Last Thursday night, May 18, 2017, the Somerville Planning Board voted to approve a waiver to the City’s 20% Inclusionary Housing requirement for Federal Realty Investment Trust’s (FRIT) new 500-unit housing development at Assembly Square. The Planning Board accepted a proposed alternative to the former 12.5% Inclusionary Housing requirement, presented in writing by Planning Staff two days before the May 18th meeting, and in person on Thursday evening.
The Somerville Community Corporation (SCC) Board of Directors submitted comments prior to the meeting supporting the 20% Inclusionary requirement for FRIT’s new development and opposing the waiver request, and also strongly suggesting that the proposed alternative is precedent-setting in at least three major ways and, if to be considered, needed more time for public comment and Planning Board consideration.
The Planning Board chose to vote that evening, granting the waiver and approving the proposed alternative, despite widespread opposition from hundreds of residents and most members of the Board of Aldermen. The Planning Board accepted FRIT’s assertion that they would not go forward with this development if required to include 20% affordable units in the project, and also chose to act without further delay based on concerns for financial implication to the City of any further delays. The Planning Board took the course of action it felt was best. We respectfully disagree.
As a housing partner of the City of Somerville, SCC has willingly shared requested data regarding 100 Homes with the City’s Planning Department. As our comments letter indicates, we stand fully behind the numbers we supplied, numbers that were accurately reflected in the City’s proposed alternative to the Planning Board. However, we did not propose that 100 Homes or any other initiative be seen as an alternative to upholding the City’s 20% Inclusionary requirement. In fact, as our comments indicate, we believe that 100 Homes or any other alternative to on-site Inclusionary Housing should have been considered only after denying FRIT’s waiver request, and following extensive discussion at both the City and community levels.
While we did not recommend or agree with the decision made by the Planning Board, we nevertheless plan to work diligently to implement the 100 Homes program, in collaboration with the City, to maximize the number of newly-dedicated permanent affordable housing units we can get from the funds agreed to by the Planning Board. To do otherwise would be to deny affordable apartments in Somerville to our friends, family and neighbors who so desperately need them. At SCC, we know well the extraordinary demand and need for affordable housing. In 2016, the lottery for our 35 new affordable apartments at 181 Washington Street had 3,400 households applying for those apartments.
The need for affordable housing in Somerville is at an all-time high, and hangs in the balance as key policy decisions are negotiated. Our members and hundreds of community residents articulate a resounding message to strike a balance, to not favor developers over the very real needs of the community. Two days was simply nowhere near enough time for such an important proposal to be considered, reflecting poorly on our community in Somerville where we want to be inclusive and deliberative in planning for our future.
It has been said that no precedent was set by granting this waiver to FRIT. It is true that FRIT is the only developer in Somerville with an active Planned Unit Development (PUD), whereby they have an explicit right to request a waiver from subsequent zoning changes. However, the alternative approved by the Planning Board sets three major precedents, and did so with no public discussion or comment whatsoever. Those three precedents present the possibility for all developers to propose similar treatment, albeit at a 20% Inclusionary Housing level:
- The FRIT alternative cut in half the number of units required to be developed on site. There is no Somerville precedent for this, and this was granted to the largest development proposed in 50 years.
- By the City’s own admission – and we would agree – the current Inclusionary Zoning ordinance does not have a workable formula for calculating the cash value in lieu of onsite development, and therefore the developer payment, for approved off-site Inclusionary units. The approved alternative presented in the FRIT waiver case calculated a formula based solely on numbers from the 100 Homes program, which is not equivalent. Our Inclusionary Housing ordinance needs a real formula that reflects the true cost of building new affordable housing units off-site that would be comparable to the on-site units.
- The approved alternative allows for counting existing units in Somerville acquired through 100 Homes in place of newly-constructed units, either on-site or off-site. Again, there is no precedent for approving existing housing units in place of new units.
The purpose of Inclusionary Housing in Somerville for nearly 30 years has been to ensure (a) that new affordable units get built and committed along with new market rate units; and (b) including the affordable units in those new developments to ensure that there is at least some economic mix of households in new developments in Somerville.
The Planning Board approved a proposal last week that deviates from Somerville’s Inclusionary standard in the three major ways identified above. Other developers are now likely to make comparable proposals. We believe that each of the three items merits strong consideration as we plan for affordability and economic inclusion in Somerville’s future.
But there must be robust and extensive discussion and deliberation, at both the City and community levels, so that we can arrive at a renewed agreement about how best to implement Inclusionary Housing in the best interest of the thousands of residents who need housing they can afford. No additional permits should even be considered for anything but on-site Inclusionary Housing development at 20% affordability unless and until those deliberations take place.