Monday, July 22, 2024

Assembly Row construction in 2015, seen from East Somerville. (Photo: Todd Van Hoosear via Flickr)

Somerville has submitted a home rule petition to allow the city to regulate rents in buildings of three or more units not occupied by the owner. This essay is the first of two based on my testimony in favor of the bill to the state Legislature.

Right now, in Somerville and other communities, families are being displaced and neighborhoods disrupted by large rent increases coupled with stagnant and inadequate pay for many essential workers.

We often see exorbitant rent increases of $500 to $1,000 a month. These usually follow a property being sold for cash to a large multistate corporation, and are equivalent to an informal eviction. A recent report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, “Homes for Profit, Speculation and Investment in Greater Boston,” shows how prevalent this is. (A summary of that report is here.) The council found that potential homebuyers are frequently outbid by investors, who can pay cash with no conditions. These investors then raise rents dramatically, up to 100 percent, effectively evicting long-term tenants. Or, unless there is a lease in place, they simply evict them without cause. Data shows that since August 2022, eviction rates in Massachusetts have been higher than pre-pandemic, with nonpayment evictions up 58 percent.

The problem is worst in East Somerville, as in similar neighborhoods with high-density, lower prices and high shares of renters and immigrants. In East Somerville, more than half the triple-deckers and almost two-thirds of two-families were sold to investors.

Triple-deckers were traditionally a path to homeownership for working-class families. Now they – and single- and two-family homes – are each transformed into three luxury condos for well more than $1 million each, which would require an annual income of more than $225,000.

These homes are permanently changed into homes far beyond the means of middle-class families.

Last time I asked, there were 67 unhoused children in Somerville Public Schools; 20 in shelters and the rest doubled up, often one family per bedroom. The main cause of homelessness was rent increases. Many other families have left Somerville, often losing school connections and the ability to get to work.

Not all communities need rent stabilization

People in Massachusetts have less local control over decisions that affect their lives than in most states. They have to ask the Legislature for permission to change their taxes, their form of government, the number of liquor licenses and much more, including the ability to regulate rent increases.

Yet communities’ needs are very different. Not every community needs or wants rent stabilization, but we should give those that need it the opportunity for local decision-making.

When rent control authorization was repealed by a 1994 ballot question with 51 percent in favor, the communities that had it all voted to keep it – they were outvoted by residents of other communities.

Building more housing: Necessary, not sufficient

Building new units, especially affordable ones, is crucial, but it will be many years before increased housing production actually reduces rent burdens enough to make it possible for workers to live here. So far, while we are doing everything possible to increase new housing units – affordable and market rate – increased production has not lowered rents or stopped unaffordable increases.

Somerville, the most densely populated city in New England, has 20 percent inclusionary zoning, no single-family zoning and accessory dwelling units as of right. You can see Somerville’s increases in density at Assembly Row, with more than 1,400 new condos and apartments in several buildings of 20 or more stories. Union Square has two new buildings of 25 and six stories that will have 450 units, 87 of them affordable. Another 450 apartments in 24-story buildings are going up in Boynton Yards. The Clarendon Hill development will add 375 units as well as rebuilding a public housing project.

Despite that, in the past five years, average rent increased by 34 percent to 58 percent, or up to three times inflation. And from 2021 to 2022, the median sale price went up 44 percent.

Rent stabilization: Insufficient, but necessary 

It will take a long time and a lot of money to build the 200,000 units we believe Massachusetts needs. Gov. Maura Healey’s proposed Affordable Homes Act will cost $4 billion and expects to produce 40,000 homes over the next five years.

In the meantime, as prices rise far faster than incomes, families lose homes, children lose familiar schools, workers lose jobs when they have to move and neighborhoods lose the social capital of connections.

Rent stabilization and other tools to slow the expansion of the speculative market are not a total cure for the housing crisis, but we need them now to stop the damage to many people and communities like ours.

Pat Jehlen is state Senator for the Second Middlesex District, which includes Somerville and Medford and parts of Cambridge and Winchester.