LETTER: Watertown Housing Group Supports Proposed Watertown Square Area Plan

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As advocates for housing availability and affordability in Watertown, we have closely followed the Watertown Square Area Plan process since its kickoff last Fall. Throughout the kitchen table conversations, online surveys, and countless community meetings that we’ve participated in, we’ve watched a plan emerge that manages to balance a wide range of perspectives. As a result, the core elements of the plan garner support from two-thirds of recent survey respondents.

Supporting the Plan

While we believe that significantly more work needs to be done to address the housing crisis, this plan represents an important step toward allowing more housing in our city. We strongly urge all who support more housing, a more walkable and bikeable community, and a more vibrant downtown to attend this Thursday’s meeting at the Middle School and speak in support of it.

We support the most recent version of the plan for several reasons. It allows more homes to be built in the Square, which will begin a much-needed revitalization of the heart of our city. It also supports more Watertown residents living in our most walkable, transit-rich neighborhood, helping the city meet its long-term climate goals. And the plan targets lots that are ripe for redevelopment in the near future while maintaining the character and history of the Square.

With this plan, Watertown continues its role as a regional leader, both morally and practically, as we do our part to address the extreme housing shortage, meet our climate goals, and reap the economic rewards of a vibrant downtown.

Prioritizing Affordability

Despite its strengths, the current plan fails to prioritize the most urgent and widely acknowledged aspect of this crisis: the lack of dedicated affordable housing in our city. Sensible zoning policy must go hand-in-hand with efforts to support affordability. As we laid out in April, there are clear areas for improvement that the city should incorporate into both its current plan and the zoning language that will be voted on later this year:

● Developments with more than 50% deed-restricted affordable units should be allowed by-right across the entire study area, maximizing the likelihood that affordable homes for working- and middle-class residents will actually get built.
● Affordable housing bonuses should be by-right, not by special permit, in order to give non-profit and affordable housing developers a leg up over for-profit developers.
● Affordable housing height bonuses should be increased; non-profit and affordable housing developers will then be able to make a wider range of properties and projects viable. Innovative construction methods, already in use by local non-profit developers, will make taller buildings economically feasible for affordable housing over the coming decade, and our city should be ready for them.

By ensuring that these elements are incorporated into the plan, we can guarantee that the conditions are set for new affordable housing to actually be built, and take one more step toward delivering affordable housing for the working- and middle-class residents who hold our city together. Please join us on Thursday at the Middle School to speak in favor of these critical improvements to the Watertown Square Area Plan.

Steering Committee, Housing for All Watertown

Rita Colafella, Sam Ghilardi, Daniel Pritchard, Josh Rosmarin, Jacky van Leeuwen

3 thoughts on “LETTER: Watertown Housing Group Supports Proposed Watertown Square Area Plan

  1. Fifty years ago, the U.S. saw a potential cure for the nation’s housing shortage, according to a two-page story in Sunday’s The New York Times. The answer was not Big Real Estate’s free market, trickle-down affordability of a few so-called affordable units in multi-unit luxury developments as HAW advocates. It was government-sponsored industrialized home construction. In 1969, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development was barely four years old, the agency’s secretary, George Romney, a former Republican governor appointed by President Richard Nixon (Mitt’s father), announced Operation Breakthrough. Industrializing construction, said Secretary Romney, meaning making all or parts of homes on an assembly line in a factory, was the way to drive down the cost of housing while increasing the supply.

    In Europe during the the 1950s and 1960s, Sweden and other nations built large-scale prefab complexes and fast. Japan followed Europe’s lead. No, it was not the ugly Soviet bloc housing which has stigmatized modular housing in the U.S. to this day. Today, nearly all construction in Japan is industrialized, and 15 percent of homes are prefabricated in steel. In Sweden, 45 percent of construction is industrialized with wood, the preferred material in the U.S., and the the most climate-friendly one. In the U.S., where Operation Breakthrough was tested, industrialized housing makes up just 3 percent of market share.

    Affordable housing advocates have to ask themselves why Congress canceled its pilot modular initiative. Well-funded lobbying from Big Real Estate that opposed the idea of building houses the same way the auto industry builds cars? No question building quality homes, on-site or off-site will never be cheap. Naturally, you do not want to scrimp on materials or labor, but the factory builder’s advantage is quality control and speed. Long-term profit comes from streamlining the building system for profitable outcomes and fast delivery. It is not about the cheapest product, but the cheapest solution.

    Is it possible to build housing the way you build a Volvo? In Philadelphia, a company has completed more than 6,000 modules. In Vallejo, California, the workers at Factory OS have delivered housing to clients, including to Google’s parent company, Alphabet. The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority commissioned RISE Modular to build 18 buildings around that city.

    Operation Breakthrough aimed to achieve affordability through industrialization. Even when labor and material cost savings are modest, the introduction of many more units in a relatively short time span lowers the market price of all units. If Congress had not deemed Operation Breakthrough’s demonstration projects too costly and killed off the program in 1976, U.S. housing might look very different today, with architects designing attractive factory-built housing. Perhaps prescriptive codes that stifle innovation would have been ameliorated and real affordable housing would be more plentiful. Housing production today limits the range of what developers and builders are willing to produce. Lower-priced housing simply is not as profitable. Result: trickle-down affordability as a product of luxury rental development is of little help to working- and lower income people suffering the most in today’s housing crisis.

    • So now you are going to triple down on bad decion after bad decion?
      I am for Euro style housing but I was born in the 90s so I wasn’t around to vote for it, and I doubt the pro-housing group was around either. Don’t know their ages. But I guess since they are advocating most are between 20 and 40 because that is who is being hurt most by the housing crisis; the millenials and gen z. Yeah some boomers but it’s mostly people under 40. So congress didn’t continue with that program.
      But then people around here started to put more restrictive zoning espeically in New England. This started happening in the 80s and 90s. Zooning became about making the towns look a certain way. What they really were abour was making sure towns had low density and turned into suburbbs. I have read numberous books on this – ever read Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party?? Agian I was not around when these lasw were put in. So I didn;t have a choice to vote. THough I and several people feel the effects every single day!
      SO now instead of undoing those bad zoning laws, you’re triple down by keeping it in place??? Where does the buck stop???

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