OP-ED: When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Neighbors – The False Promise of Trickle-Down Rent Reduction

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By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

STOP! If you think that those living in Watertown who are low or middle class are just a drag on our community, this is not the letter for you.

But if you are committed to a diverse and thriving Watertown community, complete with small businesses and diversity of age, income, race, religion, language, etc., please read on.

First, I’d like to take us to California, where this madness seems to have begun in this country, with a serious housing crunch. Then came the “solution,” building as many “market rate” (aka very expensive) apartments as possible. Developers and politicians got rich. The low and middle class people got pushed to the side.

This all came with a cadre of mostly younger “progressive” housing groups advocating for this process. The low and middle class got displaced by a much wealthier class of people.

Then cries went out again … still not enough places for the “simple folks” to live! The solution: even more “luxury” apartments to solve this problem, resulting in even more struggling families having to leave the area. And it goes on. There’s a word for this: Gentrification.

First, before we go on, a few terms that you may not be familiar with:

YIMBYS stands for “Yes, In My BackYard” as opposed to
NIMBYS, Not In my BackYard, a pejorative term that YIMBYS use for anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

In an article by an L.A. housing advocacy group that I reference below, it is stated: “The problem, according to YIMBYS, was that a housing shortage was driving up rent prices. They rarely, if ever, talked about corporate landlords charging outrageous rents or that developers were demolishing rent-controlled apartments to build market rate luxury housing.”

You might know this expression: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Well, this depends on your point of view. If the idea is to enrich yourself, no matter what it costs a community, repeating this idea works out just fine!

I recommend that you read this article by Housing is a Human Right, an L.A. housing advocacy group. Their first hand encounters with “YIMBYs” will astonish you: https://www.housingisahumanright.org/what-is-a-yimby-hint-its-not-good/

Where did this “market rate housing will save us” idea come from? Let me show you one source:

Here’s a quote from the American Enterprise Institute:

“The root cause [of the housing crisis] is government regulatory failure — and no amount of money can fix that. The true policy solution lies at the state and local level. The literature is clear that the most effective way to add affordable housing is to build a lot of market-rate housing, which decreases the cost of both rented and owned homes. Removing this red tape (meaning giving developers all the freedom they want) could provide hundreds of thousands of new homes each year.

More supply helps tamp down the house price and rent appreciation of existing homes. As new market-rate housing is built, higher-income households will move into the new units, freeing up their now vacant lower-priced unit. This process — known as filtering — repeats itself further down the home price ladder, as commonly seen in the new and used car market.”

Currently, Watertown and the whole Boston area has its own housing crunch, and for the past six months Watertown has had our own “progressive” housing group called HAW, short for Housing for All Watertown.

The American Enterprise Institute position is exactly the position that HAW has stated again and again. Those of you involved with “progressive” HAW could probably recite it from memory, it’s said so often.

So, who is the American Enterprise Institute, and who is HAW?

Who is this American Enterprise Institute? According to Source Watch:

“The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) is an influential right-wing think tank that advocates for lower taxes, fewer protections for consumers and the environment, and cuts to the social safety net.[1] AEI describes itself as “committed to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise.”[2]

In 2014 The Washington Post wrote that under CEO Arthur Brooks, AEI had emerged as “the dominant conservative think tank,” becoming more influential than the Heritage Foundation.[1] An extreme right wing think tank suspected to be funded by the Koch brothers.”


Who is HAW:

HAW (Housing for All Watertown) is one of many self-proclaimed “progressive” housing groups that is springing up all over Massachusetts. Newton’s counterpart is called Newton for Everyone, for instance.

As a presumed legitimately progressive political action group, that appears to operate under the umbrella of Abundant Housing for All, Massachusetts, I find HAW a bit of a mystery. This is a group that just popped up within the last six months. It seems to be:

Shadow funded. Their leadership has been asked in person and in writing to identify their funding sources. They ignore the question.

Strongly supported and advised by three of our City Councilors, Nicole Gardner, Anthony Palomba and Caroline Bays, as reported by Josh Rosmarin, one of the founders of HAW.

Supported by a professional website and email list and, again, appears to be associated with Abundant Housing, that runs out of an apartment in Jamaica Plain.

Highly self-congratulatory … their e-mails are paeans to their “successes.” (See also https://www.watertownmanews.com/2023/12/09/watertown-housing-advocacy-group-receives-award/)

Beloved by our City’s Planning Department (DCDP): At a February on-line meeting, one of the leaders of HAW talked about how many compliments they have received for being so polite and easy to work with. I’ll bet!

Yes, HAW’s funding source isn’t obvious, but they had enough money to throw a very expensive “Let Us Celebrate Us” party at Nzuko Restaurant in September 2023 for about 80 people … about $3,000 we’re told by a City Councilor.

What’s HAW Been Up To?

Here are just some of HAW’s activities in the past six months. They have been busy:

HAW was asked for help by a very large New York developer (O’Connor Capital Partners, LLC) who’s about to build at 104-126 Main Street. At Brett Buehrer’s (VP of O’Connor Capital) request, HAW members wrote letters to the USPS in support of ousting our Main Street Post Office in exchange for the minimal amount of affordable housing already required by their project.

The Watertown Affordable Housing Trust was also approached by Buehrer, looking for a letter of support and saying that “a housing group in town” (HAW) was also writing letters. (See https://www.watertownmanews.com/2023/11/14/letter-watertown-affordable-housing-an-inside-story- part-one/)

This has caused a lot of grief and inconvenience to the Watertown community (loss of business post office boxes and having a walkable post office, for instance). Apparently, HAW advocated for this developer, regardless of the pain it would cause the community and its small businesses.

They advocated for O’Connor, who will build, according to their November 2023 HAW email to their members, “142 new units including 21 affordable units.” A note: HAW had the numbers wrong. According to Brett Buehrer at the February 29th Historical Commission meeting, there will be 137 rental units (116 “luxury” units and 21 affordable, of which 20 will be rentals and one will be sold).

An aside: Boston has started investigating who these “affordable” units go to. They are by an alarming rate going to friends and family of politicians. (See https://www.wcvb.com/article/politically-connected-housing-lottery-winners-questions-access-boston/46910349)

These “Affordable units” are not “low income” units. And as a young woman told me recently who lives in one of these “Affordable” units in another Watertown apartment complex, it’s not really “affordable” for her. It sucks up half of her income for a one bedroom apartment. (For Watertown Affordability rules, see https://www.watertownmanews.com/2023/11/14/letter-watertown-affordable-housing-an-inside-story-part-one/.

By the way, as O’Connor builds 21 Affordable units, they are displacing 14 families living in older housing stock on the property whose rents are comparable to affordable rates. So it looks like a gain of 7 affordable units to me, for the loss of the post office and older, less expensive Watertown housing stock.

HAW held an on-line event to prepare their members for the February 29th Watertown Square Area Planning meeting. Their apparent “sponsor,” Abundant Housing out of Jamaica Plain, assisted them with this on-line meeting.

Before the meeting began, a voice said, “We’ve got 14 participants. Let’s get started.” Yep. That’s right. This “very large” constituency on a very major Watertown issue had fewer than 20 people in attendance and a good percentage were the core group (the steering committee of HAW) themselves! And after an hour “pep talk” by this core group, they fielded a total of three questions.

What was more interesting to me (yes, I was one of the 14) were the slides that they showed:

Say it again and again and again … with your voice, with multiple stickies. etc. at planning meetings to reflect a larger public interest than there actually is in this idea.

And here are their directions to their group for what to say about height in the Square:

They also advertised another get together at Not Your Average Joe’s on the the night of the February 29th Watertown Square Area Planning Meeting, to insure that they drew a crowd of like-minded people who could walk over to the meeting together and strongly put forward their partisan view.

See these HAW talking points, their playbook, if you will:


  • Watertown Square should embrace urban forms that encourage more housing, such as taller buildings with smaller setbacks.
  • Watertown Square has a number of small and uniquely shaped lots. These lots should have zoning criteria such as increased height, reduced/eliminated setbacks, and reduced/eliminated parking minimums so that the lots are economically viable for redevelopment as is, rather than requiring several small parcels to be stitched together to generate a viable project.
  • Height/density bonuses: The City should ease restrictions on things like building height and floor area ratio (FAR) if the developer includes more deed-restricted affordable units than are required.
  • Gateway/Signature lots: Gateway and Signature lots are those that, due to their size (e.g., the MBTA yard), location at key intersections, or situation at the termination of important viewpoints, mark off the boundaries of the Square and merit taller buildings/more intense use, particularly if they are building housing. See examples and the map in the Appendix for more detail.

Building type

  • The City should support mixed use (residential and retail) buildings wherever practical in the Square.
  • The City should relax its current mixed use regulations; the current restriction banning residential uses on the first floor in the Central Business district zone is too restrictive and should be removed.
  • More types of dense and mixed-use housing development should be permitted without extensive public hearings.

Parking/open space

  • As much as possible, community amenities such as additional open space, sidewalk space or bike/bus lanes should be reclaimed from street parking, not from taking away buildable lot space.
  • Parking requirements should be reduced or removed within the Square.
  • The space currently dedicated for surface lots should be reclaimed for more housing. As much as possible, parking should be consolidated while facilitating improved access for those with limited mobility.

Strategic Sites: How do we design for these key development opportunities around the Square?

The Watertown Square study area has several significant opportunities for a combination of development and public realm. This session will consider options for important sites, including the Watertown Yard (owned by the MBTA) and the parking area behind the municipal/private-owned buildings on Main Street. These sites could also be opportunities for public/private partnerships and for a combination of development and public realm uses.

  • The Watertown Yard should be a statement mixed-use building that activates both the new square on the Southside and provides a customer base for the existing Square. As one of the largest parcels in the square, It should be tall and have lots of housing.
  • The lot behind CVS should be redeveloped to add housing. It could have a tower of deed-restricted affordable housing built over it (for example, a multi-story residential building with an open first floor with columns that retains parking).
  • The old Police Station should be demolished and that parcel redeveloped as new, additional public housing units
  • The Belmont-Watertown United Methodist Church site on Mount Auburn Street should be rezoned to allow a 100% affordable housing development

Within a week after the February 29th meeting, HAW leadership sent a letter to the Watertown Square Area Planning Team: “The Steering Committee of Housing for All Watertown (the same 5 people that we keep seeing) strongly supports the adoption of Zoning Plan Option 1’s framework, where the entire study area is zoned for development by-right.”

In other words, Haw’s position is to give developers the maximum amount of power and control they could possibly have in Watertown. Question: Is this in Watertown’s best interest or in the best interest of developers?

Here’s another quote from the L.A. article from Housing is a Human Right:

“Many Democratic politicians champion Yimbyism and the mainstream media too often touts the YIMBY cause. Why? Politicians take huge amounts of campaign cash from the real estate industry, and YIMBYism gives them political cover to de-regulate land use protections and allow builders to build more luxury housing — and to generate huge profits — under the guise of solving the housing affordability crisis.”

Now let’s talk about Progressivism in Watertown.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been to a lot of meetings lately. During those meetings, I’ve observed one of HAW’s more influential leaders speak up:

To advocate for reducing the number of community in-person meetings (make them all on-line)

Against a proposal to increase the time for residents to speak in City Council meetings during Public Forums (from two minutes to three).

She has also stated her position that Watertown needed fewer public meetings in general, where the public could have input. If her view had been adhered to by the Watertown Committee on Economic Development and Planning, the public would have been shut out of the very important conversation regarding the Manley Way project. The Manley Way project is situated right next door to Walker Pond, a property that Watertown recently purchased for a natural open space area for over $11 million!

That was my observation. This is my question:

Are these HAW values or just those of one of your steering committee members? Because as she was saying these things, other HAW members/leaders were there, and no one spoke up against these views. As we know from history, silence is complicity.

So, if these are indeed HAW views, I have a few more questions: How is limiting community participation a progressive value?

Who is really benefitting from all of this HAW “progressive ardor,” the people of Watertown or developers?

Is advocating for a more powerful role in our community for developers, while at the same time insisting on fewer opportunities for the public to speak and ask questions a progressive value?

Put bluntly, as far as the housing issue is concerned, what is happening to the Progressive Movement in Watertown?

I’ve reached out by email to Josh Rosmarin, a founder and steering committee member of Housing for All Watertown for any light that he can shed on these issues … HAW’s philosophy, beginnings, funding, relationship to Abundant Housing, etc. I’ve received no response from him thus far.   

And finally, let’s visit the progressive magazine New Republic’s “hot off the presses” article, just released on March 15, 2024, entitled “The Case against YIMBYism, Why encouraging more private development won’t solve the housing crisis”: https://newrepublic.com/article/179147/case-against-yimbyism-yimbytown-2024

This is a future of Watertown issue that requires the goodwill and involvement of all Watertown citizens. This is a critical time in our history, where large decisions made today will resonate far into Watertown’s future, for the better or the worse.

Decisions like this, that will profoundly change the nature of this City, require that an all- encompassing consensus be reached and the views of all of the City be heard.

57 thoughts on “OP-ED: When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Neighbors – The False Promise of Trickle-Down Rent Reduction

  1. Thanks for writing.

    So exchanging the current 14 affordable units for 21 affordable units is 7 more affordable units plus another 116 market rate units. That sums to 123 more units. That’s more supply. The law of supply and demand dictates prices. Keep supply low and prices go up. Keep supply of housing low and property prices and rents go sky high.

    Glad to hear about HAW’s efforts here in Watertown. Just signed up for their list serve and I hope to support their efforts however I can.

    • Hello Ben,
      I fail to understand your use of “supply and demand.” If the market rate for a new 2-bedroom unit is, let’s say $4000 (I’m just choosing an approximation here,) and we build 116 new units that rent at the $4000 market rate, we have increased supply. But how exactly has this increased supply driven down the price of housing?
      What it will have done for sure is forced whoever lived and/or did business on the parcel of land where we built market rate units go somewhere else. Unless, of course $4000 is no problem for them.

      • @Susan – Here is an answer to your question: At some point, after more new units are built and available, there will be too many rentals available at $4000. This will cause some renters will shop around for a lower rent, and landlords will have to lower rents to fill the space. Of course that happens gradually, unit by unit, as more units become available to rent.

        There is one thing we know for sure: NOT building housing is the EXACT WRONG THING TO DO. There’s no *good* reason to turn away developers who want to build market rate housing, because this will help the overall shortage situation and START to bring some market rate rents down.

        Of course we also need affordable and low-cost housing… but getting it requires overcoming a HUGE OBSTACLE: finding someone to invest the $500,000-$600,000 cost per unit (for one apartment, not the whole building) *up front* to build affordable and low-cost housing. Will you pay for that?

        Until you solve that problem, the housing crisis will continue. And we’ll continue to see a lot of insulting Comments which denigrate people who can afford market rents. They didn’t create the housing shortage and are not to blame, but some resent them for earning high salaries (because of their own hard work and smart choices).

        Why don’t I see anyone discussing the practicalities of how to actually build more low-cost and affordable housing??

        • Actually, in the past two decades or so, the high rents in newly constructed units have encouraged the owners of legacy buildings to raise their rents. This involves a certain amount of false equivalency, but the observation seems to have been confirmed by many.

          This points to the fact that market economics is pinned to the assumption that human beings are rational actors. This condition does not always prevail.

          At the risk of sounding like a broken record (ask your grandparents), no one is saying don’t build housing. The questions in play are how much, where, how high, what cost, what public amenities, and how does the construction change the character and demographics of the town.

          Watertown has some of the last developable land in such close proximity to the urban core. There will be plenty of developers who will be interested. We should incentivize those who will give us better work and discourage those who will give us low quality.

          The housing crisis is inextricably linked to burgeoning inequality in our country. We can build housing, affordable housing even, but there may be fewer folks who can afford even that. The underclass is growing steadily. That fact is painfully obvious. This is a dynamic which is destabilizing our society and it demands our immediate attention.

    • That’s simple. Actors in the market could choose to treat others with decency and humanity, instead of dehumanizing them and supporting their aggression with “metrics”. Acting with decency is step one.

      • I think it is pretty decent to ask for an alternative plan. If someone is going to go to that much length to oppose the “build more housing” position, I would hope that they have spent just as much time, or more, formulating their own plan.

        I know most of the hard progressive in Watertown that are against market rate housing want a more communist approach.

        They want to take a bunch of tax payer money and build public housing “projects” all over Watertown.

        So how about one of them put together just how much of our tax money they want to redirect to build “the projects” in Watertown.

        And if I am wrong, which I hope I am, please publish a follow-up to this laying out in detail how we should lower housing costs in Watertown. And yes , I expect to see “metrics” to support this plan. Not just links to 20 something writers in Brooklyn that don’t cite their work correctly and fail to understand the conclusions of the studies they do actually cite. (Like the author of “the case against….”)

        • Oh dear, we’re trotting out the old Communist slur to smokescreen one’s agenda and biases. This kind of screed solves nothing.

          Again, for the umpteenth time, I know no one who opposes more housing. It is about the quality of the built environment and the character of the community and the kind of housing.

          Metrics are often made to support the position of those who have a financial or other interest in the findings.

      • The pettiness in this OpEd sounds personal, almost like a middle school grudge. There’s no conspiracy operating with HAW, just a group of citizens advocating for what they want to see in our city. As this author does.

        Whether you believe it or not, lack of supply is the driver of cost in our housing markets … in the same way that science is still operating whether you believe it or not. The faster we build all types of housing, the faster housing prices will fall for everyone.

        The one key point this author fails to see is there’s no governmental or private organization which will magically come to our city, build the type and quantity of housing that local citizens want, and pay for it all too. Everyone complains about developers, but they don’t exist just to satisfy your needs. They are for-profit businesses so, if they invest money, they expect a financial return. The solutions must come from collaborations among the private and public sector.

        Separately, local citizens who own *investment property* and rent out housing units (as 3 of my neighbors do) should be able to charge whatever rent they want, without their rent being called “dehumanizing.” It’s not a moral decision, it’s a business decision. If the rent is higher than anyone can pay, the unit will go empty. To rent it out, the landlord must charge a rent that someone will pay. And if someone wants to pay it, they should be able to live in the home they choose. Let’s stop denigrating those who are willing and able to pay market rate rents (even if it’s a financial stretch).

        • When business becomes decoupled from ethics and morality, as is often the case in the USA currently, the result is dehumanization and destruction of community. Business involves human beings interacting with each other, therefore morals and ethics are essential.

          Many of our current problems stem from a lack of morals and ethics in our dealings with each other.

        • “Whether you believe it or not,” trickle-down housing, meaning building luxury apartments and hoping that more supply will translate to cheaper rents is demonstrably not working. As you point out, big real estate is a business, whose goal is to generate maximum profits. At what cost? The human costs are lack of housing affordability and homelessness. A letter to The Washington Post editor earlier this month, by Patrick Range McDonald, an advocacy journalist for Housing is a Human Right, “How to make housing affordable,” indicated that the National Multifamily Housing Council, a powerful lobbyist for corporate landlords, “failed to reckon with studies that suggest rent control will quickly stabilize sky-high rents for middle and working class Americans.”

          Many reasonable people acknowledge that we need more than private market “solutions?” to the housing crisis. We should be preserving existing affordable housing, not demolishing it to make room for luxury housing, which few people can afford, and we should be adopting tenant protection and tenant rights policies. The latter are especially important. Why? Because, over the years, big corporate landlords have shown they will charge any rent they like.

          The Real Page scandal brought this to light in the last year. Tenants of some large national management companies owning thousands of units figured out that a cartel of corporate landlords was working together to fix rents above market rates, using a software program, and these landlords kept units vacant until tenants willing to pay exorbitant rents came along. I have seen this practice in my own building. ProPublica broke the story, which has triggered federal and state probes.

          Big real estate pursues “trickle down” or basic supply side approaches to housing. Build more. Reduce standards. Reduce environmental protections. The theory is that when new housing is built, people move. Then the housing that is left is more affordable. Much evidence shows that the increased supply is absorbed by new growth which can always outbid others — the cycle never really provides more affordable housing.

          Reasonable people can readily see we need a multi-pronged approach to housing affordability, and we can not wait decades for trickle-down housing to adjust the market. It really is puzzling that so many people have such disrespect for affordable housing planning, tenant rights and protection policies, and related issues. Markets are inefficient at providing products to service the broad spectrum of demand. Whatever happened to the bedrock concept of the common good? We the people — the government — must guarantee housing as a public good and pair it with strong, universal rent and tenant rights protections.

          The common good, right here in Watertown, is obviously and shamefully being abandoned to short-sighted pro-growth politics. Increasingly, residents are concluding that we cannot rely on the private real estate market to solve a problem of its own making. When Watertown permits more market-rate development, developers naturally build more market rate housing because that is what will yield the highest return on investment. Housing profitablility depends on rising rents, which are not based on the quality of a home, but on whatever the market will allow. That is why — look around Watertown — most so-called “luxury” housing is so ugly and poorly built.

  2. Building luxury apartment complexes for rent and not building properties for sale to families longing to own their homes is another major contributor to the housing crisis. If you look at the rent rates, they are huge. 2.5k and up for a studio and 4k and up for 2br 2bth at the freshly build live166main. There is nothing affordable about them. And the new construction increases the property values nearby thus making it impossible for majority of first time homeowners to afford a home in the area.

  3. Thank you for all this new information!
    You have done a lot of research that I need to process and rethink. Very valuable!

  4. Wow, Linda! A great deal of information to digest in light of the concerns regarding the MBTA housing mandate of 1701 units, the ongoing community process, and the parameters of the future development of Watertown Square. I appreciate the detailed background information provided. There’s a lot to digest here and then hopefully discuss.

  5. Linda, thank you for this brave and thought provoking op-ed. It’s about time that someone countered some of the malarky that circulates around town.

    Only the naive or the self interested would believe that our housing market could be modeled by a simple supply and demand equation. Few markets are so simple today and Watertown is subject to many forces and factors from near and far outside our borders.

    If we continue on our current path, Watertown will experience the same dynamics that Cambridge has. There will be a slow, steady draining of middle and working class residents. There will be a decrease in both ethnic, racial and age diversity. The population will become more transient and have less long term investment in our city.

    It is not enough to anoint oneself a progressive and claim to be in the majority as many have done. If you harbor serious class biases against your supposedly less educated neighbors, you need to examine your progressivism.

    We have been told by this crew in the past that developers wouldn’t overestimate the demand for lab space because they do their research. Now oversupply has been proved to be the case. Every too big lab building occupies land that could have been devoted to housing.

    Leaders from other cities, like Senator Pat Jehlan, are beginning to point to the fact that adding large numbers of “market” housing units has had no impact on affordability in their districts. Our experience in Watertown over the past decade and a half tends to corroborate this view. We need to look to other locales, including Europe, to gain a sense of how our housing issues might be handled.

    But our current course–believing in excusatory rationales for flawed planning–unfortunately will not yield desirable results.

  6. Linda, I appreciate the detail in your Op Ed. I haven’t seen anyone lay out a framework that is being devised by a few to control overall planning in the Community as you have. The Community owes you their gratitude for researching and presenting the information in such a comprehensive and concise manner. I have often wondered who “ALL” is and how they have defined “DENSITY”. I think they have lost sight of what makes a Community. We are not Boston, but do we have a right to say we do not wish to be Boston or Somerville? Does anyone watch the news regarding Somerville and their homeless and tracking mechanisms to ascertain the origin of an discharge of a weapon? Do we wish this upon ourselves? I still maintain we have met the MBTA requirement and have asked the administration to demonstrate how they are not in compliance before taking it to the court for adjudication.

  7. Weeks ago, I responded to HAW’s website invitation to contact them for information about their organization. To date, I have not had the courtesy of a response to questions such as: Is HAW a membership organization? If so, who are the officers? What is HAW’s funding source? Is HAW registered with the Secretary of State as a lobbyist? What are HAW’s positions on rent regulation, “just-cause eviction laws,” local option rent control, and tenant unionization, to name a few tenant affordability issues? Many reasonable Watertown residents are puzzled at how the HAW/YIMBY movement can possibly advance tenant affordability when, as Ms. Scott reveals, so much information points to HAW’s and its ilk’s coziness with big real estate and the political right wing, as well as being exclusively wedded to private market solutions to housing production.

    With the passage of the federal Faircloth Amendment, twenty years ago, the federal government got out of the business of building affordable public housing. The government could build housing alright, but local housing authorities were inept at managing it. Result: Images of bleak, boxy, towers segregated from “better” neighborhoods. Now, the private developer market is building big, bland, boxy, towers and marketing the developments as luxury housing.

    It may be difficult to believe but living in public housing is not stigmatized in other countries. Take France. The New York Times recently published a story about Paris welcoming visitors to this summer’s Olympic Games. According to reporter Thomas Fuller, Paris will “showcase a city engineered by government policies to achieve housing with a broad cross-section of society. One-quarter of all Paris residents now live in public housing, up from 13 percent in the late 1990s.” It’s true the wait-list for public housing in Paris is more than six-years long, and the city is being pressured by the same market forces leading London, San Francisco, and New York to be sanctums for the super wealthy to park their money. Still, says the author, “the measures that Paris has taken to keep lower-income residents in the city go far beyond the initiatives in most other European cities, not to mention American ones.”

    The city has built or renovated more than 82,000 apartments over the past 30 years for families with children and has built 14,000 student apartments over the past 25 years. At the same time, Paris protects its small businesses because city hall is the landlord, through its real estate subsidiaries, of 19 percent of the city’s shops.

    Now, take a look at Vienna, whose social housing system is known as an effective and innovative model for providing superior, affordable housing to the city’s residents. The Vienna model was recently the subject of an exhibit in New York City hosted by the Austrian Cultural Forum that generated considerable interest among those in the U.S. working to improve the quality and accessibility of affordable housing. Because Vienna “continues to add new units that are subsidized, about 5,000 annually, and available to lower income residents, housing developments do not devolve into middle-class enclaves nor do they become stigmatized concentrations of poverty.” Vienna’s social projects demonstrate the city’s commitment to affordability, high-quality architecture, energy conservation, and resident participation. “The effectiveness of the housing program,” according to Edge, an online magazine, “has helped in making the city one of the most livable cities in the world, as judged by The Economist and Monocle in 2012, and as the city that offers the world’s highest quality of life, according to Mercer’s Quality of Living survey for the past four years.”

    It is way past time for a shift in the way we view public housing in the U.S., and HUD has created a new program, allowing housing authorities to access more generous rental subsidies to underwrite construction of new units. HAW’s private market solutions to production and affordability offer limited flexibility, while many Watertown residents are looking elsewhere, to European countries, some of which have millions of government-owned and operated housing units for ideas to address the housing crisis. The need for an approach more creative than HAW’s private market big real estate developer one is needed now, when deeply affordable housing is needed more than ever.

    • ” Is HAW registered with the Secretary of State as a lobbyist?”

      That is a very good question because it appears that is exactly what they are.

      The article in the NYT about Paris is fascinating.


      Not sure if this link will get folks past the paywall, but give it a shot.

      Say what you will about France and the way they do things, but nearly everyone wants to go there. I have, on business trips, personally seen how they manage their economy to keep the country vibrant and protect the little guy and small business.

      There are fascinating examples of handling housing problems all over Europe, yet we don’t seem to heed them.

      The fact of the matter is that our private “free market” system is not producing solutions to deep problems our country faces, among them affordable housing and climate change. Rather the neoliberal system exacerbates the problems.

  8. Linda, thank you for taking the time to put this valuable, detailed information together.

    This may be a long article, but it is SO important for everyone to read thoroughly, (including opening the links).

    Residents, if this information doesn’t get your dander up, what will? Are you going to let a small group of people have more influence and decide on serious changes to our precious city/town?

    Did you choose Watertown to live in and invest serious money in a home because of it having a small-town atmosphere, a smaller close-knit community, a place much different than a Cambridge? I most certainly did.

    If you think you are not an expert in city planning or traffic patterns and have been reluctant to express your opinion for those reasons, please rethink those ideas. Others aren’t letting that stop them!

    None of us have all the answers. We are trying to sort them out in a, hopefully, legitimate open forum and we need more people to step up in this process. You need to write and/or call your Councilors and our Planning Department and tell them what you think. This small but influential group certainly has been doing this.

    We often hear, what difference will it make? It’s a done deal. Well it will be a done deal if all of our voices aren’t strongly heard NOW.

    Building BIG doesn’t necessarily mean building AFFORDABLE! We’ve seen that with all of the large apartment buildings built in the last few years. Watertown was recognized for being in the top three communities for building housing. However, these mostly apartments and condos come with expensive rents that most of us couldn’t afford.

    Can’t we be a little more creative in our planning? Can’t we build some 55 plus condos to make it easier for seniors to give up their big houses and have fewer responsibilities, which is one of the ways that we can free up housing for families to move into?

    What are we going to do when the small businesses are gone? Will they be made an offer they can’t refuse? What will the small businesses do (the lifeblood of our community) as their rents go up? Will they be able to move back into the first floors of these mixed use apartment buildings? With the increased rents they won’t be able to afford that option. We will lose valued and often long-term parts of our community.

    We need businesses to help offset the residential tax bills. Can’t we encourage more diverse businesses in which more Watertown residents can work? Do we need to provide more housing than other communities that have more wealth or political influence? This is a regional issue, not Watertown’s alone, after all. The 1,701 units being mandated by the state are more than enough. We don’t need thousands more.

    If you want to become a more dense and congested city with possibly 8-story buildings that some people say are OK, fine, but if this isn’t your vision for Watertown, please speak up NOW. The decision could be made as soon as April 4. That is the last public input meeting scheduled for this process. If you can attend this meeting, please register on line and be there.

    If you read the links in this article, you will see that there are two sides to every story, and things are not always as clear cut as they first seem.

    Recognizing that thoughtful development is needed, let’s do that,
    but let’s do that in an inclusive way with our residents and not rely on outside influencers and developers to dictate what’s best for our community.

  9. Hi Ben,

    Yes, that’s the simplistic theory that we’re working with. If you read the New Republic article, we’ve had enough years to test the supply and demand theory on housing, and it’s not working. I wish it were, but it just isn’t. I’m sure that HAW will welcome you. It’s your decision and your right to make it.

  10. Hello again, Eric,

    It’d be nice to hear from more people in Watertown on this issue. There are bright, fresh ideas out there somewhere! God knows, we have enough intelligent people in this City!

  11. Vera,
    Welcome! Yes, you’re seeing the reality that we face here in Watertown. And we’re not the only place where this is happening. Unfortunately, counting on “big business” to solve this problem for us is just not being realistic. Your clear observations are appreciated!

  12. Thanks, Elodia,

    You always have your eye on the “big picture.” I apologize, again for my wordiness, and I hope that people have time to look at the links. They add an awful lot to our knowledge of the situation.

  13. Thanks once again, Joe,

    We can always count on you for a clear-eyed analysis of the situation.

    I recently had the opportunity to speak with a partner is a medium-sized company (about 50 employees), who said that they could no longer sustain their business in Cambridge. They left for a city north of Boston and are very happy there.

    We have plenty of cautionary tales all around us, if only we would only look. Our current lab situation is very concerning. Completely depending on “experts” and totally throwing out our own common sense does not serve us well.

  14. Let’s examine this statement: “Every too big lab building occupies land that could have been devoted to housing.”
    1. For any land upon which a biolab was built, was there an alternative housing development proposed for that same land at that time? I believe not.
    2. Even if there had been two choices for a parcel of land, there’s always vocal opposition to every proposed multi-family housing project in Watertown. So don’t imply that a housing development would sail through the approval process.
    3. If a developer owns the land, they get to decide what to do with it. Local residents can not force the developer to build something they want (e.g. low-rent housing). All citizens can do is oppose the developer’s proposal and thereby make the developer’s proposal uneconomic to pursue.

    In every case, there’s no choice of housing vs. biolab, this is a red herring.

    From the big picture – the citizens of Watertown have benefited greatly from the millions of dollars of developer fees for those biolabs. Watertown has been able to build 4 new schools without a property tax override. Just look at Newton and Belmont right now….

    • I resolutely stand by my statements.

      Let’s start with your big picture. The tax revenue that built schools came from several sources that include labs. But I believe that there will be a price to pay for that bargain and the bill will come due in the future.

      The term “multi-family” is a canard. We have built little family oriented housing. The bulk of the units are rentals that are too small to raise a family. This encourages a more transient population.

      Developers may “own” a property but they don’t own our city or us. The way we do development in our country tends to be destructive to community and that is what many Watertowners fear. Democracy demands that citizens have a sway over the fabric of their communities.

      Developers and other big business don’t care about the communities they operate in or quality of the built environment and quality of life for those close to their developments. They take their massive profits and scram. No real long term investment in or commitment to our community. It’s all about money.

      I think that “pro-development at any cost” crowd should be honest and admit that they have no problem with fundamentally changing the character of our city and most of all emptying it of the inconvenient citizens who have lived here, invested their lives in this community and care about it deeply.

  15. I appreciate Ben’s, Eric’s, Vera’s and Kathi’s responses here. Very reasonable comments to some questionalbe logic in this editorial. My background is in science but I know when supply is low, pricing goes up. When the pandemic first hit, prices shot up very fast because stuff got stuck on ships and trucks and we paid big bucks for TP! The number of houses & apartments needed to make prices and rents go down is going to be more than a few 100. You can’t say supply and demand doesn’t work until after you have hit that number, whatever it is. It might be 9,872 and if the square adds 6578 then math says we need more. So if price/cost is the issue, then, logically, you should want more houses and more apartments. Second observation here: Why do people join groups that they disagree with? If you don’t agree or like these people, then don’t sign up for their events and emails. I thought people had the right to assemble. The editorial really gives off some soviet secret police vibes. I really wish it argued for a clear position with facts, and logical conclusions. I lost the point so many times. Just when I thought it was leading to something, it went off to a tangential issue/complaint. Surely, Watertown News can find someone to write an editorial for the people that disagree with this editorial. It would be beneficial to hear their perspective and the perspective of others in city government and other groups. Rants are good once in a while, like on the winter parking ban (get rid it!) and potholes (fix them!), but ultimately you need to take an action to solve the problem. Is the point to solve problems or not?

    • > “Surely, Watertown News can find someone to write an editorial for the people that disagree with this editorial.”

      Charlie generally runs letters from anyone in Watertown AFAIK, at least if they are not spam or inappropriate. Be the change you want to see in the world!

  16. Also I am for the European model that Caroline and Joe mention in their responses. I very much agree with that part of their responses. Would that fly here though in Watertown? Would people be ok with big government coming in and building more public housing? I would! More public hosuing for students, families and seniors would be good. That too would increase supply and lower prices/costs. If people arguing for more density are for that, then I am on board. What does the city government think? How about the neighbors next to current public housing? How about other groups? Can Watertown News find answers to these or someone to write about a plan for more public housing? Are their developers who want to do such projects? Some pro bono work? To me that sound like a solution style editoral that would solve the problem.

  17. Carolyn, Thanks for your comments! You always astound me with you knowledge! We do need to look at many sources for ideas. It’s that important!

  18. Linda, thank you for your hard work and dedication. It was a real eye opener and it has me wondering about what other shenanigans were going on that you didn’t uncover?
    One aspect that doesn’t seem to be getting much attention is that the City Council and residents are being asked to decide and vote on is that the Watertown Sq, project and the MBTA Communities Act are being presented, discussed and voted on as if they were a package deal. They’re two separate entity’s: one is a want… not a need, and the other is a requirement by state law that all 177 communities have to abide by.

    With regard to the latter, why are only two options being presented? Why isn’t there a third option that only meets the minimum zoning requirement of 1,701 units? Why wasn’t this discussed in previous meetings?

    Why weren’t attendees (both in person and online), given an opportunity to discuss and vote on the two options presented unless there wasn’t some kind of skullduggery going on? Coincidentally the April 4th meeting is being held at 66 Galen…’

    “But for each of those there’s a project like Watertown’s 66 Galen St. or a pair of towers along Middlesex Avenue just outside Somerville’s Assembly Square, prominent above Interstate 93: all newly built labs that are, as of now, unleased”.

    “With a two-decade history of successfully developing life-science properties, we have the perspective and the ability to take the long view,” said Stephen Davis, president of The Davis Cos., which built 66 Galen St. in Watertown. “The recent market has certainly been disappointing, but we are believers in the future of discovery and the life-science industry in Greater Boston.”


    ‘Listen to and trust the experts, they said…. they know what they’re doing they said’. Should we taking this as an omen?

    I wish I had Mr. Davis’s optimism and enthusiasm for Watertown’s future, but after reading Linda’s OP-ED, and listening to the charette presentations so far, I can’t help but feel that
    Watertown and it’s residents will be worse off than we were before if this kind of “progress” goes unchecked.

    As residents, we should be concerned about the direction we’re heading in and apply the breaks before it’s too late and demand that we at least be given the opportunity to vote on a third option.

  19. The following is a comment regarding the abandonment by Watertown of residents and small businesses who need the essential services provided by the 126 Main Street Post Office.

    This post office had special status as a “Financial Post Office”. Besides providing longstanding PO box numbers for the Watertown community, it was open from 7:30 am to 5 pm on weekdays and from 7:30 am to 1:30 pm on Saturday.

    Fortunately, the PO boxes were moved a half mile up Galen Street to the New Town post office. The very bad news is that the New Town PO is only open from 9 to 5 on weekdays and is not open at all on Saturday.

    This arrangement abandons residents and small businesses who can’t get to the post office between 9 and 5 on a weekday.

    What do people do who must pick up a USPS delivery that couldn’t be delivered to their home or business for some reason, if they can only pick it up between 9 and 5 on a weekday? What do PO Box customers do who can’t access their PO boxes because they’re at work during normal business hours?

    No one in Watertown’s Planning Department or on the Planning Board seems to have considered this community burden serious enough to ensure that these USPS services continue to be reasonably accessible to the Watertown community.

    • @Libby – I hear your complaint about the closing of the Main St. Post Office, which is unfortunate. Would you have suggested to keep the Main St. Post office open indefinitely? Of course, this is hypothetical, since the PO has already closed. But, to follow the logic, keeping the Main St. PO open would have made the entire 104-106 Main St. housing development uneconomic. The “cost” of closing the PO is added inconvenience getting to a Post Office in Watertown, which falls harder on disabled people. The “benefits” are a new housing development that will provide homes for > 150 people, including 21 so-called affordable units. I say the benefits outweigh the costs, and I think those > 150 new tenants will eventually agree with me.

      P.S. I believe the Mt. Auburn PO is open on Saturday mornings?

      • Kathi: your comment veers off on a tangent unrelated to the point I was trying to make.

        To put my point simply: Watertown’s municipal negotiators should have insisted that Financial Post Office access hours to essential Financial Post Office services be continued in Watertown despite the closing of the Main Street Financial Post Office.

        The limited hours of access at the New Town PO at 123 Galen St is a burden to anyone who must be at work from 9 am to 5 pm. Post office box renters in that category are particularly stuck — They now have no access to their mail unless they steal time from work.

        This looks to me like a base failure of our municipal planners to recognize and protect the essential community services that a local Financial Post Office provides.

        • How much control does any city have over the federal bureaucracy known as the US Postal Service? It’s not realistic to assume the city could have persuaded the US Postal Service to keep the Main St. PO operational during construction. The PO makes their own decisions (obviously). Let’s not blame our city government for things outside their control.

          Thank you Mr. Brietrose for posting a link to PO locations open on Saturday.

          • A few observations: the very large signage indicating UNITED STATES POST OFFICE still remains affixed to the former Main Street post office building; either remove the sign, or paint a giant red X on it. Then then there is the unsatisfactory parking access at the Mt Auburn (east end) post office across from the fire station. I believe the city is, or should be, responsible for that problem. Why is no one giving this any attention?

  20. Trickle down economics is a fallacy and so is trickle down affordable housing. With so many empty labs built largely on speculation, I have to wonder why some developers are not converting empty lab space into housing like Riverbank Lofts on Pleasant St. Thanks for your extensive research of material Linda. I hope it opens eyes and opens discussion.

    • Yeah Bruce. Wanting better development either makes us middle schoolers or Communists. I, for one, am not impressed with the name calling or the mischaracterization and disrespect toward caring townsfolk. Nor am I impressed with those who dubiously anoint themselves a majority and then try to shout others down.

      Have a good day comrade!

  21. Thank you, Linda, for all your work. This “plan” for the future of Watertown has GREED written all over it. The environmental implications alone are enormous.

  22. Joan,

    Thank you for your heartfelt plea. As I’ve been involved in talks with people in the community over the past few years, I’ve heard a lot about hopelessness and how the City doesn’t listen to residents anymore…Like the people on Highland Ave. who had to wait eight years after a child was hit in a school crosswalk to get something as simple as “school crossing” signs! With the neighborhood’s support and insistence, that has finally been accomplished.

    When I’ve taken petitions around, people will sign and say, “You know you’re going to lose. right?” They’d been involved in their own efforts with the City that had failed and left them feeling discouraged and powerless.

    The thing is, if that happens, you’ve lost in two ways: the issue you were fighting for and the ability to tackle the City on other important matters. They don’t need to be “bothered” by you anymore. Who’s guiding decisions then?

    These housing decisions are going to affect everyone in Watertown, no matter what part you live in. The community at large needs to speak with a powerful voice.

  23. I wonder where all this energy and passion was during the city elections last fall when all but one candidate for City Council ran unopposed and only one candidate ran against the incumbent Council President. If you want change, run for office!

    • Paul, I agree wholeheartedly that the last Council election was a huge loss for our civic life in Watertown. At a time when we desperately needed a vigorous debate and fresh ideas, the voters were given no meaningful choices. Nothing but the status quo. It was disappointing and frustrating.

      But I submit that it is difficult for many to commit to what is essentially compensated as a volunteer position. If done well, Council positions represent a very large commitment in time and effort. Given the escalation in the cost of living and the increasing demands that are placed on people in other areas of life, it is hard to justify the sacrifice to oneself and one’s family.

      Years ago, folks had more time to devote to things like civic life. Today our lives are much busier than our parents lives were. Much of life was less stressful and demanding. And indeed, the task of governing is more complicated and time consuming than it was thirty or forty years ago.

      There is no shortage of talented people in Watertown who would enhance our municipal institutions . But we must acknowledge that the Council is better than a half time job and so we must compensate Councilors in a manner that feels more fair to those who will chose to take the time away from other obligations.

      • I totally agree about compensation being shamefully low. Sadly, I think it’s more about a desire not to have one’s life lived in a public way in the age of social media then anything else. I respect all the current members of the Council. But competition is essential.

    • I would add that the one candidate who was not elected, Clyde Younger, was the one who ran on a platform of stopping all of this development. His supporters may be loud, but represent a minority. Most people voted to stay the course.

      • Matt, I think that you are mischaracterizing Clyde and many who agree with him, whether completely or in part.

        I also think that you are wrong to state that the pro-developer faction is in the majority. This seems to be a tactic of choice. One simply declares that one represents the “silent majority”. That was a “go to” tactic of disgraced President Nixon.

        Hundreds of Watertowners signed petitions seeking to alter the development process in our city. That ain’t indicative of a minority.

        I’ll say it again–few want no development in town. But the majority cares about the quality of our built environment and the character of our town. I wish that we could have a real informed detail oriented debate centered on relevant ideas and choices, but that seems unattainable.

        (There now! I have claimed to be in the majority. Quite easy to do on paper!)

        I think that those who question development want Watertown to retain some of its individual character. There are a few hot button issues like building height, set backs, design choices, open space and so on. Those are reasonable concerns, but those of us who harbor them are branded as troglodytes.

        So many locales, rather than retaining their uniqueness, are sliding into a banal uniformity and our country and our Commonwealth are culturally poorer for it. This, I think, is the primary issue. We want Watertown to retain some of its unique character that has evolved over a history that dates back to the first inland settlement.

        • You are right – I overstated Clyde’s position. Would have been more correct to state “Limit the development relative to what the incumbent government wants to do.”

          The fact remains that Mark Sideris got 2623 votes and Clyde Younger got 875 votes. I am not claiming anything about a “silent” majority – this majority expressed itself in an actual election that occurred!

          Re: “Hundreds of Watertowners signed petitions” – yes, 875 is “hundreds.” I am not doubting that the faction that seeks to limit (not stop, sorry) the development has hundreds of supporters. And I don’t think that you are troglodytes, either! I would say that you are (probably, I don’t know you offline) a person of good faith who just wants different things than what I want, at least on this issue (I’m sure we also want many of the same things in other aspects of life).

          My position is that, in a democracy like we have, the mechanism to settle these kinds of disagreement should be at the ballot box. We ran that experiment, and the Sideris side won. Doesn’t mean that the Younger side are bad people, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, or that they are insignificant – just that they got outvoted. It happens sometimes in a democracy. When the other side gets more votes, it’s not antidemocratic that the other side gets to enact their agenda.

          • It is a far-fetched to claim that the recent city council election–that is, a last minute candidacy challenging a long term incumbent–is a referendum on development. I think, for many it was a protest vote. It would have been preferable for the voters to have a more extensive and detailed debate. Too bad we didn’t get it.

            Actually there are thousands who are disturbed by what they see as poorly conceived development. Many are concerned with the characteristics of the developments as much, or even more than the amount.

            Glad to hear that you do not consider us troglodytes. Others have said as much. I don’t see this debate as a binary one side must win, and one side must loose issue. First of all, there is a greater diversity of opinion on both sides. It would be ideal to have a debate that was sophisticated, detailed and mutually constructive rather than the slugfest in which we seem to be mired .

  24. Thanks Linda! Because I had so many questions after the editorial, I went to the HAW website. I don’t know if they support public housing but their mission statement doesn’t exclude it or promote a certain kind of housing, such as big developer. This is a nuance that was not provided in the editoral. The nuanace would imply HAW wants all types of housing. I continued to AHMA’s website, and they are nothing like the AEI. It is a bogus assertion. They’re very progressive. In the policy section, they support legalizing Acessory Dwelling Units without red tape, rewarding cities for creating zones for Chapter 40R housing and codifying the rental voucher program. AHMA is also big on tenant rights because they want to give tenants the right of first refusal if the owner sells and the right to counsel. If HAW differs on this then AHMA is the wrong partner! These are some of the same points that Caroline and Joe mentioned in their responses about wanting HAW to take care of. Some serious fact-checking is needed here if one is to rely upon this editorial. I really feel like a disservice has been done here. As I said before the conclusions don’t make sense and there are many logical errors. The name-calling really should be edited out, and the soviet style spying should give people real pause. It’s all uncalled for. Howerver, most concering is a visiable attempt to manipulate the public. I know it is a community paper but it should pass some sort of standard. I don’t like to be manipulated and I don’t thinkn anyone else does. Maybe it is time to move on to Waltham or back to Brighton. I am amazed at how low people can stoop around here.

  25. Scott, you say, “More public housing for students, families and seniors would be good. That too would increase supply and lower prices/costs.”

    That raises another idea – why do we need to accommodate so many students? Shouldn’t we be pushing back on the huge numbers of colleges and universities in our area for them to provide more housing for their students? These beacons of higher education have billions of dollars in their coffers and often give very little money to the cities around them in PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) programs. Maybe these schools could pitch in to develop “affordable” housing. Wouldn’t that be unique?

    These students tend to be a transient group that move on to other cities and states upon graduation. Massachusetts is losing thousands of them each year due to high housing costs and lack of good-paying jobs. If the cities weren’t filled up with them and they were housed by the schools, maybe that would free up more living quarters for others and even the students if they graduate and choose to be truly a part of a community as they get settled into careers.

  26. The stipend that city councilors receive in Watertown is quite frankly, a joke. People have to justify to their families the commitment of time and energy needed for the job and that justification is monetarily based, plain and simple. The current system of compensation does not encourage citizens to run and only works to the advantage of the incumbents. The city council had a chance to address this and basically waved it off since it was not in their interests to open up the floor. Don’t blame the citizens of Watertown for lack of interest or laziness, that is plain wrong…

  27. Not many individuals know the definition of the word, “blivit.” It is “ten pounds of fertilizer attempting to be forced in a five pound bag,” or words to that effect. At the current moment in the history of Watertown, I believe that description accurately depicts the housing problem therein. Attempting radical rezoning laws and regulations in the direction of multistory buildings, especially in the Watertown Square vicinity will change the ethos, character if you will, of the little town that erroneously masquerades as a city. One of the salient problems, as I see it, is the retrenching from front porch or stoop settings in to the interior of dwellings, and the lack of resident participation in what is occurring within the “city.” Additionally, the lack of a weekly PAPER newspaper that could be home delivered. My overall attitude is, if a individual or family can not obtain housing within the “city,” I respectfully recommend and/or suggest, seek housing elsewhere within the capability of your financial resources. Government is not your solution; research what happened when the Government set up Indian Reservations during the mid to late 1800’s; that ugliness remains to this very day. Matters are getting complicated in Wyoming, especially in and around Cheyenne; a recent acreage requirement increased from one, to ten acres of land in which to construct a new home. Folks out west do not like to be crowded. Full disclosure, neither do I. Some years ago some misguided individuals attempted to have Watertown designated a Sanctuary Town/City; imagine the results had that effort been successful ~ Government forcing illegal immigrants to be housed herein. Imagine that.

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