LETTER: What Both Biotech Workers & High Schoolers Need — Housing

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In my role as a founder of CoLAB — a non-profit organization that connects Watertown students and biotech companies — I have had the unique opportunity to connect with two distinct groups, biotech business leaders and local high school students. For as many differences as there are between them, both groups share a primary concern: the housing crisis.

For business leaders, it’s becoming more and more difficult to afford the costs associated with the housing crisis. For high school students, they face a future of deep uncertainty. Will they be able to remain in the city they love? Will they ever be able to own a home?

Beyond that uncertainty lies another challenge. If our Commonwealth can’t take bold, concrete steps to contain the housing crisis, many companies will relocate to less expensive areas. Our students will lose the incredible educational opportunities they have today — and they’ll miss out on the chance to have meaningful careers right here in Watertown.

CoLAB’s hope is for Watertown students to see STEM organizations as places where they can thrive and build satisfying careers. Ultimately, we want our Watertown students to feel empowered to take advantage of the numerous STEM opportunities available in their backyards.

A number of new commercial developments are currently in the works, notably the Watertown Mall redevelopment, which will add to the pool of existing companies. This will serve as a pipeline of job opportunities in our city. But the question of housing looms large. It threatens our economic development and the opportunities our students will have.

The Watertown Square redesign is a chance to face the housing crisis head-on. If we zone to allow more housing to be built, we can build a long-term housing pipeline. In particular, we need a clear by-right approval process for new housing and easily accessible bonuses for affordable housing projects. This promotes all the different kinds of housing we will need — for biotech researchers as well as working families whose students can take advantage of opportunities like CoLAB.

We can ensure that our students have incredible opportunities. They’ll have the skills and networks to launch a meaningful career, they’ll have companies nearby to hire them, and they’ll have an affordable place to live. This is a generational opportunity. I hope our city leaders will have the vision and courage to meet the moment.

Merle Kummer
Arlington Street
CoLAB Co-Founder

Send letters to watertownmanews@gmail.com

27 thoughts on “LETTER: What Both Biotech Workers & High Schoolers Need — Housing

  1. Along with us I would like to see the town require Buildings to have handicapped access Door openers on every exterior building that can be accessed by a ramp.
    By not having this and continuing to allow new buildings to be developed without this, all the accessibility efforts fall flat when someone does not have the ability to pull open exterior fire doors that are good for safety, look good but are an absolute barrier because of the physicality required to open them
    The arsenal yards development is a great example of a ‘miss’. The sidewalks are great, businesses are at sidewalk level but ALL but 3 of the businesses are inaccessible due to the lack of the automatic door opener

    The solution offered by businesses is for a person to either
    1-have someone accompany them,
    2-to wait outside the door trying to get attention from someone inside the business to come and open the door for them

    If we want
    -the revenue from Visitors coming into town For work, for entertainment, meals, an afternoon of shopping etc
    This must be addressed

  2. Rather than New York or Chicago developers, we need a local developer to build truly affordable housing along with some lower income housing. Young families, seniors and individuals newly entering the job market are the people who are being squeezed out of Watertown – not the ones who can afford market rate apartments. What kinds of incentive bonuses can the city offer to local developers in order for Watertown to retain some level of diversity?

    • This is a very important comment. The entry of national developers and their sources of capital have warped our real estate market which once had its own inherent logic based on local needs and values.

      Incentivizing local non-profit or private developers to build affordable housing is something that our our City Manager and Planning Department should place on high priority. This would be one huge step to helping solve the affordability crisis that plagues our community.

      • Given that one unit (apartment) of housing costs > $500,000 on average to build,* no amount of “incentives” will generate millions of dollars in up-front cash. Someone has to front that money to build, and it won’t be non-profits or the city.

        And, no, national developers are not “distorting” the market and causing high housing costs. As someone who has deeply studied markets and economics over 40+ years, I see many uneducated “opinions” about the source of the problem.

        The problem is WE DON’T HAVE ENOUGH HOUSING!

        * Source – Boston Globe Spotlight series 2023

        • Not sure what economists you are reading, but you might try Catherine Turco’s (MIT) book on Harvard Square (Harvard Square: A Love Story). Turco discusses specifically how the introduction of national capital changed what was for a few centuries a decidedly local market. It’s a great read and more than fair.

          National capital does indeed change markets.

          Just because it costs on average $500K for an average commercial developer to construct a unit of housing doesn’t mean that there aren’t cheaper ways. Land costs are a big piece of the cost equation. And I am not sure that Boston Globe is the best source on construction costs and techniques.

          We can allow commercial developers to build for decades and it will not impact affordability. Rising housing costs are not simply a matter of supply, but are profoundly impacted by many factors in a larger economy that is mainly serving those at the top.

          It’s going to take a lot of work and imagination to solve these problems. No easy answers. I am worried that the classes of unhoused and economically vulnerable will increase for decades unless we rethink the neoliberal political economics that dominates at the moment.

  3. Thanks so much, Merle, for sharing your perspective. Local businesses should be speaking out in favor of zoning changes to enable EASY opportunities to build new housing, as their economic future depends on a stable workforce.

    It’s irrelevant where a developer’s headquarters are located (there’s nothing wrong with New York and Chicago, unless you watch FoxNews endlessly!). What matters is that *any* developers are ready, willing and able to invest MILLIONS of dollars up front to build new housing for our city. Through our regulations, we must create opportunities for win-win’s that benefit both developers and our city. Developers are specialists with expertise and money who can provide something we desperately need, and we should see them as partners.

    • Exactly! Easing of zoning would be more impactful on affordable housing developers, like MetroWest, who are reliant on grants and a patchwork of funding. Unlike developers who have access to flexible market capital, affording housing developers have a longer lead time, more uncertainty due to the grant process, and have to spend the money by a certain time. “By right” zoning would ease their burden immensely. Instead of multiple meetings that could go on for 24 months plus, there would be a site review meeting and then development could start. This is how we advantage affordable housing developers. Current zoning does not help affordable housing developers.

    • There’s nothing wrong with New York and Chicago? As a former New Yorker, I beg to differ. Manhattan, which once had a thriving working and middle class has been drained of both. Manhattan is full of empty investment properties, many of which are owned by offshore entities.

      I love New York deeply, but don’t tell me there aren’t problems. Yikes.

      Developers (and I work with them) are self interested. They work within the neoliberal mindset that Return on Investment is the highest of deities. In the post war period (pre Milton Friedman/Lewis Powell and the Chicago School) capitalists believed in serving a broader set of stakeholders (shareholders, workers, community, country). We would do well to reconsider our economic priorities and goals.

      It is necessary to have a public process to balance the self interest of developers against the larger interests of the communities. There is nothing anti-housing about wanting a set back. Recently public input has demonstrably improved several projects. That’s just democracy at work.

      • Your main argument seems to be that because developers seek profit (because nobody works for free) that they cannot be trusted and that is why we need tight local control. I understand where this argument comes from — there are lots of bad things that have happened in the self-interested pursuit of profits.

        However, you know who else seeks profits? Literally everybody. Nobody works for free. Would you say a restaurant owner is treating profits as the “highest of dieties” or are they just trying to make a living like the rest of us? Would you say the person who wants to tear down a single family house and build a duplex and live in one of the units is selfishly seeking profits because they want to eventually make money in the process?

        You’re quick to judge developers but you seem to ignore the even bigger threat of NIMBYism. Are NIMBYs not just as self-interested as the developers? Are they not motivated by perceived property value? They pretend to be neighborhood defenders but aren’t they too just protecting what’s important to THEM at the expense of other people? NIMBYs of decades past sure have made their property value quite high right now, but at the expense of the younger generations who are really feeling the pain right now.

        Too much local control makes a hostile environment for development. Developers have to go through special permitting processes, they have to build a whole bunch of parking, they have to blow out timelines to get through these approval processes. All of that stuff costs money and introduces risk. Too much risk might just scare developers away entirely (and to some people, maybe that’s the point). We’ve stifled development far too much and we need to ease up.

        We should upzone all of Watertown to at least 3 family homes (and re-examine setbacks), eliminate all parking minimums, and remove barriers for large apartment buildings in key areas (like Watertown Square). I want to see the housing actually get built, not just “technically allowed on paper”

        • Actually my view of developers is informed by personal experience. Long personal experience. More than three decades, so I am not quick to judge.

          No one begrudges anyone a profit. But what matters is how you do make it. I like food service folk because they work damn hard doing noble work.

          You seem not to understand neoliberal economics which, among other things, contends that shareholder value is the only legitimate concern of capitalists. There are many of us in opposition who believe that other concerns such as the well being of workers, general societal well being and environmental responsibility are just as important. Oh, and conducting business honestly is also important.

          You are too quick to judge your neighbors and people like me, who you do not know. And you are quick to venerate developers, many of whom take their profits and return to somewhere else. Doing so they have no real investment in Watertown. Many are less than honest and upfront.

          I haven’t talked to anyone recently who is primarily concerned with their property values. But I do know a lot of folks who really love this town. They are concerned about the built environment and they don’t want Watertown to be like every other place. They want it to retain some individuality.

          I know what developers do. I am involved in building buildings. Many developers, particularly in the case of housing, tend toward oversized buildings and a kind of banal and uniform mediocrity.

          There is nothing “anti-housing” in wanting good buildings, sufficient green space and particularly housing suitable for families to stay in Watertown.

          Public process is part of democratic system of checks and balances which mediates competing interests. I don’t know anyone in Watertown who fits the actual description of a NIMBY. They do exist, but not so much here. Stop flogging the NIMBY boogeyman, as it is off base and rather unattractive.

  4. To re-iterate Kathi’s point, maybe the Globe needs to constantly print the demand-supply graph. https://www.investopedia.com/articles/economics/11/intro-supply-demand.asp

    People think we are at the equilibrium point on the supply-demand curve. We are no where near there. We are somewhere in quadrant 1 (lower left) and need to move along the supply curve toward upper right quadrant to dramatically bring rents down. In quadrant 1, we will see high rents and empty units. There are units to rent, but their rents don’t meet the general budgets.

    In a market of 60 units, an owner will only be able to rent to the managerial class because those units will be 6k to rent. A few units will rent and the remainder will be empty. In a market of 5000 units, an owner cannot charge 6k to rent because there will be more overhead costs keeping 4,800 units empty. The rent will have to drop, and we move to the upper left, closer to equilibrium because more renters will be able to rent. Again, some units will be empty. Rents continue to drop as the TOTAL number of unit grows. They rise again post equilibrium because units cannot come in fast enough.

    Adding 500 units to a total of 7, 000 units will not push the rent down dramatically. We are seeing a decrease but it is small, maybe something like 5500 to 5390. However, adding 10,000 units will push the rent down by 1000s. Restrictive zoning is a drag on the supply curve, regardless of developer type.

  5. I see NIMBY all over Watertown, particularly in the folks who claim it’s not them. I also see a lot of deflection away from the point … that we need THOUSANDS of units of new housing (in our region) in order to bring rents and home prices down to a significant degree. Dropping words like “neoliberal” or phrases like “Return on Investment is the highest of deities” does not elucidate what is happening in Watertown. Blaming greedy developers or landlords changes nothing and deflects attention away from solutions which would actually solve the problem. Use of capital letters is helpful where there is no opportunity for formatting. I really would appreciate intelligent arguments in the opposition.

    • Rather I would say that just banging on about needing THOUSANDS of units of housing deflects attention from the larger picture and context. With regard to NIMBY’s in Watertown, it seems that there is a heavy component of class bias at work here.

      While it is true that we need more housing, it is important to examine how it is accomplished, what is built and for whom. There is nothing “anti-housing” about wanting setbacks or step backs or less height or similar. It is within residents’ rights to ask for these and other things. But bring these matters up and some folks will slander you as a NIMBY.

      If you want more housing, shouldn’t you want fewer lab buildings?

      I am grateful to be informed that I am not intelligent. I shall take that under advisement.

      • Except for when those desirable setbacks and other such restrictions shut out working class and low income individuals because affordable housing developers cannot produce if they have to go through hoops. I am a get more people on the life boats person because a rising tide raises all boats. If we want to prevent high end developers from taking over, then make it easier for affordable housing developers to compete by removing barriers to entry. Also advocate for higher interest rates, unpopular opinion, but money should come at a cost. Extremely low interest rates do not give businesses pause and result in situations like the 2008 which impacts businesses and the average joe in the end, but especially working class, low income and the homeless.

        • I think that foregoing good design for the sake of working class housing is a specious argument. Except for affordable mandates, there is little working class housing being created at the moment.

          Demographic changes have done quite a bit to inflate housing costs beyond the means of the working class.

          This is a complicated issue. Simple solutions aren’t so helpful.

          Degrading our built environment shouldn’t be a necessary choice. We should all, regardless of economic strata, be able to enjoy a lovely town in which to live. I think that most Watertowners want the elements like setbacks that make projects better.

          Like anything else, there are good ways and bad ways to accomplish a goal. I am in favor of the good.

          • Arguments for good design are actually specious when arguing for different class strata and then turning around to dismiss what is needed. The reason why little workforce housing is being created or any differentiation of the sort occurs is restrictive zoning. Watertown had 40,oo residents in the 70s, and and housing prices didn’t dramatically go up. Housing prices started to accelerate in the 90s. At this time Watertown had less than 30,000 residents but a whole slew of very restrictive zoning came into being, particularly in Massachusetts. It really is that simple. You can’t have your strata and eat it too.

          • Rita, are you actually advocating for bad design? That’s absurd. Any housing, no matter how poorly conceived is good? Any demand for good design and planning is bad? Yikes.

            Blaming the lack of affordable housing solely on restrictive zoning is to make an incredibly simplistic argument. And to say that elements of good design are not in the best interest of our community is to turn common sense on its head.

            The example of Watertown in the 1970’s is not relevant. So many things have changed, not just zoning. That argument is strained beyond credulity.

          • Rita, in the 1970’s the economy was sliding into recession. Housing prices were more stable, but unemployment was high and wages quite a bit lower. Watertown may have had 40,000 residents, but to listen to my friends who grew up here, a greater percentage of them were children. There was more heavy industry. And so on.

            There were many factors that were different. You are making an apples to oranges comparison.

            Aesthetic taste applied to architectural style may be one thing, but many here agree that height is an issue. And people seem to like setbacks and stepbacks. Green open space seems to be pretty popular. Godzilla on Galen is too big for its surroundings. There seems to be a fair amount agreement on many issues.

          • The 70s characteristics are factors, but are not as impactful as the reduction in supply caused by restrictive zoning, which has a high cause-effect impact. Study after study bears this relationship out, especially in a comparison of the 80s and 90s. It’s not an apples-to-orange comparison, it’s one big fat orange in a bowl of cherries. Factor impact is key. Secondly, as an attribute of design, height is also subjective. The Galen St building is not overbearing because it is proportional to the area. St. Patrick’s is about 10 stories, the Whites Ave. buildings are 8 stories, and the Delta flagpole is probably over 10 stories. Even if not proportional, some people may prefer very tall buildings by smaller ones. A different reason for more housing is revenue reduction prevention. Per the City Council budget meeting, we better hope the incoming labs come to fruition or that they get replaced by residential units because the residential-to-commercial tax shift will shift disadvantageously to the residential base if they do not. Argue to the contrary with the city. They may enjoy it. I’m frankly bored.

          • And please ye refrainth from branishing the flag of the ye common peoples, sir!

          • Never said anything about good design, a highly subjective concept- what appeals to you may not appeal to every resident here. You might like mid-century ranches, your neighbor may prefer villa systyle apartments and a third person may love brutalism. None of these are wrong but none of these are part of common sense. For me, safe and sound design is enough; beyond that is superfluity. Regardless, your responses do not address the issues at hand. Blame is not what anyone is doing when they mention the cause and effect of restrictive zoning. This comes from numerous studies, and yes some things are complex but in regression analysis, one measures factor coefficients to see the impact on the problem. Before dismissing the 1970s housing situation since it doesn’t fit the story you are trying to tell, remember to not turn around and not to use it in future argument. There are enough red herrings around.

    • Kathi I love your resposnes and continue to type in ALL CAPS because people are not listening to your very, very reasonable replies. All the repliera being offended by yo saying NIMBY don’t get it. Frist you are labellng the way they act. They don’t want it in there backyarad and go to meetings and say “not in my backyard” in all kinds of ways. A woman at the STR meeting did it word for word. So what’s the big deal? Own the label. Second there are worst things to be called than a NIMBY. Dont know about you but NIMBY wouln’t offend me. One thing I do know, not all NIMBYs are nosy neighbors, racists or busybodies, but all nosy neighbors, racists and busybodies are NIMBYs. I am pretty sure there is a venn diagram of that sometwhere.

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