Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Revisiting the residential exemption

If you live in the property you own in Somerville, you may already be eligible for one of the highest residential exemptions in the state and a new proposal by Mayor Curtatone could give Somerville the highest residential exemption in Massachusetts. (See below for eligibility requirements.)

When people talk about residential exemptions, they often talk about a percentage off your tax bill, but that’s only half the story. The residential exemption is actually a percentage off the average residential value. How does that work? This year, the average residential property value in Somerville was $502,248, so that’s the number you take 30% from to find the residential exemption. If you take 30% of $502,248, that’s $150,674, so if you qualify for the residential exemption you get taxed as if your property was worth about $150,000 less than it actually is.

Mayor Curtatone’s proposal would raise the exemption rate to 35%. If that rate was in effect this year the residential exemption amount would be $175,787, or about $25,000 more than the current exemption. The residential tax rate this year is $12.66 per $1,000 of value, so being taxed on a value that is more than $25,000 lower would mean additional savings for homeowners.  

How much savings? Tax bills are complicated, so the savings would be different for each property, but here’s a chart that shows how the tax bill changed for the average value, owner-occupied property of each property type from this year (fiscal year 2014) versus last year (fiscal year 2013) if the owner took the 30% residential exemption. It also shows how those bills would have changed had a 35% exemption been in place. So, for example, the average two-family, owner-occupied that took the 30% exemption home saw an increase of $39 on their tax bills this year (this is just the average! Individual bills can vary depending on the property value). Had they been able to take the 35% exemption instead of the 30% exemption, their bill would have decreased $118 for the year. That’s a $157 savings for the year.

Property Type
Average FY14 Value
Tax Change From FY13 at 30%
Tax Change From FY13 at 35%
Savings With Increase
Single Family
Two Family
Three Family
4-8 Family

So, how does the residential exemption get changed? First, a proposal needs to be made to change the rate. That already happened last week when Mayor Curtatone asked to the Board of Aldermen to change the residential exemption to 35%. The Board of Aldermen would then need to approve submitting a home rule petition** to the State Legislature for approval. If approved at the state level, the new residential exemption would become 35%.

In the meantime, you can still file for the 30% residential exemption (and possibly others, if you qualify) for FY14. The deadline to apply for exemptions is April 1, 2014 by 4:30 p.m.

* To qualify for the residential exemption you must own and occupy the property
on January 1, 2013. Massachusetts laws stipulate that property owners have to pay a tax of at least 10% of the full tax bill. For low-value properties that might mean the residential exemption would be limited.
** Cities and towns can submit home rule petitions to existing laws to be granted certain powers not generally under municipal control.

*** Fiscal years run from July 1 – June 30. Fiscal Year 2015 begins July 1, 2014.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Community Budgeting: Round 2

It should come as no surprise that when you ask Somerville residents for creative ideas they’ll give you plenty. And, once again, you’ve come through with over 200 ideas sent in as part of Community Budgeting
Mayor Curtatone talking with
Community Budgeting participants.

After taking out some repeats and ideas we’re already working on (for example, banning Styrofoam) we were left with a list full of great ideas. The problem? How do we prioritize them? That’s where we need your help again.

Using IdeaScale, we’ve put together a voting campaign that will let you vote ideas up or down. (Please note, to vote you need to either create an IdeaScale account or login with one of the other options provided.) Give points to the ideas you’d like to see in Somerville and, if you’re not a fan of an idea, you can vote it down.

We’re looking forward to seeing how the ranking goes.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Somerville's Diversity

SomerVision Wordle
Somerville values diversity. In the SomerVision Wordle we often use, “diversity” appears in a large font size, meaning it was one of the most mentioned values among SomerVision participants. But, how diverse is Somerville and how are our demographics shifting?

Recently, the City worked with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and Somerville Community Corporation to complete “The Dimensions of Displacement,” a report that looks at potential displacement risks along the Green Line Extension corridor and gathered current demographic information to help track future changes. So, what did the data reveal about diversity in Somerville?

Somerville is more diverse than the Boston-Cambridge-Quincy census statistical area it is part of. People of color make up 31% of Somerville’s population, versus 25% in the census area. Somerville saw a large increase in its population of color from 1980 to 2000. Since 2000, Somerville has continued to grow more diverse, but at a slower rate.

Comparing out-migration (people moving out of Somerville) to in-migration (people moving in to Somerville) shows that Asians and Blacks are moving into Somerville at higher rates than they are moving out. Meanwhile Whites and people identifying as Other are leaving Somerville at higher rates than they are moving in. Somerville’s Hispanic population has had little change. There also hasn’t been much change in the rates that foreign-born residents are moving in and out of the City.

What about socioeconomic diversity? Households earning over $40,000 per year are leaving the City at higher rates than they are moving in, while households making under $40,000 per year are moving into Somerville at a higher rate.

This snapshot of Somerville's current demographics gives us a baseline to compare future populations to, allowing us to see how policies and projects (especially the GLX) are affecting people. Did any of this data debunk any notions you had about Somerville or did it confirm what you already knew?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

What is Community Budgeting?

Hopefully, you've heard that Somerville has launched a Community Budgeting process that kicks off on Monday, February 24. And, hopefully, you’re planning on coming to one of the three sessions.

If you've been itching to learn more about Community Budgeting and did a little Googling, you saw that there are a lot of different models out there (and that’s not even counting Participatory Budgeting – a whole other ball of wax).

We looked around at the various options out there and created our own model. So, here’s how Somerville Community Budgeting works:

Somerville's community values as documented in SomerVision.
Through other community processes, like SomerVision, you’ve let us know in broad strokes what the Somerville community values and we want to make investments that will help champion those values. For our first Community Budgeting process we've decided to take on four key areas: Public Health, Arts and Culture, Recreation, and Community Engagement and Immigrant Outreach; and now we need your help in guiding the investments that we make.

When you join us at a Community Budgeting meeting, you’ll get an overview of how the City budget comes about and you’ll get a chance to test your own budget knowledge. You’ll also get to hear from City staff who work in each of the four areas listed above. Armed with some budget context and an understanding what is currently being offered, you’re going to give us your suggestions about what’s missing or what you’d like to see more of. This being Somerville we want all your ideas – especially the innovative, off-the-wall ones.

While these Community Budgeting meetings are going to be super fun, we realize that not everyone will be able to make a session, so we’ll also collect investment ideas online through Facebook, Twitter, and as comments on this blog. In March, we’ll also set up a survey that will let you prioritize the ideas gathered at the meetings and online.  The Community Budgeting webpages on the City website also offer an opportunity to learn about the budget and take the post-meeting surveys. We've planned these meetings early enough that department heads can consider your investment ideas before submitting their budgets.

Oh, and why do we keep talking about “investments.” We don’t want to spoil all the meeting fun, but we’ve found some good data that shows investing in Public Health, Arts and Culture, Recreation, and Community Engagement and Immigrant Outreach have returns (often financial). For example, $1 in preventive medical care can save $8 down the road.

Want to join us? Here’s the Community Budgeting schedule:
  • Monday, Feb. 24 (snow date Thursday, March 6), 6:30 p.m., at the Capuano Early Childhood Center, 150 Glen St.
  • Thursday, Feb. 27 , 6:30 p.m., at the West Somerville Neighborhood School, 177 Powderhouse Blvd.
  • Saturday, March 1 (snow date Saturday, March 8), 11 a.m., City Hall, 93 Highland Ave.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Getting ready for the Green Line: A look at housing and affordability

The Green Line Extension means a lot of changes for Somerville- that we all know. We’re looking forward to the positive changes, like increased access to transportation, but we’re not ignoring the challenges that the Green Line is likely to bring.

This report looked at Green Line extension walksheds-
areas within a half-mile walk of new stations.
Over the past two years, the City has been working with the Somerville Community Corporation and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to pull together data around existing conditions and project how neighborhoods may change when the Green Line comes. The full report, “The Dimensions of Displacement: Baseline Data for Managing Neighborhood Change in Somerville’s Green Line Corridor,” is chock full of interesting data and worth a read, especially if data’s your thing. For now,  here are some of the report’s key findings, but stay tuned for future posts highlighting other interesting points such as in-migration and out-migration trends that might surprise you.

Before we dive in, we’ll be using a few planning nerd terms that we’ll highlight in bold. Scroll down to the bottom of the post for definitions.

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into the report. As the name suggests, “The Dimensions of Displacement” report looked at displacement that could happen around the Green Line. Displacement happens when a population gets forced out by factors like housing cost and they are replaced by a group of people with higher incomes or other different demographic traits. The report identified some key displacement risks and which populations would be hardest hit. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Rent increases can be especially tough on lower income
 households as they may not have flexibility in their budgets.
  • Rent increases: People like to live near transit, but that demand can drive up housing prices if there is not the supply to meet it. The MAPC projects Somerville will need to add from 6,300 to 9,000 new housing units by 2030 to keep up with demand and 35% of those units will need to be low-income housing. Somerville is a city of renters – currently 67% of households rent – so rent increases in the areas within a half-mile walk of a Green Line stop (which are called Green Line walksheds) would affect the most people. Based on projected rent increases, the MAPC estimates that between 740 and 810 households could become newly housing cost burdened, meaning they would be spending more than 30 percent of their gross household income on housing.
  • Condo conversions: Condos can provide new and lower cost home buying opportunities in densely packed cities, but when a rental unit is converted to a condo that’s one fewer rental unit on the market. Most often, these conversions happen in 2- or 3-family homes. If condo conversions around new T stops match the rates of condo conversions around the Davis and Porter stops, that would mean more than 500 rental units being taken off the market. Lower income renters unable to buy the converted units could be displaced from the city, especially if prices on the remaining rental stock continue to rise. New condo construction, however, would not be problematic as it would not be taking away from existing rental stock.
  • Expiring affordable housing: There are a variety of affordable housing options in Somerville, including project-based affordable units that are kept affordable for a set period of time through state or federal subsidies. The good news: Somerville has 2,118 permanently affordable units and 682 are within the Green Line walksheds. The not so good news: There are 245 units within Green Line walksheds, mostly in the Gilman Square area, that will have their affordability provisions expire by 2020 and another 277 units within the walksheds that will have their affordability provisions expire after 2025.
  • Property tax increases: With more people wanting to live near transit, it’s a safe guess that property values around the new Green Line stations will rise. On one hand, this is good for homeowners as it will add to the investment they made in their house or condo. On the other hand, increased property values leads to increased property taxes. For some lower income residents this could cause financial difficulties, but the MAPC projects that displacement will be minimal for a few reasons. One is that there are few lower income homeowners within the Green Line walksheds. The potential increases in taxes are also projected to take up only a slightly larger percentage of households’ overall income.

Fortunately, we haven’t waited in addressing these looming issues. The City has implemented a number of affordability initiatives and we are continually researching and developing new options. That’s why right now, community discussions on affordability are currently underway (join us at the next discussion on Tuesday, March 4). We’re open to any innovative ideas that are out there. Here’s a sampling of what we’ve done so far:

  • Community Preservation Act: Actually, you did this one. In 2012, Somerville residents overwhelmingly voted for enacting the Community Preservation Act (CPA), a small surcharge on property taxes that can be used only for affordable housing, open space, and historic preservation. By approving the CPA, you gave us additional funds to support affordability efforts.
  • This report: Not only does “The Dimensions of Displacement” help identify factors that could displace lower income residents, but it also provides us with some baseline data to track changes in populations and the effectiveness of interventions and policy changes as the Green Line rolls into Somerville.
  • SomerVision: In this 20-year plan written by Somerville for Somerville you helped us codify our values as a city, including diversity and affordability. There were also some specific goals set forward to help uphold these values, like building 6,000 new housing units with 20% of them affordable. (Hey, you weren’t too far off!)
  • Inclusionary Housing Ordinance: Any new residential development with 8 or more units has to keep at least 12.5% (up to 17.5% in some districts) of those units affordable. These units are deed restricted to be permanently affordable.
  • Linkage fee: No, it has nothing to do with golf courses. Somerville has a robust Affordable Housing Trust Fund that helps fund affordable housing efforts. How is it so robust? New commercial developments over 30,000 square feet are required to pay a linkage fee of $5.15 per square foot.
  • Condominium Conversion Ordinance: When a property owner wants to convert rental units to condos there are some steps in place to help protect renters. First, property owners seeking to convert rental units into condos have to obtain a removal permit though the Condominium Review Board. The ordinance provides further protections like requiring notice periods and a right of first refusal, along with relocation costs for low-income residents.
  • Preserving existing affordable housing: When affordable housing restrictions are set to expire, we work with property owners to try to extend the affordability of those units.
  • Support of purpose-built affordable housing: Using the Somerville Affordable Housing Trust and federal grants, we can support the creation of new affordable housing. Two recent examples of how we can work with our community partners and support their efforts:
    • St. Polycarp Village: a 3-phase affordable housing development with a total of 84 affordable rental units built by the Somerville Community Corporation
    • Massachusetts Bay Veterans Center: a 29 unit transitional and permanent housing development for veterans built by the Volunteers of America, Inc.
  • Expanding affordable housing to the working middle class: This January, Mayor Curtatone proposed creating a new affordable housing program that would go beyond the usual, federal low-income restrictions to also help middle income, working families buy in Somerville.
  • Protecting live/work housing for artists and makers: The Mayor also recently announced that the City intends to use zoning to designate certain areas as artist and fabrication districts and thereby remove the market pressure to replace low-cost live/work space with high-cost housing.
  • Keeping other costs low: Somerville offers a variety of low-cost or free recreation, enrichment, and child care options through the Public Schools, Recreation, and other programs. We have refused to charge for sports or other extracurricular activities to ensure access for all. Our hope is that these programs help offset some of the higher housing costs families may face. Access to good public transit can also reduce costs if you no longer need a car, which is an affordability benefit of the Green Line Extension. But of course, you have to be able to afford to stay here to reap that benefit.
  • Jobs: Another SomerVision goal is to create 30,000 new jobs by 2030. Attracting businesses is only half the battle, though. To see a real impact on residents, we need to make sure Somerville residents are properly trained and connected to those jobs. More employment opportunity will, we hope, help more households climb up the economic ladder.

Whew, that was a whole lot of information to digest. But, when you do digest it, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the report and, of course, any innovative ideas to address issues that may pop up around the Green Line Extension.

Planning nerd glossary:
Having some turnover is normal in any city or town.
  • Walksheds: These are areas within a ½ mile walk of a T station. These are the areas studied in this report and their boundaries are drawn based on available walking paths.
  • Housing cost burdened: A household is considered burdened by housing cost if it spends more than 30% of gross household income on housing. Right now, before the Green Line is up and running, about 30% of Somerville households are housing cost burdened.
  • Lower income: The federal government defines low-income as $51,000 for a family of three in Somerville.  In this report, a more expansive definition of lower income is used: any household of any size (of one or more individuals) making less than $75,000 annually is designated as low-income. (It may seem like $75,000 is not low-income for a one- or two-person household, but from a data perspective using average household sizes it’s actually and effective measure.)
  • Turnover: Some turnover is normal in any city or town. This is a population whose comings and goings aren’t related to issues like housing cost and are usually replaced by people who fall into similar demographic categories. Students are among this group – each year a class of students moves out of Somerville after graduation and are replaced by another class of students.
  • Replacement: There are people who, for whatever reason, want to move out of Somerville. These folks aren’t being forced out by housings costs, but are also not being replaced by people like them.
  • Displacement: This is what we’re trying to avoid. Displacement happens when a population gets forced out by factors like housing cost. When they leave, they are also replaced by a group with a different demographic make-up.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Three Ways to Help Your Neighbors with Shoveling Today...And Next Time

When it snows, our elderly, disabled, and sick neighbors can become trapped, unable to get needed medication and food or unable to get to work, move, or park their cars when they return home.

You can help by shoveling out nearby neighbors in need. There are three ways to do this:

1. Check on your neighbors and just ask if you may help.

2. Sign up to volunteer via SnowCrew, an online site that that matches volunteers with those who need help. SnowCrew tells us it has successfully matched about 60 volunteers per storm with their neighbors for the past three years in Jamaica Plain. This week, they opened the system to the full Northeast. 

Here is how to use SnowCrew to find out who needs help near you:
To request shoveling assistance via SnowCrew:

  • You can also offer to fill out the form for neighbors or family members who do not have the ability or computer access to do so themselves.

3. Volunteer for the City's Shoveling Assistance Program by contacting Youth and Volunteer Services Coordinator Nancy Bacci at To volunteer through the City, we do require a CORI background check, which takes about 24 hours and will be conducted on weekdays. So sign up in advance of the next storm so you'll be ready to help next time. 

Please note that SnowCrew is an entirely independent service that the City does not manage or assume liability for. 

And remember, if you can't shovel, you can still offer to run errands to pick up medications or groceries or help with other needs for any neighbors unable to do so themselves.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Brain Mob to Tackle Issue of Snow Shoveling Volunteers for Seniors & Persons with Disabilities

The Challenge
We need your creative mind tonight, Thursday, Dec. 12, at 6:30 p.m., for a brainstorming session on how best to recruit and connect volunteers with seniors and persons with disabilities who cannot afford to hire someone to shovel for them. It seems like a challenge with a simple solution, but it's not (we'll get to that below). That's why we need you to help us figure out a program or methods that will work to make sure that seniors and persons with disabilities are not faced with unsafe conditions when they leave their homes after a storm, and everyone passing by will have clear sidewalks they can travel safely.

Join in tonight: Any way you can
We meeting tonight at 6:30 at City Hall, BUT you can also Skype in or call in. And if you can't do any of those options, post your thoughts below in the comments. We want to make it easy for you to brainstorm with us last minute. So join us physically or remotely. It's up to you. Details below. 

The Brain Mob Idea 
We plan to occasionally call last-minute brainstorming sessions for issues where the community can make a real difference. We know that Somerville is packed with bright minds full of creative ideas, and we hope to tap into that. We also want to draw ideas from some of you who can't commit to more involved processes. With a brain mob, you can take part for just the initial brainstorm. If you want to get more involved after that, great. If you just like problem solving and only want to brainstorm, that's great too.

Challenges around Snow Volunteers
Last winter we had numerous seniors and persons with disabilities sign up for your youth shoveling program, where teenagers shovel at reduced rates for those in need of assistance. The program encountered several problems. Far more persons needing help signed up than teens and efforts to recruit more teens were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, some persons in need of help don't have funds to pay even the program's low fees. 

At the same time, we had a number of adult community members ask last minute (just after storms) how they could volunteer to help persons unable to pay for shoveling. The city can't send out volunteers without doing a CORI background check first. So we need volunteers to sign up well in advance and then show up when needed. Right now, we have 56 seniors and others signed up for shoveling and only 4 teens.

We need your thoughts on both improving the effectiveness of this program as well as coming up with other great ideas. Some cities use online services to match volunteers with seniors & others. Some communities have citizen-run initiatives to support this. Others reach out informally to help neighbors. Creative options include streets buying a shared snow blower or setting up their own sidewalk teams. But for legal reasons, the City can't get as creative as residents. We can't, for example, suggest neighbors get together to find out who on their street needs help and then set up a support schedule. But residents can.

So we're looking for your ideas on what we can do and what the community can do. 

Three Ways to Take Part Tonight
  • Come to City Hall, 93 Highland Ave., at 6:30 p.m. Check at the front desk for the meeting location.
  • Skype into the meeting. Our Skype name is SomervilleCity
  • Call into the meeting and participate via speaker phone: To do this, please contact for details.
  • Post comments here or on the Facebook post about this at We'll include your thoughts in the discussion.
If you have any questions, please contact:

Meghann Ackerman at or 
Denise Taylor at

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Help improve accessibility in Somerville

Access to and transparency of local government is key tenets of Somerville. Recently, we took a look at literal accessibility in the City to find out what barriers could be standing in the way of residents accessing City buildings, facilities, and information.

For six months, the City worked with the Institute for Human Design to identify areas that do not meet Americans with Disability Act standards. A full report can be found here. Somerville has a lot to work on, especially (and not surprisingly) in our older buildings. We’re also looking at our streets and sidewalks to find ways to better manage repairs and preventive maintenance and to increase accessibility. A full street plan outlines how we’ll be evaluating improvements and repairs going forward.

Now we need your help. Take a look at the reports and let us know what you think. Did we miss something? Are there factors we didn't consider? We want to get as much information as possible so that we can come up with a plan that will make Somerville more accessible for all residents.

One way you can share your feedback is at a public meeting tonight at 6 p.m. in City Hall. If you can’t make it tonight or need some more time to digest the reports, there are other ways to give your feedback. You can contact ADA Coordinator Betsy Allen at 617-625-6600 ext. 2323 or by email at or attend a second public meeting that will be scheduled in September. Of course, you can leave feedback here too and that will get shared with the ADA Coordinator. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Get your Davis data here

Earlier this year, Somerville by Design kicked off two new resident-driven planning series in East Somerville and Davis Square. One of the first steps of the Somerville by Design process is asking residents about what is important to them about their neighborhood. We've already taken a look at what East Somerville residents had to say, so let's look at Davis Square. (Full report here.)

Although each neighborhood has its own character and history, some things seem universally important in Somerville. Walkable neighborhoods are important to residents in both Davis Square and East Somerville, but in Davis walking is in the lead by a much larger margin. Could the proximity of the Red Line and several bus lines encourage more walking and fewer car trips through the neighborhood?

Davis Square residents also want public space where people can just hang out. Whether it be for people watching, chatting with neighbors, or just enjoying the sun, where do you like to relax in Davis Square?

At the request of residents, planning staff also looking at other demographic data for Davis, which gives more insight into who lives in the neighborhood and what the business community is like. (Full report here.)

Some of the data shouldn't be too surprising to anyone familiar with Davis Square - there are a lot of bars and restaurants in the neighborhood that draw in outside business and many younger residents rent in the area - but some wasn't so intuitive.

There is a perception that Davis houses a lot of home-based businesses. But data shows that only 14% of businesses in Davis are located on residential plots. This is where data gathering gets a little tricky. Counting registered and licensed businesses that are on residential lots is easy, but what do we do about freelancers, telecommuters, and hobbyists who occasionally profit from their skills? In June 2013, for example, there were over 3,000 items from Somerville for sale on the craft site Would each crafter who put an item online be counted as a business? How do we count someone who works for a company, but works from home?

Monday, July 29, 2013

What's important in East Somerville?

Earlier this year, Somerville by Design kicked off two new resident-driven planning series in East Somerville and Davis Square. One of the first steps of the Somerville by Design process is asking residents about what is important to them about their neighborhood. Below are some of the answers we got from residents in East Somerville. (You can see the full report here.)

When it comes to shopping in East Somerville, what's important? According to our survey, residents want locally owned and/or independent businesses in the neighborhood and they still have room for a few more spots to eat.

Residents also want more places to get everyday goods - pharmacies, hardware stores, grocery stores - in East Somerville.

When asked about public space, residents said it was important to have places where people could gather and relax and places where kids could get out and play. Would the recent opening of Chuckie Harris Park have shifted answers on this question? Does the new park address these concerns or are more public spaces still needed?

Do you agree with the data we've collected or did we miss your point of view? There's still time to participate in Somerville by Design, including tonight at a 6:30 p.m. visioning session at the Capuano School. If you can't make it tonight, more events will be coming up in the fall. Stay tuned.