LETTER: Watertown Affordable Housing an Inside Story, Part Two

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By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

Is There Any Other Way? – What other Strategies can we use to add to Watertown’s housing stock?

People, there just has to be a better way or a combination of better ways for us to provide affordable housing and grow our community. Here are just four possible approaches:

1) One way that we could add significantly to affordable housing units in Watertown would be by banning STR’s (short term rentals … AirB&B’s) in Watertown. There are hundreds of them in Watertown.

Basically, by turning an apartment into a Short Term Rental for 30 days or less, you are taking that rental unit off the market for people who want to live year-round in Watertown. The apartments are reserved instead for occasional rental use on weekends, etc. The neighbors hate them! One of the “poster children” for this kind of rental activity has had numerous police visits in the past few months.

There were meetings held by the Watertown Committee on Rules and Ordinances on this issue in April 2023. And then, the issue suddenly and inexplicably dropped off the Council’s agenda. This is the second time this has happened to the STR issue in the last few years.

In Watertown, our City unofficially acknowledges STR’s by having them pay taxes, but we do not regulate them. Watertown would not be the first community to ban them. Many places have found that they are community breakers.

Let’s say that there are 200 STR’s in Watertown (a conservative number). If they were banned, it would put 200 housing units back into Watertown housing stock. That’s the equivalent of building 10 more buildings the size of this one at 104 Main Street in Watertown Square, since each huge building like this is required to produce about 20 Affordable apartments:

A view of the project at 104 Main St. viewed from Pleasant Street. (Courtesy of O’Connor Capital Partners)

2) Another way is to reimagine our relationship to colleges and universities in the area that put a strain on our housing stock. Here’s an interesting discussion that was had on a PBS show called “Basic Black” about this issue in Roxbury. It introduced a new term to me: “Drive till you qualify.” In this show, there’s a serious discussion about how this disrupts a community and culture that they’ve worked so hard to grow and maintain: https://www.pbs.org/video/affordable-housing-kaciga/

3) Here’s a recent WBUR study on the State’s waiting list for housing: 2300 units of state housing vacant for years due to a wait list design flaw: https://www.wbur.org/news/2023/09/19/massachusetts-state-funded-public-housing-waitlist-vacant

Fixing/tightening up bureaucratic things like this would help, too. In this article, the Watertown Housing Authority and the problems that it is experiencing is referenced.

4) Bloomberg News, October 27, 2023: “A New White House Plan to Create Affordable Housing: Convert Empty Office Buildings. The Biden administration is freeing up resources to help turn offices into apartments.” Maybe this is a way to get our local contractors back in the game?

Tomorrow: Watertown Affordable Housing an Inside Story Part Three Has Watertown already fully or partially complied with the MBTA Law? (The answer to this might surprise you). And how can I get involved in making Watertown Square a more attractive and vibrant city center?

Send letters to the editor to watertownmanews@gmail.com

10 thoughts on “LETTER: Watertown Affordable Housing an Inside Story, Part Two

  1. 1) Short-term rentals are only a tiny drop in the bucket. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to ban short-term rentals (I don’t know enough about this to have an informed opinion), but even if we did we wouldn’t have solved very much

    2) I don’t know what you mean by “reimagine our relationship to colleges and universities in the area that put a strain on our housing stock”. How do they put strain? Is it because students also need a place to live? How do we re-imagine our relationship with universities? How many units can we expect from this “re-imagining”?

    3) According to that WBUR article, there are 561 public housing units in Watertown and only 21 vacancies. Sure, I agree that we should make this bureaucracy more efficient and having vacant units is definitely unacceptable. But again, another drop in the bucket. Even the 2,300 units you referenced is only 2% of the current shortage in housing we have right now in Massachusetts

    4) Converting office space to housing is certainly a good thing to do where possible, but you provide no specifics. Which buildings specifically? How many units can we expect?

    What I hear is suggestions that mostly just nibble around the edges. According to a 2022 study by the nonprofit Up for Growth, Massachusetts is missing 108,157 homes. I’m not saying these suggestions are bad or anything but it doesn’t really address the issue. Watertown, being so close to the urban core, should be building thousands of units to do our part and set ourselves up for future growth. The concrete suggestions you’ve given will give us *maybe* a few hundred of units. It’s just not enough.

    I hear no mention of the elephant in the room: zoning. What about elimination of single family exclusionary zoning which will allow more duplexes, townhouses, and triple deckers to be built? What about accessory dwelling units? (admittedly I don’t know Watertown’s laws are for ADUs) What about eliminating parking minimums which make developments more expensive, encourage car use, and use valuable land for the storage of cars instead of the housing of people? What about nitty gritty things like minimum setback requirements allowing more house to be built on the same amount of land? I’m guessing you didn’t go into these things because you don’t actually want to see these things change.

    Again, all I hear is lots and lots of excuses to not take any substantial action to solve the problem and only offering up suggestions that might appear on the surface to be solutions but on closer inspection are really just a way to pay lip service to the problem without doing anything.

    • Those who express concerns about the need for affordable housing avoid discussing rent control. The Brookline Town Meeting recently bit the bullet and voted to urge the Select Board to petition state legislators to allow the town to impose rent stabilization and tenant eviction protections. Back in the 1970s, the town had rent control bylaws, which were nullified by a statewide vote in 1994. Brookline residents, however, voted in favor of keeping rent control by a 12 percent margin.

      According to a 2023 analysis of Zillow listings in Brookline, the median rent for an open-market apartment was $3,900. That is right in line with the rents in my 18-year-old building here in Watertown. If the Brookline proposal is approved by the state, Brookline would be able to “restrict annual rent rate increases for units in certain multifamily dwellings” to 3 percent, plus the inflation rate of the previous years, up to a maximum of 7 percent. The rent increase in my building for new leases is 6.5 percent, which is tantamount to an eviction notice, judging by the number of moving vans on the scene. The Brookline proposal would exempt owner-occupied dwellings of four or fewer units, nonprofit or university-owned housing, and newly constructed units. In addition, the measure would provide protections to “insulate vulnerable renters against evictions and displacement” through the creation of specific bylaws.

      Mayor Michelle Wu is working to get Boston’s rent stabilization measure approved by the legislature. At things stand, state law forbids local option rent control. When the state voted to get rid of rent control in 1994, Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline voted to keep it. Voters in St. Paul, Minnesota just enacted one of the most stringent rent control policies in the nation. Despite the fact that economists, developers, and big corporate landlords hate rent control, demand for rent stabilization policies is growing nationwide, particularly with young people. Why? Because as higher-income professionals stay renters for longer periods of time, renters in the nation’s biggest cities have more political clout.

      Even if states begin to build more housing, it will take decades to rebalance supply and make housing more affordable. In the meantime, millions of families are already rent-burdened. Rent control should be regarded as a stabilization tool for tenants that are constantly bumped from neighborhood to neighborhood by economic forces over which they often have no control. When housing is a scarce resource, how do you decide who gets it? Without rent control, the losers are people with less money, those who cannot afford annual rent increases and are forced out of their neighborhoods. Rent control gives policymakers a chance to, let’s say, redistribute the pains of scarcity in the short term. What’s to be done? As things stand, the answer seems to be nothing. We are simply allowing millions of rent-burdened individuals and families to be victims of cycles of displacement without any government intervention. Rent control will not fix the underlying housing cost problem, but it will reduce displacement and can be part of a broader housing policy, particularly in high-cost cities and their metro suburbs. Economists, corporate landlords, developers and nay-sayers ought to stop with their gloom and doom and be part of the solution by getting on board to help design stabilization policies. The alternative is to keep repeating the mistakes of the past.

  2. Expert economists have been studying this problem for twenty years, and the resounding conclusion is “increase supply.” Three of the four solutions are highly problematic, and here is why:

    1. First I don’t like short term rentals for many reasons. However, banning them does not mean those units would be turned permanent rentals. They’d have to be converted, and someone in short term rentals will see the costs to convert as a deterrent. The beauty of short term rental is very little investment for quick return. If they do convert them, they’d have to charge a high rent to offset the initial conversion costs. In addition, people losing income due to such a ban may put them in need of affordability.
    2. I watch Basic Black too, and the “drive till you qualify” while practical still doesn’t solve the problem. This is an attempt at reducing demand, and doing that is a lot harder than increasing supply. It means raising taxes and interest rates. So a few people move to Brockton, but people in Watertown still have a problem with finding affordable housing. It also reinforces redlining and prevents upcoming generations from getting a significant foothold in the market, thereby impoverishing several populations.
    3. Fixing the Common Housing Application for Massachusetts Programs so renters and agents are better aligned on availability still does not fix the problem. These 2300 units get rented but it is still only 2300 units across the whole state. Some municipalities alone need 2300 units or more.
    4. This one works!!! However, when conversions happen, an efficient process would make this very effective. The dispute regarding Manley Way and its outcome (triggering public hearings on conversions that met the footprint limit) sets a bad precedent for this solution.

    I recommend research from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

  3. Excellent strategies? I’d say they’re ideas designed to AVOID construction of new buildings in Watertown. As others have pointed out, none would significantly reduce the housing shortage. I’d rather see *new* purpose-built housing designed for modern living, such as the 104 Main. St. project. Density is going to have to increase, it’s the only way.

  4. We all agree on one thing – it would be nice to have more housing in Watertown, especially for people whose families have lived here for a long time and would like their children’s families to be close by. As people grow older, to have family nearby to maintain family ties and to help out is important and desirable.

    Watertown is fast changing with high housing and rental costs and it is more difficult for families to remain here. If we had some 55+ condo housing, many seniors would probably be willing to sell their homes and move into units where they wouldn’t have to worry about outside maintenance and free up some houses for others and yet remain in our community.

    Many young people who have grown up here and remember the ‘good old days’ when you knew your neighbors and truly felt part of a family community relish those days and would like them for their children. With the growth of the huge apartment buildings and almost more renters than homeowners. we are losing that small town, intimate feeling.

    In addition to reducing the available apartments or houses, the short-term illegal rentals (we don’t have rules allowing them) infringe on the safety factor for neighbors and their families. Numerous renters move in and out on a frequent basis and no one knows the backgrounds of these people. In today’s world one never knows. So parents sometimes feel compelled to install cameras to watch the activity of these STRs next to them.

    In our area we have had bad experiences where new owners bought a small single family house and then quickly turned it into a business, an illegal STR. After a while they then blocked off areas inside the house to make it a two-family STR (illegal) and rented it to numerous people moving in and out frequently. It wasn’t just for weekends; it was for longer periods of time. Then the renters sublet one apartment (without the owners’ knowledge) to people who were causing problems for neighbors and the owners. After numerous police visits the STR is no longer active. If the Zoning office had nipped this in the bud in the beginning, they could have alleviated a lot of stress and problems. The owners have other rental properties and should just sell or convert this one to a full-time rental. That potentially would allow housing for at least one more family.

    Any costs incurred in converting back apartments from illegal STRs should have to be absorbed by the owners. They have never been legal and they should have been fined for having them if our city officials had been on the ball and developed rules and regulations to put controls in place.

    The city has dragged their feet on making a decision on these STRs. Even if it is only 200 of these units that are taking up conventional rental apartments, let’s put them back on the market. We aren’t a tourist city and we don’t need STRs. There are plenty of hotels that offer special rates for short-term stays. We want housing for people who want to be part of the community.

    STRs are only part of the problems. The economy is causing stresses and many owners of the new, larger buildings are out to get the maximum rents because they mostly can and their building costs went up. They aren’t owned by families who have two-family houses who typically keep their rents lower if they have good tenants. And in many of these two-family houses, long-term relationships have developed where they help each other out when needed.

    We need to review requirements when creating housing and updating business uses as people are more aware of the necessity of revised safety data based on past experiences and for newer technology like labs.

    Let’s consider all ideas, but saying “density is going to have to increase” is the only way to create a community that people want to live in can’t be the final and only decision. Cities and towns in the past were created to be historical, welcoming, convenient to jobs, business friendly or conveniently located to needed industry. Some areas wanted lots of multi-family homes, some wanted wide open space to enjoy with their families or have farms.

    Any ideas presented for affordable housing should be considered rather than ridiculed. Many of our cities and towns were developed in different times and affordability was one of the attractions of living in a small town. That is what has drawn many people to Watertown. We are now fast competing with nearby wealthier cities as far as cost of living indexes. We are 141.2, which is rated as very high as compared to the US. average of 100.

    These new apartments are definitely not affordable to many Watertown residents. So many of them have been built on Pleasant St. and Arsenal St. and other areas and the rental prices are not coming down and there are vacancies in many of them. Is that helping to create affordable housing?

    There are many cities around us that are less dense than we are based on their sizes. We are only 4 sq. miles and we always show up in the top eight of highest population density cities. Is it up to us to supply all the needed housing? Newton is 16th in density and they are not happy with the up-zoning that is being pushed in their villages. They want to maintain the character of them and the small businesses in them.

    If you look at Waltham, they are rated as number 22 on a population density list. They have a lot more business that helps keep their tax base down. We need to have more diverse businesses to continue to help lower our residential tax base and potentially provide jobs for many people with different skills who live here and want to live here. We don’t just need jobs for high-end professionals who get the big bucks and can afford the high rents. We need businesses that serve our people so we don’t have to drive to other cities.

    Belmont is number 16 in density and is having big money and school issues now because they have focused on having JUST homes for many, many years. They are now investigating creating business opportunities as their tax base is high due to not having enough businesses. In Watertown we need to have the right balance to have a fiscal budget that works for all.

    There needs to be considerations of many factors to determine what Watertown should be and what we want and need to maintain the character many of us have loved. People can move to congested cities if that is what they want. It shouldn’t always be about numbers. Quality of life is a real and important thing!

    • I am sorry Paul. I wish there was less bureaucracy around getting people into units, and in the future there may be less since housing advocates are focusing in on this. I also wish there was something more than a list. I know that does nothing for you right now.
      However, talk to Councilor Palomba and Councilor Bays. This is their bailiwick. Maybe there is a program that you are specifically eligible for.

    • Paul,

      That must disrupt everything in your life. I’m sorry to hear that. This must be a stressful time for you. I hope that you are finding ways to find some peace in your daily life. How long have you called Watertown your home?

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