LETTER: Watertown Affordable Housing, an Inside Story, Part One

Print More

By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

I have a quick transcript from a Watertown Affordable Housing Trust meeting, where Brett Buehrer, Senior VP of O’Connor Capital Partners (New York) is discussing plans that his company has for a very large apartment building on Main Street, where the Post Office is currently located. There is an initial discussion with the Trust. Buehrer comes back a few minutes later to discuss something that he “forgot.”

Affordable Housing Trust Meeting October 16, 2023:

We’re making progress with the Post Office. I was wondering if you guys would be willing to write a letter to the Post Office in support of affordable housing. We’re working to relocate them and hopefully bring them back into a new building. Yeah, we need to move them along.

Cliff Cook, Chair Affordable Housing Trust:
I understand that they can be very difficult.

So, we have a few people in the community who are writing some letters on behalf of affordable housing.

I think that’s something that we can do.

Remind me what the issue is?

Their lease is up and they’re a holdover currently in their space. (My Note: post offices often have something called a “holdover lease,” which allows them to stay in a place for years after the lease expires, as long as they pay the fair market rate rent. The Watertown Post Office’s lease expired in August 2023). We’re working to relocate them, build a new building and then bring them back into the new building. That’s the plan, if we could ever put it together, but, they’re very, very slow, and we don’t want that to be the obstacle in delivering affordable housing to Watertown on a timely basis. Once we get our approvals in place, … So we have some local affordable housing people writing letters in support of the Post Office moving along, advancing the process. I was hoping you guys could do the same.

And have you identified some place to put them?

We’ve given them a temporary location option.

Cliff persists:
I’m fine with it. I don’t think that it does any harm for us to say that we would support affordable housing.

I’m thinking that we’re supporting the project where the affordable housing is being provided by this project, which is what our purview is, right?

(Unintelligible comments)

Brett comments that this housing is “desperately needed.”

(More unintelligible comments)

Larry Field (DCDP):
Well, I think the purpose of the letter, as I understand it, is to facilitate the process. The Post Office has to make its decision, and it is in the best interest of the City and the project for them to make its decision on a timely basis, you know, based on the facts, and if it works out for them, that’s great and that’s what we want. But you know, we don’t need to get into that. We need to get into encouraging them to be working on this.

Member: We want to encourage them to make a timely decision so we can advance affordable housing.

(All talking at once; more unintelligible conversation)

I mean, we’re proponents of affordable housing, so I guess anything that they could do to facilitate their process to relocate or not sooner rather than later, I guess. We’d have to word it very carefully. I mean, I guess we can, but yeah.

We could draft something.

(Lots of the folks talking over each other)

Then there’s a discussion about the difference between supporting this project’s affordable housing and the overall project. (In other words, how can we support the idea of affordable housing without being partisan and actually supporting the developer and his project?) I think that it was Larry Field’s voice (DCDP), assuring the members that this activity is OK, and they agree (with no vote) to proceed with a draft letter.

That was just part of the Oct. 16, 2023 Watertown Affordable Housing Trust meeting. I think that you’d not be wasting your time to view it in its entirety.


So, what’s this “Affordable housing” that’s being mentioned that the Watertown Affordable Housing Trust should write a support letter for? That would be 104 Main St. 137 “luxury apartments” on prime Watertown real estate. Fourteen Watertown families living in old housing stock on that location will be losing their homes for this.

O’Connor touts the “21 Affordable units” (20 rental and one for sale) that they’re creating for Watertown (5 studios; 9 one bedrooms; 6 two bedrooms; one three bedroom). Please note that the three bedroom unit is in a townhouse intended for sale. There will be no Affordable three bedroom units for rent.

By the way, the City of Watertown demands that developers building large projects like this commit 15 percent of their units as “Affordable.” This is not something that developers do out of the goodness of their hearts. O’Connor did not extend its commitment to Watertown by assigning affordability to more units than they were absolutely required to.

These city-mandated Affordable units may not be the kind of “affordable” that these displaced Watertown families can afford. Here’s the bottom line on “Government (HUD) Affordable Housing”:

What is “Affordable Housing”?

Just the other day, someone complained to me that “They never give you an actual number! What do they consider ‘affordable’??”

My answer: It’s complicated. First, let’s start with defining “Affordable” with a capital “A”. This capital “A” Affordable refers to the government set standard for affordable. The small “a” affordable, refers to a rental unit that has nothing to do with the government rules. The landlord, quite simply, has personally kept the rent at a reasonable rate, not taking advantage of renters.

Affordable, with a capital “A”:

Every year, HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) calculates the AMI (Average Median Income) for regions all over the United States. Watertown falls in the Boston/Cambridge/Quincy area. Let’s look at the AMI (average median income) for one person in Watertown for 2023: $104,510.

Then, HUD takes 80 percent of that number ($82,950) to determine that you are “low income.” That means that you are earning the most you can make to qualify for this kind of Affordable Housing that they’re building at 104 Main St.

Here’s a look at the HUD numbers for 2023:

This chart is taken from Regional Housing Services. Their website: https://www.rhsohousing.org/home/faq/what-are-income-limits

So, let’s get more into the weeds a bit. If you were a “one person family,” you’d need to make no more than 80 percent of AMI (or $82,950) to apply for O’Connor’s Affordable housing. If you had a “two person family,” you’d be allowed to make $94,800 to apply for the Affordable housing at 104 Main St. The number goes up as the family size goes up. And speaking of going up … so does the allowable rent that O’Connor can charge each year.

According to Watertown rules, O’Connor must rent 14 of these 21 Affordable apartments to families making 80 percent of the AMI. The other 7 has to be rented to people making 65 percent of the AMI. Anyone who meets these criteria and applies for one of O’Connor’s Affordable apartments goes into a lottery run by a third party.

Currently, an on-line website for one of these lotteries shows a 65 percent Affordable Watertown one bedroom rental unit offered for $1,731/month ($20,772/year) and an 80 percent one bedroom unit for $2,204/month ($26,448/year).

Question: What was the thinking behind Watertown assigning more units to the 80 percent people than the lower income 65 percent people?

So 21 permanently “Affordable units” (by HUD government standards), take away 14 presently landlord set affordable older units, that will be demolished or changed into million dollar condos … I count 7 “Affordable, by HUD standards” apartments added in total to Watertown housing stock from this project. Seven. That’s it!!

We’ve already seen what happened at the Watertown Affordable Housing Trust meeting. Now let’s fast forward to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) meeting on Oct. 25, 2023. For the second time during this meeting, when a Watertown resident asked a specific rental price question, Ms. Melissa SantucciRozzi, chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals, asked if Brett Buehrer would like to address the issue of the rental prices on the “Not designated as Affordable” units. Twice he declined.

I want to thank the ZBA for their diligence. Although they are citizen volunteers, they approached this like their day job, combing over every inch of the 104 Main St. project and in the end making it a better building.

ZBA Chair SantucciRozzi, addressing the question that Brett declined to answer for a third time, said that the majority of these apartments, which will be “market rate,” would most likely be expensive, “like most of the stock that’s being presented” [for building projects in Watertown].
Brett just smiled.

Note: Judging from some quick telephone and on-line research on the other “luxury” units in the City of Watertown, a market rate studio apartment at 104 Main St. would most likely be priced between $2,800 and $3,600 a month, and a one bedroom would be between $3,100 and $4,200 a month. That’s conservatively what those kinds of “luxury market rate” units are going for in Watertown in 2023.

So, I have some more questions:

  1. What about those 14 families being evicted and possibly having to leave Watertown? Is that “in the best interest of the City?” Are they just collateral damage for some less than altruistic housing endeavor?
  2. O’Connor Capital is a for-profit business, not a charitable Affordable Housing group. They are doing what is required of them by Watertown inclusionary zoning regulations. Should our municipal Affordable Housing Trust in Watertown be writing a letter of support for O’Connor, which is evicting our Post Office, at least the one small business left, and 14 families?
  3. It’s pretty clear from Brett’s comments at the ZBA meeting that the Federal government would balk at the market rate retail rent for this space for the Post Office. What chance does a small Watertown business person have of setting
    up shop there?
  4. How about if this deal falls through, and we have no plan and no Post Office? Stranger things have happened!
  5. Is more of this kind of project going to dig us out of this retail and housing hole we’re in or entrench us deeper?

Tomorrow, see Watertown Affordable Housing, an Inside Story, Part Two: What other strategies can we use to add to Watertown’s housing stock?

Send letters to the editor to watertownmanews@gmail.com

51 thoughts on “LETTER: Watertown Affordable Housing, an Inside Story, Part One

  1. Ms. Scott’s editorial confirms the importance of asking “why?” Asking “why?” doesn’t require courage. It just means giving up the satisfaction of being silent. Alarmed at what I saw after viewing the video of the October 16 Affordable Housing Trust Meeting, I wrote to City Manager Proakis and copied members of the City Council, and Mr. Cook, the chairperson of the Affordable Housing Trust.

    At that sparsely-attended trust meeting Brett Buehrer made the specious argument that the U.S. Post Office’s holdover lease is an obstacle to the construction of 21 units of affordable housing, not that the lease is an obstacle to O’Connor’s plan to build 137 units of market-rate housing. As Ms. Scott points out, Mr. Buehrer’s hypocrisy belies the fact that O’Connor is not building a single unit more than what the Zoning Code requires of a project that size.

    Larry Field from DCDP assured the reluctant members of the Affordable Housing Trust that a letter from that body to the U.S. Postal service, urging the government to move the negotiations with the Salusti Trust, landlord of the post office, along on the grounds that affordable housing was at stake would be entirely appropriate.

    I disagree and told the city manger so in my letter. Mr. Field is a taxpayer-salaried employee of the city, and should not act as a shill, lobbyist, or rubber-stamp enabler for a developer or any entity having business before the CDPD. That Mr. Field injected himself into the trust’s discussion using his position of authority to urge approving a supportive letter for 104 Main Street’s affordable housing while decoupling the 21 units dependent on the construction of the 137 market-rate units is yet another example of why many Watertown residents regard DCPD with suspicion.

    Transition to the Zoning Board of Appeal meeting on Oct. 25., where questions about the development remained unanswered. Chairperson SantucciRozzi never asked, nor did any member of the board or resident in attendance or on Zoom how many construction jobs the O’Connor project would yield? Jobs are as important as housing. Would those jobs be good union jobs? How many permanent jobs would the project deliver? Would those jobs be minimum wage jobs? When does the O’Connor option to buy the Salusti Trust’s property expire? How can Buehrer credibly say O’Connor expects to break ground this summer when the post office lease in in holdover status and the Watertown Square Revitalization Study report recommendations won’t be published until April, 2024? The 104 Main St. project is in the study area. Or has the ZBA’s conditional approval of the O’Connor project taken a defining block of Main St. off the board without residents’ knowledge?

    That there is a housing crisis is not in dispute. That most reasonable Watertown residents support different strategies to increase the supply of moderate-priced and affordable homes is also not in dispute. We need affordable homes, not more luxury rentals, pricey condos, and lab space. Also what is not in dispute is that residents need reliable and affordable public transit options before increased density along transit corridors. To thrive, Watertown needs to develop a plan for a resilient and livable city. That is why residents should participate in the Watertown Square Area Plan three-day design charrette beginning Tuesday, Nov. 28, through Thursday, Nov. 30 at 64 Pleasant St.

  2. This is all interesting information showing commercial developers will never get us the housing we need, and never have.

    As to the DCDP, I firmly believe that the “C” stands for “Commercial”, because they have never done much in support of the “Community”. Maybe we should just change the name so that the many residents with that pervasive mistrust aren’t fooled anymore.

  3. Thank you, Linda Scott and Caroline Gritter for your deeply informed, thoughtful, and important letters. I concur: residents absolutely ought to participate in the Watertown Square Area Plan three-day design charrettes.

    Moreover, consideration of alternate financing models are in order, too, that keep ownership more local (this “follow the money” question is a big one that doesn’t get enough attention, in my judgment) and prices more affordable — be it with or without a capital A.

    Perhaps we might revisit the nonprofit Community Development Corporation (CDC) model, as advocated by then New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy on August 15, 1966, which kicked off a series of seminal Senate hearings on the future of the War on Poverty. Those hearings helped advance the Model Cities Act and the Special Impact amendment to the Economic Opportunity Act — ultimately referred to as Title ID establishing Community Development Corporations — that RFK helped enact that same year.

    Flash forward 60 years later: With some tinkering, the CDC model seems well-suited to our current housing affordability plight.

    (For current state policies and procedures on that, go to https://www.mass.gov/info-details/community-development-corporation-certification-cdc
    And please keep in mind, too, that as the wealth gap widens, so, too, do definitions of “economically disadvantaged” need to be revised.)

    Again, thank you Linda and Caroline!

  4. The following comment is from Eric York:

    Those families aren’t being evicted, their lease is not being renewed

    The Post Office is not being evicted, their lease has already expired and the developers are doing what they can to work with an extremely slow bureaucracy to get something figured out for them. That small business (Crown Diner) made a mistake in signing a month to month lease. (the person that advised them to do that should be held accountable for giving absolutely terrible advice)

    A business that can actually drive enough sales / customers to pay it. Will probably be something national or higher end just like arsenal yards. (or maybe the safari vacation business can move)

    You are just doom posting hypotheticals with this one

    Yes, building more homes is how you get out of a housing crisis. We cannot our way out of this.

    What your summary fails to go over is how building new market rate / luxury apartments impact the prices of surrounding existing units. Building new housing stock in the downtown area has what is called a “filtering up” effect that results in those that can spend more, moving into those units, leaving others to move into the older existing units. So now even though the new units are market rate / luxurious they actually act to suppress the price increases of existing units (this is why existing rental unit owners hate when new buildings are constructed as it limited how much they can increase rents) So now we can understand that even though only 21 units of “affordable” house were created (and subsidized by the gov) by building new units we have lowered the upward price pressure on existing units.

    You can read about “filtering up” here: https://www.dalyappraisal.com/blog/will-building-more-market-rate-apartments-increase-the-affordable-housing-stock/

    • Filtering up sounds a lot like “trickle down” the neoliberal economics cooked up by Lewis Powell and Milton Friendman, and their pets in the Chicago School. We all know how that went. Those policies have taken a United States with a strong middle class and relative post war equality and transformed it into a country with levels of inequality unheard of since the Gilded Age with their Robber Barons.

      The fact of the matter is that we have built several thousand units of housing in Watertown in the last decade or so–most of it expensive–and, rather than recede, housing costs have spiked rapidly. The high end housing has actually had an upward drag on the price of existing housing.

      Though I agree that we need more housing, the shibboleth, that building high end housing will somehow increase affordability is no more than a rational for certain behavior.

      • It’s Friedman. And he was great.”Pets in the Chicago School”?? Ad Hominem attacks do not belong in this forum. I suppose you think Hayek was a looney. Uh?

        • Friedman might have been great if you are in the upper quintile of earners. Everyone else, not so much.

          The neoliberal economists of the Chicago School held that the only legitimate concern of a CEO was shareholder value. Not the communities they do business in, not the workers, not the environment and so on. Thus their followers blew up the post war consensus that produced a strong middle class.

          The irony is that Friedman advocated an extremely limited role for government. His economics worsened many problems like homelessness, housing affordability and environmental damage that are now left for the government to solve, or not to be solved at all.

          In Watertown, some seem to accept that theory that the market cannot produce affordable housing and so government must do so. That’s the legacy of Friedman and Powell.

          By the way, I eagerly await your next typo.

        • Hayek has been proved wrong on many occasions. In fact , he didnt perform any hard core analysis, just extrapolations off Burke. Keynes came out of the womb as a Burkian, until the data started to show him limitations and severe costs to the economy, and society as a whole. Even the Chicago School is considering minimum wage laws as a net positive.

      • I totally agree with you, Joe! (And I just learned a few new words). My first thought was that this sounded a lot like “trickle down”.

      • Filtering up is more akin to product substitution, and not the hoarding of dollars as in “trickle down” voodoo economics. Because of high price elasticity, high earners can chase the next big thing. Non high earners and producer/providers cannot, and other markets are created, such as the re-sale market. It’s like stadium concert tickets, in which there’s a market for floor seats and one for nosebleed, and everything in between (in a perfect world, there’d be no fees and a crackdown on scalpers). Since supply is sufficient enough, most can get access. When it’s a one room concert, supply is more restricted, and at most there’s usually only one to two markets – VIP area and everybody else. Units in Watertown are restricted in similar ways, and until more units of all kinds are introduced, it will remain limited in the kinds of markets it can offer.

      • I’m definitely no fan of Friedman, but I don’t think it’s fair to compare “filtering up” to “trickle down”. Trickle down was largely a grift from the ultra wealthy which has been demonstrably proven to be false given the ever growing divide between ultra-wealthy and the rest of us, but I think “filtering up” has much more sound economic foundations.

        “we have built several thousand units of housing in Watertown in the last decade or so–most of it expensive–and, rather than recede, housing costs have spiked” –According to a 2022 study by the nonprofit Up for Growth, Massachusetts is missing 108,157 homes. That was literally last year. So building several thousand units over the past decade hasn’t done enough… it’s like taking a bucket full of water out of a lake while it’s raining and wondering why the water level didn’t go down. Demand has been outpacing supply.

        That’s why we need something like the MBTA Communities Law, because even an extremely pro-housing town can’t bear the burden all by themselves and really most cities in the area need to start building a lot more. Maybe we should re-evaluate when the supply actually meets the demand.

        Watertown, being so close to Cambridge and Boston, really should be densifying a lot more. We shouldn’t be pretending like we’re a small town

          • I resent the characterization of my comments as misinformation. Supply and demand are only among a matrix of factors that impact the cost of housing. Another is the supply of money chasing a commodity.

            Another is demographics.Changing demographics in Watertown have introduced an economic elite which has not previously been present in great numbers.

            You might do well to read MIT Professor Catherine Turco’s book on Harvard Square. She illustrates how, among other things, infusion of national capital, upends the internal logic of local markets, often to the detriment of community.

            Like it or not, Watertown is gentrifying. The trick will be to try to preserve a good deal of the positive aspects of Watertown’s past along with some of the good things change may bring.

            Re. supply: One thing that we must do is to zone more land for housing rather than labs or offices. Every lab that is built takes land away from potential housing. There needs to be a better balance.

            But careful observation of the dynamics on the street will point to the fact that the housing we have built has not increased affordability on iota. Nor will pell mell building do so in the future. It’s more complicated than simple supply and demand.

        • I think that it is quite fair to compare trickle down and filter up. Both are efforts to construct an economic theory that serves as an excusatory rationale for economic behavior that may benefit certain individuals but does not benefit society as a whole.

          This kind of thing is why economics is called the dismal science.

          Careful observation in my own neighborhood and other neighborhoods that I am familiar with as well as the role that housing plays in my profession, lead me to believe that the introduction of high price housing has only driven severe inflation throughout our rental housing market.

          That is that the presence of new high end units has caused updraft on the price of units that may be pone hundred years old or better. Sometimes observation is one of the surest means of collecting data.

          • I was referring to the disinformation and misinformation about the number of units needed in Watertown to meet demand. There are not enough in the square nor in the rest of the town. I took the description of filtering up as trickle down as an innocent misunderstanding. Like any field, economics is also mired in human thought patterns. We have had doctors who went to medical school tell people to take horse pills to combat COVID. We have had lawyers who went to law school defend insurrectionists who put everything on video! One can collect data, but then bias has to be accounted for, statistical significance has to be proven, correlation has to be discerned from cause, probability has to be calculated, etc.

            In the end, more units are needed, whether it is through developers, more public hosing, zoning or land use reform.

    • This is a reply to Mr. York. The Main St. business Mr. York referenced is the Crown Cafe. It has been the Crown Cafe for decades, a fact that should have come to Mr. York’s notice, if he had any familiarity with the two iconic 1900s-era storefronts across from the fire station, the library, and the city administration building.

      As for the person who gave the Iranian family the “absolutely terrible advice” to sign a month-to-month lease, that was the landlord, Mr. Salusti.

      Mr. York’s assertion that building new luxury housing suppresses the rents in existing buildings does not pass the financial reality test of residents in my 18-year-old building or the experience of residents of other properties that have come on line in recent years, such as River Bend. Residents in these older rental properties have never seen rents held steady or decreased to retain good tenants. Instead, residents experience yearly increases, which put the asking rent for their older units on a par with new market-rate “luxury” units coming on line.

      I recall that Mr. York has said he is a homeowner, confirming that he likely has little or no experience apartment hunting in today’s market. When an area starts to have luxury apartments, the land values go up around them. As a result rents go up, because landlords feel empowered to raise their rents to keep up with the expensive housing. Let’s say a landlord is charging $2,000 a month. Nearby new luxury units are renting for $4,000 and more. Now, the landlord of the older property wants to charge $3,000 and can get it because the area is gentrifying.

      • All great points, Carolyn. The old rules are out the window, to the detriment of those seeking to live here and for those who already live here and are hanging on by a thread.

        And in the “Basic Black” show that I referred to in Part Two, a woman talks about looking at the college kids in her Boston neighborhood and realizing that she’s competing for space with these kids’ (very affluent) parents. That also skews rents. How can we be welcoming to these folks without deconstructing our City and turning it into an adjunct of the colleges and universities?

  5. PS: My apologies to Carolyn Gritter for misspelling her first name. As one whose surname is often misspelled, I regret the error.

  6. This OpEd is so filled with half truths and misunderstandings that its intention is undermined.

    1. Watertown needs housing of all types, at all rent/price levels. In various public comments, I’m seeing small-minded resentment of higher-income people by those who want only lower-priced housing and “working class jobs” to come into Watertown. However, I believe that Watertown should welcome residents of all income levels.

    2. It’s 100% predictable that corporate developers will minimize the number of “affordable” units in a proposal for new housing, for the simple reason that “affordable” units are less profitable to build vs. market-rate units. Corporations are required BY LAW to act in the financial interests of their shareholders. Our laws don’t include forcing corporations to do business in a way that is against their wishes or is unprofitable.

    3. Please don’t complain about a certain family (or 14 of them) not being able to afford a newly built “affordable” unit. The definition of “affordable” may be codified, but it’s just a number which probably doesn’t align with the full financial needs of many people in real life.

    4. Are the interests of 14 families currently *renting* their homes on this land more important than our city’s interest in adding more housing? I say MORE HOUSING is more important.

    5. Is it more important for Post Office to stay where it is, or is it more important for the city to enable more housing in Watertown Square? I say NEW HOUSING is more important. The Post Office will decide for itself where it will relocate.

    6. No one can predict what the rents or home prices will be 2-3 years in the future, after the units are ready for occupancy. Asking a developer to specify rent levels now appears to be intended as a gotcha (“See, the developer is evading the question of affordability!”). But of course, so-called “affordable rents” will be calculated based on incomes in the future.

    7. All of the residents who oppose the 104 Main St. project are welcome to pool their own money and build all the “affordable housing” that they want. (within the law) But if other entities are providing the money, then their needs must be satisfied too.

    • Agree Kathi! Great point about future prices! And prices are dropping, not precipitously, however. If we want to see price/rent drops as much as 40%, then it may mean adding 7000 units. I don’t know the exact number since I don’t have the software to do such analysis, but it will be a lot. And, every kind of housing is needed, as you mentioned.

  7. You complain that 14 families would lose their home but don’t seem to acknowledge that in its place there will be almost 10 times as many units. Overall this is a net win. Imagine getting 137 families in a room and telling them “you can’t live in Watertown Square because 14 families live in that space already”. Yes, I feel for the displaced families but we need to be thinking a little longer term. More overall damage is done by NOT building. A generation of people RIGHT NOW cannot afford homes because of decades of people engaging in the kind of reasoning that you’re engaging in

    You also complain that these units will be expensive… well yes, but what do you expect from market rate apartments during an severe housing shortage? It’s all supply and demand. The people moving into those 137 apartments will not be taking other apartments. It helps to relieve pressure on the housing market. We need more housing, plain and simple, and there’s no more unused land to build it on in Watertown. It feels like no matter what is proposed, somebody will fine some objection to it (“the building casts shadows”, “it changes the character of the neighborhood”, “we need to preserve historic buildings”, “the developer used to build malls and we all see how well THAT turned out”, etc etc etc). Every argument against housing comes across as a desperate attempt to encase this city in amber never to be changed again.

    You say, “How about if this deal falls through, and we have no plan and no Post Office”. Are you saying that we shouldn’t even try because something might go wrong? Then why do anything at all?

    “What chance does a small Watertown business person have of setting up shop there?” — Well, they’ll have 137 new units right next to their new business. That sounds pretty attractive, don’t you think? Imagine a bar or restaurant sitting below 137 units. Sure sounds better than setting up shop in Watertown Square as it is now.

    “Is more of this kind of project going to dig us out of this retail and housing hole we’re in or entrench us deeper?” — please enlighten me about how this would entrench us deeper into the housing hole we’re in right now? We need to make investments NOW that will pay off later. 14 families being displaced now is a small price to pay for 137 families being able live in the center of town in a few years.

    Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!

  8. Make no mistake O’ Connor Capital Partners is a for profit company. As of the the 1970s, corporations have been focusing on maximizing the shareholder gains/owner profits. The time when corporation also concerned themselves with the commonwealth or society as a whole has passed – thanks Milton Friedman! As is stated in the editorial, Affordable is defined by the Federal government which has to look at the nation’s average to be “fair.” The editorial also refers to Watertown rules. If the rules permit that x number be Affordable and x number be affordable, then that is what is allowed. Do we need to change the way we define Affordable and affordable at every level of the government? Emphatically yes! Do we need to look at other solutions, such as the one suggested by Marcy M? Yes!
    In my opinion, I don’t see anything nefarious having occurred at the Affordable Housing Trust meeting. Could Mr. Buehrer been more narrow with his definition of affordable? Yes. Did he have to be? No. Also, DCDP’s Larry Field encouragement did not break any rules. He and the AHT board members are intelligent people who probably understand the definitions of affordability as well as the housing crisis better than most.
    If we are truly looking for the creation of Affordable and affordable units, and more altruism, then that has to come from the community. In a 2022 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, “analysis shows that allowing one more housing unit per acre in a Greater Boston neighborhood increases the number of units in that neighborhood by an average of 0.4. This increase results in the neighborhood’s rents dropping more than 5% and house prices falling more than 7% on average.” To be really simple, if a town has 40 acres that means a town has to add 40 units to see a 5% drop in rent or 7% drop in prices, on average. If average rent is 3000 and the average price is 900k, then the drop isn’t much. I know this isn’t a linear function, nor exponential one, but to achieve higher percent drops, more units need to be added. We are looking at lot of units to really get to affordability. In other words, a lot of density. Some units will come from developers. Some units will come from conversions. Some units will come from zoning and land use reform. To be altruistic then, means putting up with private developers, more traffic, fewer parking spots, less of a skyline view, less privacy, more noise and lighting, less acreage, etc. So to give others affordability, some and maybe all of us have to give.

  9. Thanks go out to Linda Scott on her extensive research and for bringing to light so many issues. As many commenters have said, there are no easy answers to solving the housing crisis across our country, especially in Watertown.
    We are a very small city whose character is rapidly changing to accommodate large developers of housing and life science buildings. The benefits of some of these changes are dubious. We do need more businesses to thrive here in order to allow the tax base to be shifted from home owners to businesses, which has recently been done and will bring some relief in fiscal 2024 thanks to Councilors Izzo and Airasian’s efforts.

    To lose more actual affordable housing to be replaced by high end luxury apartments does little to help many of our long-term renters. It pushes them out of Watertown and allows highly paid individuals to move in because they can afford the higher rents. These new, often younger, renters tend be more transient as their jobs change more frequently or they get married and have families and they can afford to move on (after they may have voted for issues or encouraged programs that will not benefit Watertown in the long run).

    With the current labs and future ones to come, there are plenty of jobs for higher paid people. We need diversity of businesses and jobs to help current residents with other skills and who may not get paid the big bucks to stay here or we will become another rich city like Wellesley and Weston. Is that what we want?

    A comment was made that house prices are dropping. That is only because the interest rates have risen to a rate that is negatively affecting the housing market and thus eliminating some buyers from being able to purchase a home and reducing the number of people who can afford to sell their current home and buy another.

    I wonder if we have a goal of the maximum number of housing units that Watertown can actually support in the long run without affecting the unique small-town feeling that drew many people to move here. There are plenty of other cities that have much more room for housing growth. Let them do their part and not be so exclusive. Watertown has created a lot of housing over the last few years and many of these apartments are still not rented.

    For those who do not want to sacrifice quality of life with more congestion and traffic, less scenic views on the river, fewer small businesses able to afford rent in these new buildings, higher school costs with increased enrollment, etc., we need to make decisions now. If we become a typical wealthy city, we are giving up our character and historic roots for what?

    At the Affordable Housing Trust meeting it was often hard to hear what was being said. The microphones don’t work well in that meeting room and the people often talked over each other so it was difficult to get all of the conversations, but we should make sure the city officials are doing the right things and following proper procedures and representing we, the people.

    Coincidentally on NBC evening news on November 15 there was a story about Hawaii and how the developers have ruined this Island. They have created so many high residential buildings and hotels, often destroying beautiful views, that also have high rents that the native Hawaiians can’t afford to now live on the island. They are losing their family ties and moving to mainland US to allow them ‘to work to live and not live to work’.

    These new developments that only the wealthy can afford are ruining a beautiful place all in the name of money for some. Creating all this housing didn’t push the rental prices down! (A lesson for us to learn!) The average price of a house there is now $847,000.

    Many of these families have moved to Las Vegas to start new lives and are doing their best to save their culture and family values. They will attempt to teach their native language to their children and, hopefully, make visits back to the Island to show them their beginnings and visit any family members left there. What a shame it is when native Hawaiians are forced out to accommodate rich actors, politicians and speculators. And what a shame it will be if we force out long-term homeowners and renters in Watertown due to changes that aren’t wanted or possibly needed!

  10. Right, prices are dropping because interest rate hiking is a demand suppression technique.
    However, prices would drop steeply if there was more supply. Restricting supply in the 1990s via zoning laws because of subjective pleas for “quality of life” is what caused the problem in the first place. Lifting these restrictions would go a long way in providing the necessary number of units to bring rents/prices down, and these solutions would mean less reliance on developers.

          • Thanks for nothing. I will explain slowly and hopefully you will understand.

            Joe (to me): “ By the way, I eagerly await your next typo”.

            Me (to Joe): “ I had imagined you wood”.

            I meant to write “wood” instead of “would”. As others have said about you in this forum – including me, you don’t get irony; the concept escapes you. N’est-ce pas?

  11. While those of us with the space and extra parking to offer accessory apartments are denied, outside profit-machines charging $4-5K a month for a ‘luxury’ apartment are given the blessing of our city, while DCDP writes propagandized public letters to influence our local citizens to accept more unAffordable housing. If this isn’t proof of gentrification, removing the opportunity for truly affordable housing, I don’t know what is.

    • Let’s change that via zoning and land use reform. If you have property then you should be able leverage it – renting parking spots, adding ADUs, or adding a house on a large lot that could easily fit two or three other houses. Less reliance on developers would be a good thing,

  12. “Those families aren’t being evicted, their lease is not being renewed” (Eric York)
    The effect on these tenants is the same and you know it.

    It’s so profoundly ugly to see Watertown and Watertownians enthusiastically endorse the right of a luxury housing developer to force 14 tenant families out of their homes and, in this market, out of Watertown.

    • Agreed. This isn’t an abstract chalkboard exercise. Real people and their lives are involved. It is currently a very difficult time for those of modest means to find their way in this economy which so disproportionately favors those on the top.

      The developer should find housing for these families.

      It is shocking to behold the cruelty with which some of the well heeled view normal folks. Let them eat cake, right?

  13. I don’t appreciate the serial editorials on affordable housing, historic Watertown and political innuendo. because of the spreading of misinformation and disinformation in order to mummify Watertown. However, I do very much appreciate the large chorus that has come out to correct the record. By the way, Watertown is 4.2 square miles.
    Like the aforementioned group, I don’t appreciate the semantic games over the word affordability and other such terms, or the prioritization of tradition, neighborhood style, house/building characteristics, process over outcome, viewscape, meeting attendance, height, setbacks, traffic patterns, tree roots, noise and light “pollution,” etc. These are things.
    Meanwhile our neighbors are paying 3 grand plus in housing costs. They do it by allocating 50% plus of their budgets to housing, and go without reliable transportation, medical insurance/visits and even food as demonstrated by our extremely busy food pantries. Those who have a smaller budget live in public housing, and traffic patterns and neighborhood characteristics don’t rank in their top 20 priorities.
    The government as the big bad wolf trope isn’t appreciated either. Those working at city hall are neighbors too, who are doing the best they can. Corporate America’s mantra has been “good enough” for more than two decades. So why change the standard for other entities? Having spent years in Corporate America, I can tell you a million and one stories about gross incompetence and levels of corruption.
    As I have said before, if people genuinely care about affordability, then it means giving up things so that neighbors can have needs met. Keeping the things also comes at a cost – borrowing against people’s futures. So decide to dig deep and address the problem or put head in sand and exasperate the problem.

    • I think, in this case, disinformation is a matter of opinion.

      And for the record, not all who work at 149 Main Street live in Watertown, so they are not necessarily neighbors. But the good folks of Watertown pay their salaries, which is not to be forgotten.

      When the views of large numbers of residents are ignored, that is a problem in terms of democracy and community.

      • Correct! Not all who work for the city, live here.
        When the boards and council vote on items that don’t favor a position, it doesn’t mean a position was listened to.
        Speaking of being ignored, the concerns of those born after 1980 have been ignored for some time by many bodies and across many topics.
        The monkeying of the number of units to imply compliance with the MBTA Community Law is a deliberate attempt to cheat the system. And the proposal to use certain strategies that don’t address supply (except one, conversion) is nothing more than window dressing. Maybe it’s ignorance, maybe not.

  14. While yes, eviction and the end of a lease result in the same thing (the tenant leaving) from a legal standpoint they are completely different. It is important for Linda to use the correct language and terminology in her articles. Eviction means the tenants breached their lease agreement (didn’t pay, damaged the property, etc…) That term has a very negative connotation towards the people that were living there.

    Stop with all this victimhood language. When you are a renter, your lease is the only thing that gives you rights to be at that property and it doesn’t give you the right to renew in perpetuity. The developer isn’t forcing anyone to do anything they already hadn’t agreed to, they honored every single existing lease on the property they purchased. You can’t force the developer to keep renting it out if they have other plans, thats not how property rights work.

    • This is a particularly harsh example of the dehumanizing side of neo-liberal economic thought. Nothing matters but the contract and money. Not community, not people, not the greater well being. Everything is transactional. Money and power trump everything, even the fate of our neighbors.

      This kind of thinking has resulted in many of the problems that our nation and our communities face today: inequality, homelessness, increasingly poor health care outcomes, environmental degradation and so on.

      In our dealings we must regard our fellow human beings with consideration, whether they have lots of money or not. I was brought up to respect other people regardless of wealth or social status.

  15. Hi Eric,

    You are correct. Language (words) need to be precise, however, I’m sure that you can also agree with Libby that the effect is the same, if you’re that tenant in this rental environment.

    Let’s not victimize here. Let’s do the math. We lose 14 affordable units to get 21 “Affordable.” The question: Do you consider that development as worthy of being portrayed as adding an important contribution to Watertown’s Affordable housing, worthy of commendation? Displacing this many to get that many, by totally discounting the number of displaced? If yes, why?

    • What you are failing to take into effect is the impact the other units have on surrounding unit prices. Existing renters are currently getting squeeze on price for multiple factors.

      1 -Interest rates are very high which makes purchasing a home more difficult, more renters trying to find a place.

      2 – extremely low vacancy rates in Watertown due to lack of supply, this allows landlords to increase prices because they have increase supply of renters and no units to compete with.

      So now enters a brand new building of market rate units and 21 affordable units. Now Watertown gains 7 units directly (14 to 21) but also now the existing units come under price pressure because the tenants they were about to raise their rents on can now get nicer places for that same price. Now will some existing units still increase their prices, sure. But in most cases they will have to do renovations or add amenities to compete with the new rentals at that price point.

      What is hard to predict is which units in the area will have to lower or maintain their existing rent prices because of the new units available. Also as all the new business’s start to hire and ramp up, how much pressure will all the new people put on things. What is clear is that if Watertown builds nothing, the rents on existing units will rise at a much faster rate than if we don’t build anything new. (peoples property taxes will also go through the roof)

      No one is discounting the displaced, but it is something that happens. Why is it okay to displace them, because where they were staying was never theirs to begin with. All the leases were honored and now the owners want to sell and the buyer wants to do something else.

      Also, families are not leaving (at least ones with small children). The elementary schools are at record attendance. There are lotteries and waiting lists for extended day services at each of the schools. I could see families with other kids leaving because our vocational eduction options are abysmal and the high school is going to take 2 years to rebuild so they don’t want their kids going to school in trailers during that time. But if you are a dual median income family in Watertown (102k + 102k = 204k) then 3k a month in rent is manageable.

      • I can’t believe the prejudice I’m reading in this post, families are not leaving with small children etc, but families with other kids because of voc-ed failures are, along with kids the parents don’t want in a module classroom are. Gentrification is what you’re describing here. I wasn’t aware that a FAMILY @102+102=204K can afford a single bedroom rental apartment for 3000 per month, sounds more like dual earner-no kids. People if they’re leaving is because they can find more affordable properties further out than here, and I’m sure the $200,000 wage mark they may not earn is one reason. So along comes the commute and all the traffic you don’t like because this is where the job that pays maybe a living wage is and not out there, REALITY. Also another of yours; “okay to displace” “wasn’t theirs to begin with” WHOSE LIVES MATTER with the holiday season upon us Scrooge would come to mind, but I have another term for you, for all your past episodes, along with being one of the largest property owners [alleged in your mind] I hope they raise your taxes to the heavens

        • Your first statement makes zero sense. The school committee spent over a year trying to figure out how to improve voc-ed options for Watertown kids and accomplished absolutely nothing (their recommendation to families was to literally move somewhere else or send your kid to Medford where they tried to cover up a kid getting stabbed last year). That is not gentrification, that is just failure. Also, I said my lot is one of the largest, I am no where near the largest property owner as I only own my house. And if you are hoping they raise my taxes then you are also hoping the town raises everyone’s rent because guess who landlords pass property tax increases on to ?

          There are dozens of 2 bedroom rentals for under 3k in Watertown right now, and even a handful of 3 bedroom under 3k (117 Dexter ave Unit one is the first one that pops up).

          The average college grad in Boston is making just over $160k. (this is definitely skewed towards STEM grads since Boston is skewed that way)
          https://www.ziprecruiter.com/Salaries/College-Grads-Salary-in-Boston,MA#Yearly. So a young family of college educated parents, both working, is making just over 300k. (bring home around 200k). 3k rent is manageable in that situation even with the highest childcare costs in the nations.

      • I’m afraid you’re misquoting figures. The latest census data – https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/watertowntowncitymassachusetts/INC110221 – lists Watertown’s median HOUSEHOLD income as $101,402. A household making two times that figure is nowhere near the norm.

        Using the oft-quoted 30% rule (no more than 30% of income should be spent on rent), that comes to $2,535 per month, leaving such a family ~$465/mo short of affording that “manageable” $3k/mo rent.

  16. Hi Rita,

    I think that the affordability issue is not clear until we understand the difference between the little and big A’s of affordability, since that’s what’s driving our current development in this City and many others.

    And, if you look at the experiences of other cities that have gone before us in this process, you’ll note the many complaints that with this rampant market rate development comes homelessness and displacement of minority populations. Market rate development is something that Carolyn Gritter explained is what’s driving prices higher in older, usually more affordable buildings, causing much of this displacement.

    I think that if you dig a little deeper, you can find many renters in Watertown who would find it difficult, if not impossible, to scrape together $3000 a month for rent, especially if they have children. That’s one of the reasons why we see families and seniors leaving.

  17. Some commenters are failing to recognize a basic point: when a landlord raises the rent, there’s a *small business* making money from their property. For example, my house is surrounded by 3 two-family homes owned and rented out by locals, i.e. folks who live in or were raised in Watertown. The rents they earn support their own families, who are also our neighbors. I see sympathetic comments about renters being displaced when market rents rise. Would these commenters suggest that small landlords should not raise rents and make money from their properties? Who benefits from that?

    • Often it is the small landlord or owner occupant who is most reasonable and decent. They understand on a gut level what common folk are up against.

      In our business dealings, we should strive to balance our own needs and desires against the well being of our neighbors. A little restraint would help to begin to solve our community’s problems. But for some folks, more is never enough.

      Observing human behavior these days, it might appear that reasonableness, decency and restraint are antiquated values. Let’s hope not.

  18. I totally agree, Joe. I have known many two family house owners who try to keep their rents reasonable. It’s important to them to establish some sort of good will with their neighbor. It’s also good business practice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *