Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Getting ready for the Green Line: A look at housing and affordability

The Green Line Extension means a lot of changes for Somerville- that we all know. We’re looking forward to the positive changes, like increased access to transportation, but we’re not ignoring the challenges that the Green Line is likely to bring.

This report looked at Green Line extension walksheds-
areas within a half-mile walk of new stations.
Over the past two years, the City has been working with the Somerville Community Corporation and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to pull together data around existing conditions and project how neighborhoods may change when the Green Line comes. The full report, “The Dimensions of Displacement: Baseline Data for Managing Neighborhood Change in Somerville’s Green Line Corridor,” is chock full of interesting data and worth a read, especially if data’s your thing. For now,  here are some of the report’s key findings, but stay tuned for future posts highlighting other interesting points such as in-migration and out-migration trends that might surprise you.

Before we dive in, we’ll be using a few planning nerd terms that we’ll highlight in bold. Scroll down to the bottom of the post for definitions.

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into the report. As the name suggests, “The Dimensions of Displacement” report looked at displacement that could happen around the Green Line. Displacement happens when a population gets forced out by factors like housing cost and they are replaced by a group of people with higher incomes or other different demographic traits. The report identified some key displacement risks and which populations would be hardest hit. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Rent increases can be especially tough on lower income
 households as they may not have flexibility in their budgets.
  • Rent increases: People like to live near transit, but that demand can drive up housing prices if there is not the supply to meet it. The MAPC projects Somerville will need to add from 6,300 to 9,000 new housing units by 2030 to keep up with demand and 35% of those units will need to be low-income housing. Somerville is a city of renters – currently 67% of households rent – so rent increases in the areas within a half-mile walk of a Green Line stop (which are called Green Line walksheds) would affect the most people. Based on projected rent increases, the MAPC estimates that between 740 and 810 households could become newly housing cost burdened, meaning they would be spending more than 30 percent of their gross household income on housing.
  • Condo conversions: Condos can provide new and lower cost home buying opportunities in densely packed cities, but when a rental unit is converted to a condo that’s one fewer rental unit on the market. Most often, these conversions happen in 2- or 3-family homes. If condo conversions around new T stops match the rates of condo conversions around the Davis and Porter stops, that would mean more than 500 rental units being taken off the market. Lower income renters unable to buy the converted units could be displaced from the city, especially if prices on the remaining rental stock continue to rise. New condo construction, however, would not be problematic as it would not be taking away from existing rental stock.
  • Expiring affordable housing: There are a variety of affordable housing options in Somerville, including project-based affordable units that are kept affordable for a set period of time through state or federal subsidies. The good news: Somerville has 2,118 permanently affordable units and 682 are within the Green Line walksheds. The not so good news: There are 245 units within Green Line walksheds, mostly in the Gilman Square area, that will have their affordability provisions expire by 2020 and another 277 units within the walksheds that will have their affordability provisions expire after 2025.
  • Property tax increases: With more people wanting to live near transit, it’s a safe guess that property values around the new Green Line stations will rise. On one hand, this is good for homeowners as it will add to the investment they made in their house or condo. On the other hand, increased property values leads to increased property taxes. For some lower income residents this could cause financial difficulties, but the MAPC projects that displacement will be minimal for a few reasons. One is that there are few lower income homeowners within the Green Line walksheds. The potential increases in taxes are also projected to take up only a slightly larger percentage of households’ overall income.

Fortunately, we haven’t waited in addressing these looming issues. The City has implemented a number of affordability initiatives and we are continually researching and developing new options. That’s why right now, community discussions on affordability are currently underway (join us at the next discussion on Tuesday, March 4). We’re open to any innovative ideas that are out there. Here’s a sampling of what we’ve done so far:

  • Community Preservation Act: Actually, you did this one. In 2012, Somerville residents overwhelmingly voted for enacting the Community Preservation Act (CPA), a small surcharge on property taxes that can be used only for affordable housing, open space, and historic preservation. By approving the CPA, you gave us additional funds to support affordability efforts.
  • This report: Not only does “The Dimensions of Displacement” help identify factors that could displace lower income residents, but it also provides us with some baseline data to track changes in populations and the effectiveness of interventions and policy changes as the Green Line rolls into Somerville.
  • SomerVision: In this 20-year plan written by Somerville for Somerville you helped us codify our values as a city, including diversity and affordability. There were also some specific goals set forward to help uphold these values, like building 6,000 new housing units with 20% of them affordable. (Hey, you weren’t too far off!)
  • Inclusionary Housing Ordinance: Any new residential development with 8 or more units has to keep at least 12.5% (up to 17.5% in some districts) of those units affordable. These units are deed restricted to be permanently affordable.
  • Linkage fee: No, it has nothing to do with golf courses. Somerville has a robust Affordable Housing Trust Fund that helps fund affordable housing efforts. How is it so robust? New commercial developments over 30,000 square feet are required to pay a linkage fee of $5.15 per square foot.
  • Condominium Conversion Ordinance: When a property owner wants to convert rental units to condos there are some steps in place to help protect renters. First, property owners seeking to convert rental units into condos have to obtain a removal permit though the Condominium Review Board. The ordinance provides further protections like requiring notice periods and a right of first refusal, along with relocation costs for low-income residents.
  • Preserving existing affordable housing: When affordable housing restrictions are set to expire, we work with property owners to try to extend the affordability of those units.
  • Support of purpose-built affordable housing: Using the Somerville Affordable Housing Trust and federal grants, we can support the creation of new affordable housing. Two recent examples of how we can work with our community partners and support their efforts:
    • St. Polycarp Village: a 3-phase affordable housing development with a total of 84 affordable rental units built by the Somerville Community Corporation
    • Massachusetts Bay Veterans Center: a 29 unit transitional and permanent housing development for veterans built by the Volunteers of America, Inc.
  • Expanding affordable housing to the working middle class: This January, Mayor Curtatone proposed creating a new affordable housing program that would go beyond the usual, federal low-income restrictions to also help middle income, working families buy in Somerville.
  • Protecting live/work housing for artists and makers: The Mayor also recently announced that the City intends to use zoning to designate certain areas as artist and fabrication districts and thereby remove the market pressure to replace low-cost live/work space with high-cost housing.
  • Keeping other costs low: Somerville offers a variety of low-cost or free recreation, enrichment, and child care options through the Public Schools, Recreation, and other programs. We have refused to charge for sports or other extracurricular activities to ensure access for all. Our hope is that these programs help offset some of the higher housing costs families may face. Access to good public transit can also reduce costs if you no longer need a car, which is an affordability benefit of the Green Line Extension. But of course, you have to be able to afford to stay here to reap that benefit.
  • Jobs: Another SomerVision goal is to create 30,000 new jobs by 2030. Attracting businesses is only half the battle, though. To see a real impact on residents, we need to make sure Somerville residents are properly trained and connected to those jobs. More employment opportunity will, we hope, help more households climb up the economic ladder.

Whew, that was a whole lot of information to digest. But, when you do digest it, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the report and, of course, any innovative ideas to address issues that may pop up around the Green Line Extension.

Planning nerd glossary:
Having some turnover is normal in any city or town.
  • Walksheds: These are areas within a ½ mile walk of a T station. These are the areas studied in this report and their boundaries are drawn based on available walking paths.
  • Housing cost burdened: A household is considered burdened by housing cost if it spends more than 30% of gross household income on housing. Right now, before the Green Line is up and running, about 30% of Somerville households are housing cost burdened.
  • Lower income: The federal government defines low-income as $51,000 for a family of three in Somerville.  In this report, a more expansive definition of lower income is used: any household of any size (of one or more individuals) making less than $75,000 annually is designated as low-income. (It may seem like $75,000 is not low-income for a one- or two-person household, but from a data perspective using average household sizes it’s actually and effective measure.)
  • Turnover: Some turnover is normal in any city or town. This is a population whose comings and goings aren’t related to issues like housing cost and are usually replaced by people who fall into similar demographic categories. Students are among this group – each year a class of students moves out of Somerville after graduation and are replaced by another class of students.
  • Replacement: There are people who, for whatever reason, want to move out of Somerville. These folks aren’t being forced out by housings costs, but are also not being replaced by people like them.
  • Displacement: This is what we’re trying to avoid. Displacement happens when a population gets forced out by factors like housing cost. When they leave, they are also replaced by a group with a different demographic make-up.


  1. Thank you, city of Somerville, for all the thought and planning you've put into this. Proud to see our local government thinking ahead like this and acting on what we learn.

  2. I found this really interesting. It's a neat snapshot of what we are now. But it's great to have the look at the Davis Square experience too.

    The concept of the walkshed is neat. I'm gonna use that.

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