Let’s build an equitable, sustainable future!
Ward 5 is at the heart of the Green Line Extension (GLX) project, which will provide much better access to public transit, but has also accelerated development and driven up real estate prices and rents. That has made affordable housing a more urgent priority than ever. Drawing on my professional experience, I will work with the Ward 5 community and the full City Council to protect affordable units, build new units, and ensure that development is aligned with our priorities.
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Somerville has its origins as a working class and immigrant community were all could afford to live. We need to preserve our city’s roots, by making this a community welcoming for all by prioritizing affordable housing development. But there are no quick fixes; we need to tackle this systematically:
Identify and assess housing needs
The City needs to determine what types of affordable housing need to be built; assess the needs of lower-income residents who, because of their immigrant status or lack of access to funding options, are being displaced out of the community; and work on options for middle-income residents who cannot afford to own a home or rent in Somerville. This requires taking inventory of existing housing stock, evaluating the condition of existing properties to strategize repair, identify expiring use properties, and determining best strategies for future development particularly close to public transportation nodes such as the Green Line Extension.
Identify options beyond inclusionary zoning to create additional affordable housing
We need to explore options beyond inclusionary zoning that create additional affordable housing units. The city needs to consider mixed-income development as well as mixed-use development that will help diversify affordable housing while lowering development costs. Development of affordable housing in Transit Development Zones (i.e. near Green Line Extension stops and future Assembly Square Developments) needs to be incentivized and encouraged by allowing higher densities but preserving the local character of the area.
Address the needs of the unhoused
Providing housing for the homeless and the services needed to support their transition to stable housing needs to become a priority. For new housing developments the City should explore partnerships with nonprofits like Respond and the Homeless Coalition who work with the homeless to ensure all residents of Somerville can stay. The City also needs to identify and fund services that facilitate the housing transition for the homeless.
Explore options to stop price-gouging rent increases
Some Somerville residents have been victims of sudden, high rent increases which cause displacement. The City needs to create a task force of non-profit housing agencies, renters and good-faith landlords to discuss the best options to regulate unfair rent increases and avoid displacement. Immigrant families are often particularly likely to be displaced by these practices, so we need to ensure their voices are heard and their needs are met by the solutions we pursue.
Explore ways to lower construction costs
The cost of construction often outpaces wage increases, which in turn exacerbates increased housing costs leading to displacement. We need to explore options to lower construction costs such as through mixed-use housing or prefabricated housing and assess the permitting process that can result in costly delays. The City should create a task force that includes representatives from the construction trades, local contractors and others to explore lower cost construction options and to understand how the permitting process could be resulting in increased housing costs.
Encourage mixed-use development and expand the commercial tax base
Somerville has relatively high property taxes that fall disproportionately on homeowners and their tenants. The city needs a more diversified tax base that will allow it to support its services, school infrastructure and fund more affordable housing development. This means Somerville needs to expand its commercial base, which also creates more jobs in our city and puts a broader range of resources within walking and biking distance of our homes. Mixed-use development, which combines housing with commercial space, is one way to achieve this. We should consider incentives for mixed-use developments, such as allowing higher density when a project includes both much-needed affordable housing, and commercial space.
Climate change is truly an emergency, and Somerville needs to respond accordingly – both by decarbonizing our city as quickly as feasible, and by building climate resilience. From flash floods, to heat waves, to storms that knock down trees and power lines, the threats from climate change are immediate, and we cannot afford to dally. The Somerville Climate Forward plan is a great start, but we need to ensure we achieve its goals – and raise ambition where we fell short the first time around.
Almost two-thirds of our emissions come from buildings, and as an architect with a longtime passion for sustainability, I will prioritize actions to make our residential, commercial and municipal buildings greener and more energy-efficient. Street trees and green space are also crucial, and so is ensuring that our city is more walkable and bikeable, with good public transit (see Safe, Accessible Streets section).
Ensure that new buildings are green/carbon-neutral
Somerville has embraced new sustainable measures, such as incentivizing Passive House for Net Zero for greater density in zoning. Now we need to aim higher. The buildings that go up in our city in the next few years are likely to be in use for another half-century or more. That means we need to build them for a climate-safe future, not as if we didn’t know better. Green and highly energy-efficient (net-zero) construction techniques are well established and add only marginally to upfront construction costs. We need to ensure that these practices are the norm, not rare exceptions, in Somerville. Because building codes are set and enforced by the state, Somerville will need to work with state leaders in developing these standards. But in the meantime, we can create incentives to build green even if it’s not required – and make sure that developers and design and construction firms working in Somerville are educated about these techniques. This is also an opportunity to create jobs in our city: If we can train Somerville residents to build green and retrofit existing buildings (see below), we can accelerate the transformation and give local workers a competitive edge.
Encourage retrofits of existing buildings
Somerville is full of beautiful older homes, but it is challenging and costly to retrofit these buildings. The city will need to explore programs and funding that provide technical resources and incentives for homeowners and landlords. These changes will not only support our goal to become carbon-neutral, but will also make housing more affordable in the long run by lowering utility costs. This is particularly important for low-income households and elders on fixed incomes.
Create more green and open space
The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the critical need for open space. Spaces for children, sports, recreation, passive enjoyment, festivals, and other uses improves the quality of life for all our residents. While we have many wonderful parks, playgrounds and other open space areas, we are still 110 acres short of our goal to add 125 acres of new, usable open space. Unfortunately, most of the land in Somerville is private, which means the City will need to encourage new development to include open space in their plans. For example, the City could allow higher density development if the developers include open spaces and less surface parking in their plans. Existing roadways can be redesigned for safety and a bit greener. The exciting plans to remove the elevated McGrath Highway to create a boulevard will have trees, parklets, and grassy corners. All these ideas will be needed to add open space and create a verdant city.
Build climate resilience all across Somerville
Somerville floods regularly, and climate change is expected to bring more frequent and severe torrential rains. We need to upgrade our infrastructure to better handle large amounts of water; improved stormwater management is an urgent priority. We also need to avoid adding more impervious surfaces, and instead find ways to work with nature to absorb water and protect us from floods. At the same time, we need to prepare for extreme heat. Not only is it crucial to add green space; we need to plant more trees for shade, especially in neighborhoods that are currently tree-poor. And we need to protect our most vulnerable residents, especially elders but also low-income households that may not be able to afford AC. The Somerville Climate Forward plan is a good start, but there is much more work to do to make our city truly resilient to climate change.
SAFE, ACCESSIBLE STREETS AND PUBLIC SPACES
A healthy, vibrant and equitable city needs streets that are safe and accessible to all people, especially pedestrians, cyclists, families with children, and people with disabilities. Reducing car use is also crucial for the climate and for air quality. The City has made some improvements, but Somerville’s streets remain dangerous, with many cars speeding through our neighborhoods and ignoring pedestrian crossings. As a bike commuter and the mother of two children who walk independently throughout the neighborhood, I am committed to making our streets safe and accessible for all, and to advocating for better public transit so we can further reduce car dependency.
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Prioritize pedestrian and bike safety
I have a vision of streets that meet the needs of all our residents of all ages. People will feel safe whether they bike, walk, drive or scooter. Good design, access to public transportation, and enforcement of road rules will create an enjoyable, efficient transportation network throughout the city. Walking and biking will be everyday choices that will have added benefits to residents’ health and well-being. Carbon emissions will fall, and poor air quality and noise will be memories. To have this vision Somerville needs to:
Design roads to be self-explanatory and force drivers to lower speeds.
Eliminate dangerous intersections where pedestrians, cyclists and cars mix in crosswalks and intersections.
Improve pedestrian infrastructure and ensure compliance with accessibility codes.
Build bike lanes in high traffic areas. When a physical separation is not viable, vehicle speeds need to be lowered.
Increase bike parking to further support bike transit.
Address the environmental, social and health impacts of our larger roadways. McGrath Highway and the “Corridor of Death” were designed to increase convenience for car commuters. Advocate for the redesign and reconstruction that meets current city needs, increases safety and reduces health impacts.
Ensure accessibility for all
Everyone deserves to enjoy our city in full – whether they’re able-bodied and athletic, or older and perhaps a bit slower getting around, visually impaired, using a walker or wheelchair, or pushing a baby stroller. Accessibility merely means that everyone can get around in the city and fully use buildings and public places. It is a civil right, and yet more than three decades after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, too many places in our city remain inaccessible and/or hazardous. That means elders and people with disabilities can’t walk safely in their own neighborhoods, as there are too many trip hazards and obstacles. Parents with babies have to carefully choose their routes and destinations. This is simply not acceptable. We need to make Somerville truly accessible – from our streets and sidewalks, to parks, to public buildings. We need to:
Invest in the enforcement of existing accessibility regulations by creating a staff position to support compliance. A local successful model is Boston’s Architectural Access Board.
Identify and assess public spaces and public buildings that do not comply with current accessibility codes. Fund efforts to bring those buildings into compliance.
Prioritize the places that people use to travel to work, school or recreation. Fund upgrades of non-compliant commercial centers and major paths of travel to key destinations.
Ensure that contractors and others understand the codes related to accessibility and know when they need to comply. If new construction or renovations trigger these codes, work with builders for compliance.
Enforce traffic laws
Although speed limits have been lowered across the city in recent years, cars’ ability to go fast has not changed. The Model Ford T had a top speed of 35 mph! Today’s cars can reach high speeds very quickly making speeding commonplace and which increases risks associated with driving. We need to explore options for traffic enforcement and implement those options[ .
Expand access to public transit
Somerville will soon have access to three different MBTA Lines: Green, Red and Orange. These train stops will create greater transportation access across the city - a success story to celebrate. yet Somerville should advocate for new bus routes and more frequent service so that the public transportation system is robust, efficient and effective. These needs are particularly felt in neighborhoods not serviced by public trains, and which tend to have minority populations. To improve transportation, access the City should work with the MBTA to:
Study the origin and destination of its workforce and frequent users at all levels to determine if bus services need to be expanded or frequency increased.
Ensure connections between local towns are created where the need exists.
Study the viability of creating bus access in the north/south corridors which currently appear to be underserved .
Implement a pilot program for free bus transportation to increase public transit use in our community, decrease vehicular traffic, and increase vehicular safety.
Want to know more? See my response to the Somerville Bicycle Safety candidate survey.
SCHOOL EQUITY AND INFRASTRUCTURE
Education is the path to greater opportunities for our youth and our more vulnerable communities. Somerville has great schools and staff that have adopted progressive values and implemented programs that support these values, but we still have work to do address inequities in our schools. Somerville needs to prioritize funding of staff and programs that help address these inequities. As a City Councilor I would support and encourage the School Committee efforts to implement such programs or to create staff positions to help bridge educational gaps. The education of immigrants and low-income adults should also be included in our education priorities to prevent displacement and provide better opportunities.
Prioritizing our schools also means focusing on the maintenance and renovations of our school buildings. In the past two decades Somerville has built five new schools, yet two schools that have not had extensive renovations are in serious disrepair: Winter Hill and Benjamin Brown. We also need to ensure the continued maintenance of our newer schools to preserve these valuable community assets and their efficient operation.
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Address systemic inequalities in our schools through funding for staffing and programs
The COVID-19 pandemic made us realize the importance of schools in our community, and the educational inequities that exist for our lower-income and multi-lingual students of color who were adversely impacted by this crisis. These students have greater education gaps than their peers and it is imperative that we close these gaps. As a City Councilor, I will oversee the budget that funds our schools, their staff and programs that can be enlisted to close these gaps, both next year and in the years to come. We need to prioritize specific and targeted programs to close achievement gaps and increase success among our more vulnerable populations including children with disabilities, special education students, and lower-income students and multi-lingual students of color.
Prioritize skilled work-force programs that match new job opportunities
Changes in land-use in Somerville, and national employment trends, are changing the types of skills and preparation needed in the workforce and displacing some lower-skilled workers. To avoid further displacement of our lower-income residents and to provide better opportunities, the City needs to invest in skilled workforce programs that match the new job opportunities such as those in biotech or in the green economy. The city also needs to partner with organized labor and apprenticeship programs to help increase diversity and resident participation in the trades.
Prioritize school building improvements and maintenance
During the pandemic we experienced the perils of deferred maintenance to our school buildings. Somerville needs to undertake a comprehensive assessment of its older schools and establish a plan for improvements or new construction. Working with the State, we can secure and allocate funding for school infrastructure improvements and maintenance to avoid school closures and disruptions. Our school staff and students deserve safer and healthier buildings.
EMBRACE OUR DIFFERENCES
FOR A MORE INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY
Somerville is a culturally rich city that benefits from its diverse, multilingual population and small businesses. But as the pandemic showed, language and cultural barriers put certain communities of color, particularly immigrants, at greater risk. Due to those barriers, our immigrant populations had limited or no access to key healthcare, educational and financial resources. Access to technology also became an issue when communications were no longer in person. As a community advocate, I know those same barriers had been keeping our immigrant residents from accessing programs (after school, summer camps, extracurricular activities, etc.) that could help them succeed by providing further opportunities for development or aftercare for working families. They were not aware that these programs were available to them or if scholarship opportunities were possible due to communication gaps. As we emerge from the COVID crisis, I believe it is crucial to recognize the enormous contributions that immigrants and other communities of color make to our City, and make it a priority to remove barriers and ensure full inclusion in all City programs and activities.
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Prioritize cultural understanding
With a large immigrant multi-lingual community, Somerville needs to recognize that the cultural norms and ways of communicating and interacting vary from culture to culture. We also need to recognize the challenges that come when communities are new to the country and have limited access to technology. It is important to understand how cultural differences and generational wealth gaps, among other challenges, can be barriers to the very programs that would benefit these communities. The City needs to increase trust with its immigrant communities by working with community leaders, hiring staff from similar cultural backgrounds, and addressing technology barriers. With improved methods of communication and outreach efforts, we can bridge these gaps and address the needs of our immigrant/multi-lingual communities.
Recognize the language needs of our multilingual communities
Everyone in our community deserves to have meaningful access to the information and services they need. Currently there are support systems for translation, but they are sometimes inconsistent and are mostly focused on our schools. Somerville needs to create a Language and Communications Access Program that supports all departments and services across the City. The city should establish a goal to provide a comprehensive and universal language access to all government agencies including schools by 2021.