Inclusion, Preservation and Lottery Odds

St. Polycarps provides affordable housing as part of its units in Somerville, MASomerville used to be a place where many of the residents were people who couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. As I’ve told many younger folks in recent years, from 1978-81 I rented an eight-room home with three other young adults for $250 a month – that’s total, not per person!

In today’s Somerville*, the descendants of those very same people who could only afford housing in Somerville in the past – as well as more recent immigrants to the city – can’t afford to stay. (The average monthly rent in Somerville is $2,384, Ed.)

Change happens and is inevitable, but what doesn’t change? It’s low-income and working folks who end up not being able to choose where they live, based solely on the market forces that dictate housing costs.

Strategies to Support Low-Income and Working Class People

So what do we do? At the Somerville Community Corporation, we have a number of strategies that we are trying in an effort to combat the overwhelming market forces we face.

On May 9th the Somerville Board of Aldermen unanimously passed a change to the Inclusionary Zoning ordinance that SCC proposed last fall, requiring developers of new housing in Somerville to provide 20% of the new homes as affordable, up from the old requirement of 12.5%. Based on the current rate of housing development in Somerville, this new ordinance will help create over 500 additional affordable homes over the next 10 to 20 years.

That same afternoon we learned that the final count of lottery applications for the 35 new affordable apartments at our 181 Washington Street development was 3,600. On the one hand, it’s gratifying to experience such high demand and interest in this new development we’ve worked so hard to create. On the other hand, it’s sobering to then recognize that only one in 100 applicants will get a new affordable place to live, telling us how much more work we have to do.

Two days later we learned that our team that submitted a bid to work with the Somerville Housing Authority (SHA) to redevelop its Clarendon Hills property – Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), Gate Residential and SCC – was selected to partner with SHA. Somerville has approximately 3,400 units of restricted affordable housing today, and that around half of those are public housing units managed by Somerville Housing Authority. This opportunity to help revitalize and preserve 216 of those apartments at Clarendon is critically important to all of us who value Somerville’s diversity.

A Multifaceted Approach to Affordable Housing

What does this all mean? Well, for those of us on a quest to establish our community as “everyone’s Somerville” it means that:

  1. We need to preserve every affordable home we already have in Somerville, as the Clarendon example illustrates.
  2. We need to keep building as much new “purpose-built” affordable housing as we can, such as 181 Washington Street, as evidenced by the 3,600 applicants for that development.
  3. We need to continue capturing as many homes off the private market as we can to provide affordable housing options for a range of household incomes.
It’s sobering to recognize that only one in 100 applicants will get a new affordable place to live.”

On this last point, our Inclusionary Housing victory is a great start. But it only impacts the new housing that will be built in Somerville. The next frontier for us is to capture some of the existing 34,000 housing units for affordability into the future. The days of finding cheap apartments on the private market in Somerville are over, as the thousands of people who have tried and keep trying will tell us.

* (Editor’s note: Somerville Journal/LDS Consulting Group: February 2016).

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