to increase the amount of affordable housing.  Right now, about 10% of the housing in Somerville is permanently affordable.  Perhaps another 10-20% (nobody knows the actual number) of apartments in the City are still affordable because benevolent landlords keep rents low or tenants have been living in them for decades.  When those apartments turn over, it’s likely they will become market-rate rentals or condos for sale.  This means that in a decade or two, Somerville will transform into a community in which 90% of the housing is affordable only to wealthy people.  Is this the future we want?

Last spring, the City’s transfer fee home rule petition did get reported out favorably by a joint House-Senate budget committee, but the legislative session ended before further action could be taken.  Currently both the Boston and Cambridge City Councils are considering a transfer fee home rule petition, and State Representative Mike Connolly has re-filed his bill for enabling legislation that would allow any city or town to enact its own real estate transfer fee.  While passage in the Legislature is far from certain, I am hoping that a groundswell of support will make it happen.

Quite frankly, while I am not a socialist, I now believe that the only way to provide a substantial amount of affordable housing in Somerville is to take housing out of the free market economy by deed restricting it to be permanently affordable to low- and middle-income tenants or owners.  (The City, working with the Somerville Community Corporation, the City’s only affordable housing developer, is doing this with the 100 Homes program, but we need an 1,000 Homes program.)  In our hyper-capitalist economic system, housing is simply a commodity like any other product.  And in areas where lots of people want to live, high demand is pushing rents and purchase prices up to levels that only wealthy people can afford.  That is how our free market economy distributes housing. 

Councilor-at-Large Stephanie Hirsch has talked about trying to preserve the affordable rental housing that still exists in Somerville, and setting a goal for a percentage of affordable units we want in our City.  Should that goal be 20% permanently affordable, 30%?  I don’t know, but we need to have a public discussion and set a goal.  (Perhaps this will take place within the current discussions for a revised Somervision 2040 strategic plan for the City.)  Otherwise, in 20 years, Somerville is likely to become a City without a middle class, and with 90% wealthy residents.

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Transportation:

Traffic calming and pedestrian and bicyclist safety

On April 3, the Council held a Public Hearing in response to a resident petition organized by the Somerville Pedestrian and Transit Advocacy Group and signed by 350 people. The petition, with its excellent recommendations for priorities and plans to make Somerville's streets safer for all users, can be seen here.  The petition came in the wake of the tragic death of a pedestrian, Allison Donovan, killed by a hit-and-run driver in a crosswalk in front of the West Somerville Neighborhood School on Powderhouse Blvd the evening of February 8.

Before the Public Hearing, there were short presentations by the Somerville Pedestrian and Transit Advocacy Group and by the Administration, both of which you can see here.  About 20 people spoke. Following the Public Hearing, there was extensive discussion between Councilors and Brad Rawson, the Director of Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) and Dave Fallon, Chief of Police, about policy, programs, priorities, budgets, and a range of specific traffic safety problems. While Mr. Rawson did not make any concrete commitments, he said that he would be hiring two additional staff for vacant positions and that the Administration is considering major investments in traffic calming for the forthcoming FY 2020 budget. Somerville Police Department (SPD) Chief Fallon said that he had assigned an additional four police officers to the SPD Traffic Division, and that they are deployed on bicycles to step up the City’s traffic enforcement.  (As an urban bicyclist for more than 40 years, I can tell you that even an old and slow cyclist like me can often get around Somerville faster by bicycle than by car, especially during rush hours.)  The traffic calming petition and the testimony will inform both ongoing Council deliberations and City efforts around improving the safety of Somerville streets for all users, including the development of the City’s Vision Zero (for zero traffic fatalities) action plan, and decisions around the allocation of funding for traffic calming.  

As I have stated repeatedly, it is time for the Administration to step up and (A) staff up and (B) dramatically increase the budget for traffic calming to invest in physical infrastructure improvements to our City’s streets. We need traffic-calming tables, speed bumps, concrete bump-outs and other physical changes in our streets to slow motor vehicles down and make our streets safer for pedestrians.  Paint and flex posts are helpful, but not enough.  Physical interventions are expensive, and so is the staff needed to plan and implement them.  As Councilor Davis remarked about the positive steps that the Administration is finally taking to fix Powderhouse Blvd, legislating in response to tragedy is not how the City should operate. 

There will be a Vision Zero meeting on Wednesday April 24 at 6 p.m. at the East Somerville Community School with an opportunity for more extensive discussion by community members with City staff.  The Administration is using Vision Zero, an international program to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries on Somerville’s streets, a City goal.

Ball Square Bridge closure -- so far so good

While there have been some problems in the Ball Square neighborhood -- on Boston Ave, Prichard Ave, and Highland Road -- and the intersection of Morrison Avenue and Cedar Street is sometimes jammed up,  the SPD Lieutenant in charge has told me that traffic in the Ball Square area has been far less of a problem than anticipated.  Cedar Street and Highland Avenue are much slower, especially in rush hours, but overall the presence of large numbers of SPD officers in the area and removal of parking spaces to ease traffic flow seem to have been effective.  The white flex posts put in place by the City (and knocked over quickly), have been heavily criticized.  This was clearly an intervention that did not work. The Administration will be re-evaluating the use of flex posts going forward.  (The good news is they only cost around $40 each.)  Hopefully traffic going through Ball Square will not increase as drivers realize the area is not that congested (don’t tell anyone!), and hopefully adequate police presence will be maintained around Ball Square as officers are redeployed around the other bridge closures. (The Washington Street bridge closed on April 8 and the Medford Street bridge is scheduled to close in July 2019.)

GLX station designs – community concerns about accessibility

Members of the Green Line Extension (GLX) Community Working Group (CWG), in particular Jennifer Dorsen, the Ball Square CWG Representative, have shared concerns with Councilors and others in the community that the GLX station designs do not allow adequate accessibility for people with disabilities, people using strollers or otherwise unable to use stairs or walk long ramp distances.  A major concern is the lack of an elevator at the Union Square station, which the Union Square Neighborhood Council has been raising an alarm about, as have Cambridge folks.  Another concern is that the GLX Team is not looking at the interface of sidewalks outside of the stations with the station designs.  As a result, while the station designs may (or may not, it is complicated) technically comply with the federal Americans with Disability Act (ADA), in practice, some of the stations as designed will not be reasonably accessible, due to issues with sidewalks, bridges, etc.  There are other design concerns as well regarding safety and usability of staircases, ramps, etc.

There are also major design concerns about some parts of the Community Path Extension, especially one long stretch which is not wide enough to be safe and for which there are no stopping places or ways to get off or on the Path.

The City Council passed three resolutions about the problems with the GLX designs. I have been working with the Administration, Ward 3 Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen, CWG members, community members, accessibility advocates, and Somerville’s state legislative delegation to address these serious design deficiencies.  So far, the GLX Team has not been responsive to the concerns we have raised.  We will continue to advocate for changes through all avenues available, especially to  get an elevator at the Union Square GLX station and to improve accessibility at all the GLX stations.

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Proposed water (6%) and sewer (7 ½%) rate increases for FY 2020 – Administration presentation and Public Hearing Monday, April 22, 6 PM, Somerville High School cafeteria)

The Administration has asked for increases of 6% and 7.5% for water and sewer bills, respectively, for each of the next three years.  This would be, roughly over three years, a 20% increase for water bills and a 25% increase for sewer bills.  The Administration will present their rationale for these increases and hold Public Hearing on the request for just the coming year, FY 2020 only, on Monday, April 22 at 6 PM in the Somerville High School cafeteria.  The purpose of this hearing is to take testimony from Somerville rate payers about the FY 2020 water and sewer rates. All are welcome to attend, testify and be heard. Written testimony will be accepted until Monday, April 29, at 6 p.m. and can  be e-mailed to water@somervillema.gov.  (The City Council has instructed the Administration to share with us all communications that are received on this topic.)

In several presentations to the Finance Committee, the City Director of Engineering has told us that many of our pipes are 100+ years old and that the sewer and water system is breaking down.  Without spending millions of dollars every year to fix pipes, valves, etc, there will be more emergencies and even more expense going forward.  (Emergencies are more expensive for repairs than pro-active, planned maintenance and repairs.) 

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) are also monitoring our sewer system's discharges into the Mystic River and Alewife Brook. (Much of our sewer system combines storm water runoff with waste from our toilets, sinks, and showers.)  These discharges are mostly illegal and the EPA and DEP have the legal power and authority to force the City to spend tens of millions of dollars to fix problems with our sewer system if these discharges continue, which could double or triple our water and sewer bills overnight.  So the Administration says we need to spend a lot of money to fix these problems or the costs could go a lot higher, quickly.  The City Council changed the law a couple of years ago so that we have the power to approve or not approve increases in the sewer and water bills.  With Councilor-at-Large Bill White as the Chair of the Finance Committee, I am sure we will be spending a lot of time doing our due diligence in examining whether the City really needs such large increases in sewer and water rates over the next three years.

The City Council sent last spring a home rule petition to the State Legislature to create a residential exemption for sewer and water bills, similar to the 35% residential exemption in Somerville that owner occupants get on property tax bills.  The Legislature approved it, and now the City can implement it.  However, the Administration told us on April 9 that they could not implement the residential exemption until FY 2021, over a year from now. This is disappointing to say the least, and I know the Council will be looking for answers as to why it takes a year-and-a-half to implement a financial program that would provide some relief to residents from rapidly-increasing sewer and water fees.

You can view the April 9 presentation here Water & Sewer Rate Study Update and FY20 Recommendations.


Sincerely,

Mark Niedergang

Ward 5 Councilor

617-629-8033

Mark@MarkNiedergang.com

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