Happy cold, cold weather to everyone! Although it’s the time of year when leaving your warm bed feels impossible, there is a lot of important work going on at city hall that makes me get out of bed. For one, we are now officially known as a city council and city councilors! I am excited for this common-sense, gender neutral change. In this newsletter I am going to speak about my belief in stronger protections for the city against speculation and condo conversion that often leaves residents out in the cold. I will also speak at length about my moving conversation with David Gibbs from CAAS. This conversation reinforced the urgency I felt to investigate and solve the crisis of homelessness among our school-age youth here in the city. In a country and city with so much, it is embarrassing and morally indefensible that we have young children who don’t have a home attending our public schools. We can, and we should do better. In addition, I am looking into better protecting and paying restaurant workers (we need a stronger wage theft ordinance) and focusing in on building data on equity here in the city. Finally, I will give a report out on the important Union Square Neighborhood Council Elections.
1)Condo Conversion Ordinance
Over the past few months, City staff and the Somerville City Council have taken up amending the City’s condominium conversion ordinance, and on January 31st, the city held a public hearing on the proposed rewrite of the law. At the hearing, Director of the Office of Housing Stability Ellen Shachter reviewed the proposed changes to the law. She specifically highlighted how the current ordinance is out of date and ineffective at serving its intended purpose – protecting tenants in the city. Ms. Shachter showed that while the rental vacancy rate in Somerville is only 2%, 92% of the rental properties that owners have requested condominium conversion permits for in 2018 have been vacant. This means that the vast majority of tenants in properties being converted to condominiums are not being provided their right to notice, relocation reimbursement, and first right of refusal to purchase their unit as required by the current law.
The condominium conversion ordinance, enacted in 1985, is intended to protect tenants when landlords decide to convert rental property into condominiums in order to sell individual units. Conversion of rental housing to condominiums over the last several decades has reduced the amount of more affordable rental housing in the city. And since 1985, Somerville has changed significantly with huge increases in rents and housing prices. Unfortunately, the condominium conversion law has not kept up with the times. For example, the current ordinance references $300 to pay for tenants to find a new place to live. $300 may have been a reasonable number for relocation expenses in 1985, but when the median rent in the city according to the census is now $1400 and many landlords want first and last month rent as well as security deposit up front (not to mention the costs of moving itself), it is clear that changes must be made to update the law. Over the past few months, with input from community members and policy experts, the city has redrafted the condominium conversion ordinance in an attempt to provide more protection for tenants.
The proposed ordinance that was presented to the public at the hearing on January 31st would make needed changes to the ordinance that would ensure that tenants, especially the most vulnerable tenants in our city, are treated fairly and with dignity. First the new ordinance would increase the amount of time that disabled, low-income, or elderly tenants – those who face the most challenges finding new homes in Somerville – have to find new housing options from two years to five years. It also adjusts the amount of money that owners are required to provide tenants for relocation to $10,000 for disabled, low-income, or elderly tenants and up to $6,000 for all other tenants. Landlords would also be required to assist disabled, low-income, or elderly tenants with finding new apartments. The proposal also makes the existing requirement that tenants be given the right of first refusal to purchase their unit more practicable by increasing the amount of time tenants have to exercise their right to purchase from 30 days to 120 days (180 days for disables, low-income, or elderly tenants). Additionally, the draft gives non-profit affordable housing developers or the City the right to purchase converted units if the tenant does not wish to purchase. The existing law is enforced by the Condominium Review Board, a five-member body whose members are appointed by the Mayor. The new proposal would keep the Board in place.
More information on the existing ordinance, the proposed amendment, as well as other condominium conversion laws in the area can be found at the cities condominium conversion amendment webpage. The City Council will now spend the next several weeks deliberating on the proposal and will likely hold a second public hearing in March. Please keep an eye out on my Facebook page for updates on the timing of the next hearing!
2) My Conversation with David Gibbs of CAAS and a Forward-Looking Agenda on Homelessness, Wage Theft and Equity
Recently, I was privileged to have coffee with David Gibbs, the Executive Director of Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS). I was motivated to meet him after an event he organized that was attended by some of my colleagues, including Senator Pat Jehlen.
This event was about restaurant workers and how they are sometimes mistreated and underpaid. I learned a lot about the restaurant industry and why other restaurants like Juliet in Union Square have decided to lead on that front by eliminating tips and paying their employees a decent wage.
My colleagues and I will be looking for ways to incentivize restaurants such as Juliet and to track and penalize the ones that are under paying their staff or that are involved in wage theft. We need a stronger Wage Theft Ordinance!
I also discovered the enormous work that CAAS does in our community and within the greater Boston are, which include
Head Start (https://www.caasomerville.org/head-start)
Homelessness prevention (https://www.caasomerville.org/homelessness-prevention-program)
Community and tenant organizing (https://www.caasomerville.org/community-organizing)
Free tax preparation (VITA) (https://www.caasomerville.org/free-tax-preparation)
CAAS is also accepting donations of non-perishable food as well as hygiene and baby products for distribution to families affected by the partial government shutdown (which will include anyone receiving food stamps (SNAP). (https://www.caasomerville.org/food-drive)
I also realized that nothing has changed in the homelessness situation in our schools. At any given year, there are between 50 - 100 kids in our schools that are homeless.
We need to have a baseline for humanity beginning by taking care of our most vulnerable. We need to build an emergency shelter to house these kids. One kid being homeless is way too many. I will be submitting a board order for an update on the homeless situation in our schools and for the creation of an emergency shelter to take care of these kids.
I also think it’s about time we know the composition of our municipal government. Unless we have a government that is reflective of the population it serves, equity will be a far reaching agenda item.
We also have to start talking about Race in our community and see how it affects each one of us. I attended one such conversation a few years ago when I moved to the city but I haven't heard much or anything since.
Here are the board orders I plan to submit at our next Council meeting for deliberation:
- That the administration update this board with respect to the homelessness situation in our schools and to create an emergency shelter to house every single child
- That the administration consider eliminating tips in our local businesses to allow employers to pay their workers what they deserve.
- That the administration organize a quarterly race dialogue in the city.
- That the administration present data on the demographics of its employees in municipal government, and including schools and explain their strategy to build a diverse municipal government that is reflective of the community it serves.
3) Union Square Neighborhood Council Board Election
I'm a strong supporter of the Union Square Neighborhood Council (USNC) and their goals of building community, empowering members of the Union Square community, minimizing displacement, promoting affordability, increasing economic opportunity, and stewarding the public realm and built environment. I proudly voted for the City's designation of the USNC as the body tasked with negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with the Union Square Master Developer, and I will continue to support them in their negotiations for a strong, enforceable CBA that the community can be proud of.
The elected board of the USNC serves a 1-year term, and, after a year of service by the members of the current board, there is an upcoming election in which members of the Union Square Community will have an opportunity to vote on who should serve on the board of the USNC in the coming year. On January 15th, I attended a candidates' forum at the Argenziano School, in which many of the 16 candidates who are running for the 15 available seats on the board spoke about why they're running and how they hope to serve the Union Square Community in the year ahead. You can view video of that event as well as written statements from the candidates here. And, if you live, work, own a business or property, or volunteer at an organization with a physical presence in the Union Square Neighborhood, then you are eligible to – and I encourage you to – vote in the upcoming USNC board election, which will be held at Bow Market today from 12pm-4pm and February 4th from 7am-8pm.
Your Public Servant,
Always feel free to reach out over email to sign up for the newsletter or to ask questions/voice concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 508-718-8126.