Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The Jaques-Heath-Broadway hillside in Somerville. (Photo: Eric Kilby via Flickr)

Three changes to housing in Somerville were passed by the City Council last month, including two that could add to the number of available homes.

All the zoning changes Nov. 21 were to align with Massachusetts’ 2021 MBTA Communities Act, which allows a certain density of multifamily units within a half-mile of an MBTA station and sets a maximum 10 percent of affordable-housing units for these buildings.

One set of amendments removes affordability requirements for triple-deckers and all third units on a lot, which officials agreed during October hearings would essentially “re-legalize” the triple-deckers once built throughout Somerville and encourage the construction of backyard cottages for housing. A zoning overhaul in 2019 failed to boost production of either.

“This item in particular held the zoning process up for years, and we now have an opportunity to equitably distribute housing density throughout the city,” councilor Matthew McLaughlin said.

Another amendment will remove the special permit process – requiring extra permissions to build from the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals – for all structures on steep slopes, which require environmental mitigation due to stormwater runoff, erosion, flooding and water quality. The process kicked in on any lot with a 25 percent or greater change in elevation over 30 feet, and Somerville is a city of hills, city planner Emily Hutchings said during a Oct. 19 Land Use Committee meeting.

MBTA Communities marks all lots requiring special permits as noncompliant and requires compliant zones to be contiguous. Without a council amendment, compliance with the state law would be hard, Hutchings said.

Instead of review by the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals, “we do believe that this oversight can be shifted to the existing engineering review processes for site construction without losing any potential mitigation of any impacts,” Hutchings said – noting that board members often refer to the engineering department for recommendations anyway.

“No more than four” rule

The final amendment would repeal the city’s “no more than four” rule prohibiting more than four unrelated people from living in the same house without a permit.

Planners and community members expressed that this law was not equitable for nontraditional families as well as “discriminatory toward low-income and student populations,” city planner Andrew Graminski said Oct. 19. “For many, renting a room is the only affordable avenue to be able to live in Somerville.”

State sanitation laws were sufficient to regulate the potential of overcrowding in residential buildings, Graminski said. With the new proposal, “zoning will regulate the number of dwelling units allowed, while the building and sanitary codes will regulate the number of humans allowed inside each dwelling unit.”

Somerville has acted

The passage of the amendments comes after some pushback from Somerville’s Planning Board. Chair Michael Capuano said during a Nov. 2 meeting that while he was largely in favor of the MBTA Communities Act in concept, but believed Somerville had already done enough.

That was in contrast to communities such as Milton, featured in a Boston Globe series detailing how restrictive zoning makes multifamily units difficult or impossible to build and contributing to a regional housing shortage. 

“I don’t think Somerville should have been lumped in with – I’m not going to call out particular cities, but we all know who they are, they’ve been in the newspaper a lot – who are famous for denying increased density and affordable projects,” he said. Capuano also took umbrage with the fact that Boston, which is most serviced by the MBTA, is exempt from the MBTA Communities act. 

Capuano additionally called out repealing the four-unrelated rule, which he says was designed to prevent landlords from exploiting university students. 

“I live next to Tufts. [Repealing this is] only going to reward a university that’s done next to nothing to build more housing for its own students and relied on us to do it for them,” he said.

Call for regional action

Discussions from the council’s Land Use Committee had a rosier view of the amendments.

“The idea that through restrictive zoning you can keep housing affordable is not supported by the facts … in fact, restrictive zoning tends to lead to more housing scarcity,” city councilor Ben Ewen-Campen said in a Nov. 16 meeting of the committee. Assessor data shows multifamily units have been converted to single-family units more often than single-family units have become multifamily units, he said.

McLaughlin, chair of the committee, agreed during passage of the amendments Nov. 21. “If neighboring communities adopt similar changes along the MBTA Communities Act, more overall units will be developed, which could have a positive impact on pricing in the region,” he said.

The three items passed unanimously, with nine councilors in favor and two absent.