Creating Affordable Housing Options

Somerville-Community-Corporation-CEO-Daniel-LeBlanc-2017In a Hot Real Estate Market

It’s no secret that in recent years, Somerville has emerged as perhaps having the hottest residential real estate market in Greater Boston, itself among the very hottest markets in the country. What does a nonprofit community development corporation do in that kind of environment to ensure affordability and diversity, both now and into the future?

I suggest three areas to focus on, each with its own unique challenges: 

  1. Do no harm. In round numbers, around 3,500 of the approximately 35,000 housing units in Somerville are dedicated as affordable, meaning they have long-term restrictions that are recorded in the deeds and other legal documents governing those properties. The first order of business for us is to make sure we never ever lose any of these precious affordable apartments.  

    Nearly 1,500 of these affordable housing units are in the City’s public housing stock managed by the Somerville Housing Authority. One example is the 216-unit Clarendon development in West Somerville, built in 1948. Recognizing the wear and tear in this 70-year-old development the Somerville Housing Authority, with Massachusetts state support, has moved to have the entire complex rebuilt so it can serve Somerville and its residents for 70 years to come.

    SCC and partners Preservation of Affordable Housing and Gate Residential have responded to that call to ensure that these 216 affordable apartments are not lost to deterioration. And, in fact, this project is designed to ensure that they remain there to house families who need housing at that rent level for decades to come.

  2. Build new. As we now have three decades of dramatic escalation in housing costs in Somerville, we know to require appropriate levels of affordability in all new housing that gets built in Somerville in the coming years. While in 1990 we thought that a 10% affordability requirement, built in as inclusionary housing in the Somerville Zoning Ordinance, would be sufficient, we now understand that the need is more dramatic – and that developers can afford to provide a higher percentage of affordable units in their developments.  

    SCC CEO Danny LeBlanc accepts an award from First Sterling's Victor Sostar at the Union Square Apts ribbon cutting Jan. 2017.
    SCC CEO Danny LeBlanc (left) accepts an award from Victor Sostar, senior vice president and chief acquisitions officer at First Sterling Financial, Inc. at the Union Square Apts ribbon cutting, Jan. 2017.
    SCC initiated an increase to a 20% requirement in the fall of 2015. Thanks to the unanimous vote of the Somerville Board of Aldermen, and support from Mayor Joseph Curtatone’s administration, that 20% requirement is now law. With the SomerVision goal of 6,000 to 9,000 new units of housing over the next 15 to 20 years, the increase to 20% inclusionary housing will provide hundreds of additional affordable apartments for our future. 

    And SCC will continue to play a key role in pressing for new affordable housing, as we add to the over 20 affordable housing projects we have created to date – resulting in more than 100 ownership units and 219 rental units.

    In the past year alone, SCC completed the construction and occupancy of 181 Washington Street, with 35 affordable rental apartments and ground-level commercial space, just two blocks from the first new stop on the Green Line Extension. We will break ground next month on a new 11-unit condominium development on Glen Street, with eight affordable and three market rate units.

  3. The new/old frontier. As we consider the present and look to the future, I think the most challenging affordability problem for Somerville is the question of affordability in the 31,500 housing units that already exist in the city on the private market. Many of them were built decades ago at a time when housing affordability was not our primary concern.

    Any of us who have lived here long ago have anecdotes of cheap rents and owners who rented very inexpensively to long-term tenants because of their relationships and affinity for those tenants. But those days are rapidly disappearing, if not gone altogether already. Today, every time a property changes hands, whatever affordability might have existed disappears with the sale price of that property.

    As important as it is to think about affordability in the new units anticipated in SomerVision, a city as densely built as Somerville has no choice but to do what we can to ensure pockets of affordability in that long-ago-built housing stock. 

    To date, SCC’s main contribution here is to implement the 100 Homes Program. SCC already has acquired 20 apartments in the existing housing stock to preserve as permanently affordable for moderate-income residents. While we have a long way to go, 20 is at least a start.

One final thought. With at least 80% of Somerville’s housing stock already built, even assuming the highest-level of build-out contemplated in SomerVision, we need to determine how much of that existing housing we want to dedicate to long-term affordability. And we need to do this, as a community – while we still have the chance!