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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Somerville responds to affordable housing crisis, urges Tufts to build more on-campus housing

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The City of Somerville is considering several affordable housing initiatives.

In the coming weeks, the City of Somerville will be considering measures aimed at curbing one of its most pressing issues: a dwindling supply of affordable housing for its lower and middle-class residents, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone announced on Oct. 15.

Gentrification and a hot local real estate market have been driving up Somerville's housing and rental prices for years, putting some locals at risk of being priced out of their neighborhoods, according to the real estate website trulia.com. Mayor Curtatone has charged a new committee, called the Sustainable Neighborhoods Working Group, with creating a long-term plan for the construction of enough low-cost housing to weather the coming economic and demographic changes.

Somerville Ward 5 Alderman Mike Niedergang is one of the committee’s co-chairs.

“I think there’s now a consensus in Somerville that we face an affordable housing crisis,” Niedergang said. “The mayor’s been saying for a while now that ... we want development, but we don’t want to lose our soul.”

Mayor Curtatone presented the plan to the Board of Aldermen's Housing and Community Development Committee, which Niedergang chairs.

“We don’t want to become a community -- that may still be a wonderful community -- but, say, just has upper middle class wealthy people living here,” Niedergang said. “One of the great things that people love about Somerville is the diversity of the population, and not just racial diversity, but economic diversity; we have carpenters, tradespeople, house cleaners, doctors, lawyers, bankers, all living together, in many cases, right next to each other.”

‘A Hot Market’

One of the major contributors to rises in costs for long-time residents, Niedergang said, will be the coming extension of the green line through Somerville.

“Especially once the green line comes in … there’ll be a lot more gentrification than we’ve already seen, which is almost hard to imagine,” he said. “There’s almost six green line stops coming in, and the green line extension will go through the heart of the city, and there’ll be massive development and tremendous increases in housing values and rents.”

House flippers -- investors who capitalize on the upward-trending prices by buying houses and reselling them for a profit -- are compounding the issue, according to an Oct. 11 article from the Somerville Times. According to Niedergang, who is himself a homeowner and has been contacted by house flippers, these speculators often out-compete lower-income buyers looking for housing.

“This is America, this is capitalism, it’s perfectly legal, but ... basically, these people are making money on the fact that our community is a desirable place for people to live,” he said. “Lots of people want to live in Somerville now -- [the house flippers] haven’t done anything to make that happen.”

The working group is considering instituting a transfer tax: a tax on the sale of a property that decreases as the property is owned for a longer period of time. For example, a homeowner who sells after living in a house for five years might pay no tax, while one that sells after just six months might pay five percent. The tax would discourage speculators from competing with lower-income residents, and, if passed, would help fund the other affordable housing measures.

Katjana Ballantyne, Somerville’s Ward 7 alderman, is also on the committee. She told the Daily that housing is just one part of an affordability question that should be approached from multiple angles.

“In terms of the initiative, I think the more affordable housing that we can develop in the city is a good thing,” Ballantyne said. “Another big way ... to address the affordability in Somerville and other communities, is ... to diversify our tax base; we’re heavily reliant on our residential tax base.”

Ballantyne explained that one way to diversify the tax base would be to further develop commercial office space. This development would be beneficial because it would not only create more employment opportunities, but it would also tax these businesses at a higher rate than residents, she said.

“I saw that -- I’ve lived here 21 years -- that pricing was going up on housing every year,” Ballantyne said. “I didn’t see, necessarily, that salaries were going up at the same rate, so I got involved early on to understand that there’s a lot of things that deal with affordability. It’s a complex issue, it’s not a single story ... housing is one of the issues.”

Somerville's Sustainable Neighbourhoods Working Group is due to submit specific recommendations for the affordable housing plan in the spring of 2015.

Affordable Housing and Tufts: The Off-Campus Housing Issue

Tufts’ off-campus residents are tied up with affordability problems as well. As rental costs also continue to rise, off-campus living will become a less viable option for some upperclassmen. According to Niedergang, however, increasing housing affordability for students is not one of the committee’s main priorities.

“My own goal -- and I’m not entirely sure how this will work out -- is that the people who will benefit from subsidies and from affordable housing that the city builds at its own expense will be people who have made a commitment to this community -- people who have been here for a while, or who are in some ways committed to staying here,” Niedergang said. “If that includes Tufts students, that would be fine, but my sense is that many Tufts students will only be here for a few years, and I personally don’t think that the city wants to invest money in people who are not going to be staying."

Tufts’ off-campus housing, in fact, is only making the affordability issue worse. Niedergang explained that the high number of student renters per property are driving up rent in West Somerville.

“If four students can live in an apartment and pay $750 each, that’s a lot of rent to get; that means you can buy a place for more money than you would otherwise, because the rental income is so strong,” Niedergang said. “It’s driving up housing prices and it’s driving up rent, so it’s crowding out people who can’t afford to pay that kind of money.”

The solution from Niedergang's perspective is more on-campus housing at Tufts.

“[It would] reduce the demand and reduce the price of rent in the West Somerville area,” he said. “I believe that the city’s been urging Tufts to build more dormitories for a long time.”

Ballantyne’s ward borders the Tufts campus, and contains most of the properties rented by students. She, like Niedergang, believes Tufts should house more students on campus, but said that communication between the city and the school on the issue has been relatively one-sided.

“Whatever [Tufts'] internal plan is in terms of their long term goals, their strategic goals in educating students or taking on more students or taking on more revenue, hasn’t been shared with Somerville,Ballantyne said. “I, as an alderman, have asked for an institutional master plan which ... would also include the goals of what the enrollment is or how the population is to grow, but I haven’t received anything back.”

Ballantyne stressed the importance of this discussion.

“We have an organization, or a company, that operates here, and part of this business model is 'we offer education, we offer classes and we offer housing,'" she said. “In terms of housing, if they decide to increase [enrollment], unless they talk to the community about it -- you know, what are the impacts to the community, we have no idea.”

According to Tufts’ Director of Community Relations Barbara Rubel, however, the conversation between the university and Somerville has been limited.

We've just begun a discussion with Somerville about off-campus housing in response to the proposed ordinance around legal occupancy,” Rubel said in an email to the Daily. “The discussion may ultimately include other related issues, but right now the focus is on that question ... Two aldermen have talked about the desirability of more on-campus housing as part of the discussion, but at this point there hasn't been any discussion of the city and university working together regarding student housing.”

In an email to the Daily, Tufts Director of Residential Life Yolanda King addressed the university’s plans for the construction of more on-campus housing for undergraduates.

“The School of Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering Strategic [Plan] is to place a high priority on addressing student housings needs and making more on-campus beds available to our students,” King said in the email. “My office currently provides a great deal of information to students who are looking at off-campus apartments regarding safety, what to look for in leases, subletting, zoning, making sure students are aware that four occupants [are permitted in apartments] in Somerville and three in Medford apartments, etc.”

Off-campus students don’t just increase rental costs, though; Ballantyne told the Daily that noise, crowding and waste have all been issues in neighborhoods with student renters.

“I believe there were incidents, especially in the last month and a half, that have been a little bit egregious,” she said. “I understand that Tufts has contributed a lot to the city … but if you look in your backyard, the neighbors in ward seven have been unhappy.”

In particular, Ballantyne mentioned several incidents of noise complaints, as well as one case in which students' trash was somehow blown out onto the street. She emphasized that Somerville residents are not simply oversensitive -- incident reports are more likely due to the frequency of transgressions.

“I would say that the neighbors are not unreasonable people," she said. "They’re very nice people, they’ve lived there for decades ... and they’ve all been young at one time ... I would say that it sounds like it’s the frequency of the issue.”