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I haven’t had as much time to promote this month’s Thinking Out Loud, and I meant to - my Friday show will be featuring people talking about affordable housing and the many issues all throughout January, and possibly spilling over into the days I don’t host, including in the other languages in TOL’s daily second hour.
Tomorrow should really prove informative for everyone - we will having Ed Sanchez, Home Ownership Programs Director for the Coalition for a Better Acre on the show. The program’s aim is to guide and advise future and current home owners - whether poor or middle class, knowledgeable about housing purchase or not - into making an informed choice, and to see their way into home ownership without the pressures of a sales pitch. I am certainly looking forward to speaking with him. Promoting more home ownership (while fighting preditory lending) among those that traditionally do not buy homes is one really innovative, important way to deal with the affordable housing crisis.
You can stream the show live here.
After the show, I’m going to be really busy all day, so you can also use this as an open thread.
This weekend is the Coalition for a Better Acre’s annual meeting, which I highly recommend anyone interested in fairness in Lowell’s housing should attend! It will be at the Stoklosa Middle School, 560 Broadway Street, Saturday October 21, from 5:00 - 8:00PM
For those who don’t know the CBA, they are a resident’s group which focuses on the Acre (the “inner city” part of Lowell) though they expand their advocacy as much as they can to the whole city. But not only are they advocates, but true to their cause. They actually own affordable housing in the city, and they do more than that - they work to give their residents a stake in their communuities through organizing and neighborhood groups. They help lower-income residents buy their own property as well through a mortgage program. I don’t think people realize the real impact the CBA has in our city.
For those of you who have been down on the CBA in the past, I hope you would make the effort to go to this meeting and see what they are really about. Meet its volunteers. You can’t really say you understand the housing issue in Lowell until you at least entertain their point of view as well. This is the perfect opportunity to do that.
[Edit: this is also an opportunity to meet incoming Executive Director Emily Weitzman Rosenbaum, and say goodbye to Laura Buxbaum, who is leaving. There are also auctions, music, food, and more! RSVP at (978) 452-7523 Ext 800]
If you rent an apartment in Massachusetts, you are about to be screwed — thanks to a stealth, one-sentence piece of legislation. The bill was engrossed in the House on Monday, which means it was adopted without debate or a vote. It now heads to the state Senate.
If the bill goes through, landlords will use computerized energy-monitoring systems to determine what percentage of heat or air-conditioning resources an apartment uses. Landlords will then bill tenants accordingly. Passage of the bill may result in new energy fees based on undisclosed formulas, which the landlords would not need to explain or justify.
Though the bill was virtually ignored by most interest groups, one entity extensively lobbied in favor of it. That company, San Diego–based Ista North America, sells — would you believe it? — computerized energy-monitoring systems. According to state records, Ista paid local lobbying powerhouse Suffolk Group $42,000 to lobby for the bill last year. (This year’s lobbying figures are not yet available.)
In the house, the bill was sponsored and spearheaded by Democrat Thomas A. Golden Jr. of Lowell, who earns more than $100,000 a year selling property with United Estates Realty, in Lowell, and owns rental property of his own. Golden got more than half of his campaign contributions from political-action committees and lobbyists last year — including three Suffolk Group lobbyists — and more from individual realtors and property owners. Multiple calls to Golden’s office were not returned.
State Senator Steven C. Panagiotakis, also of Lowell, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate. He owns two rental properties in Dracut.
In theory, properly allocated utility costs could prompt frugality and save resources. With that in mind, the state passed a lengthy, complex law two years ago allowing landlords to bill tenants for water usage.
Unlike that law, however, the proposed energy bill does not provide assurances to tenants or protect against eviction if one fails to pay the new fee. As a result, groups like MassPIRG and Massachusetts Law Reform Institute have opposed it. “It is ill-motivated, poorly conceived, and poorly written,” says Charlie Harak, of the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.
The bill would not require landlords to explain how “cost allocation” is determined. By time? Temperature? Coin toss? According to the company’s Web site, Ista’s products use a Resident Utility Billing Service (RUBS) formula, “which bases consumption on variables like square footage or number of occupants.”
And most important of all, the bill does not establish state oversight or regulation of the energy-monitoring systems. As a result, tenants would have no way of discovering whether they’re being overcharged by landlords, and no recourse if that turns out to be the case.
I do not know if this new system for charging tenents for utilities is fair or not, but if it’s something put into a bill by the efforts of the very company that sells the monitoring systems, I’m sorry, but that sounds sleezy. And I know MassPIRG from other campaigns they’ve done, they do good work.
So why would Golden and Panagiotakos support or sponsor this bill? Maybe it has nothing to do with lobbying dollars, but as landlords themselves they feel it’s fair to charge tenents for city utilities. And it probably is. But this article raises some really essential questions - why wasn’t some sort of protection put into place for tenents? How will they be able to appeal an unfair landlord’s fees? And why does a bill get passed which appears authored by a company selling the very technology which would be used, without debate or consideration?
Call Senator Panagiotakos today and tell him to withdraw support of this bill until 1) the issue of fairness for tenents is addressed and 2) it can be explained how this will benefit the citizens of Massachusetts and not just some company out of California with a lot of money to throw around. (617) 722-1630 or you can find more info here.
People from outside our senate district, find your Senator’s information here.
With all the shakeups in Lowell city government in the last couple of months, there is an opportunity to shift the debate about the direction of the city. We have a chance to make a real difference in the lives of our residents, and it’s about damn time, too. If we want sustainable growth, the retention of our heritage and culture, the incorporation of new blood, and a solid base of private enterprise, we can’t expect that to happen with an economic plan of “develop everything into condos!” and new overpriced parking garages.
It’s time to start talking again about affordable housing in this city. A city official once said to me, “Why should Lowell have any more affordable housing? We’re at 14% here, more than the recommended 10% minimum the state says we should have. Let Chelmsford or Westford do their share for once.” I will tell you why this attitude is both suicide for this city’s vibrant culture, and patently false and even immoral. And bad for business.
To jump into an anecdote, last night I attended a group meeting with Western Ave Studio’s building owner, Karl. At issue is the long-term plans for the artist community here. I won’t go into specifics, as they are being worked out, but Karl believes in the project very much. His plans include contingencies for keeping the space affordable “indefinitely” as he says. When I say Western Ave is affordable, I mean, really affordable. Artists from Somerville and points much further are renting studios here. When you ask them why, they say it’s because studio space around Boston is so much more expensive and out of their range.
Long-term affordablity was not taken into account in some of the artist live-work spaces in downtown Lowell. There were no stipulations to protect the affordability of Ayer Lofts. As a result, many artists sold their spaces when the real estate went up (I would have too, if I’d had that much appreciation and it was legal for me to do so) and their property taxes went through the roof. At last year’s Lowell Open Studios, there were hardly any artists left downtown to open their doors in the live-work spaces originally created for them.
Why is this important? Because this is the flip side of gentrification. When a gentrification process is successful and the neighborhood improved, the very people who were relied upon to increase the values no longer can afford to live there. It’s already happening to downtown Lowell and it will happen elsewhere.
I take a look at house prices in my neighborhood in the Highlands, where we rent a small apartment. I’d like to buy a house here here. I’d love to buy one of the many houses on sale in my area, but my god, I doubt we can afford it. Now, my husband and I would never qualify for any sort of government assistance, nor should we. We have a decent family salary even if we still struggle with the cost of living in Massachusetts. But if we’re unable to move ahead, where does that put a family making half or a quarter of our salary, with one or two kids? Or where does that put my friend, an entry-level teacher, and her boyfriend, an artist? They hoofed it right the hell out of the state because they couldn’t afford to stay. Ergo, population loss in Massachusetts.
Follow me past the fold to continue this conversation. (more…)
It was disappointing, to say the least, to read that the Julian Steele project latest developer may no longer be interested. In a few months, it will be 3 years since the City of Lowell tore down the low-income housing complex located on Gorham Street near the Chelmsford town line. As we know, the plan is to build a mix of market value and affordable housing.
Every time I drive by the empty fenced-in lot, I remember the emotionally-charged debates that took place throughout the city, especially during public hearings in the City Council chambers, prior to the vote to tear down the existing structures.
Promises were made to housing advocates during those heated public discussions. Those promises must be kept. If not, then it is time for those heated debates to begin again.
I would like to write a little more about the debate started in this post on the bridge proposal which turned into a discussion about the Coalition for a Better Acre. I’d like to clarify a few points, respond to some of the things in comments, and open it up to all of you as well.
First, I would like to talk about the city, access to the halls of the decision makers, and the CBA.
The misconception is that the CBA shut itself out with its confrontational methods (if you call rallies and resident meetings confrontational). The big debate was over the commentary on the CBA website citing the CBA action in Boston at the Mills to Martinis marketing event (trying to entice rich Boston people to move to Lowell’s high-priced developments), which then led to the comment from a city official that this action “would hurt the CBA.”
Look, the CBA did try to play the game. Back a couple years ago, when there was a pile of contaminated dirt on the site of the future Stoklosa School, they asked the city politely to get the company to live up to its promise to cover it before contaminated dirt blew around the neighborhood. When no action was taken, they held a rally, and showed up en masse to a city council meeting. Guess what? It was the second action that actually produced results.
When the bridge proposal was announced in the paper (touted as a done deal, even though we’ve found out since that it isn’t) the CBA had meetings. They called city councilors. Most of them didn’t know any more than the CBA did about this proposal. Gee. Wonder why not? Because there was never an official conversation and vote in the Council on it? (I think Cox got his “impression” that the city council “wanted” the proposal from only a handful of the councilors, like…say…Armand Mercier and Bud Caulfield?) They asked for meetings with the city to discuss the lack of public input into the proposal. They formed the Upper Merrimack Street Planning Process.
Yes, the city did send a couple assistant city planners to that meeting. They gave the CBA big nifty aerial photos of the region. The participation at those meetings was a sight to see. However, the discussions were centered around issues like putting in an extra stop sign, or better signage, or airing concerns about safety at an intersection. The city wasn’t interested in hearing public opinion on the central proposal that started the debate in the first place - the University Ave bridge. Or about other issues like incorporating affordable housing into the development plan, or fulfilling their promise of 100% affordable housing replacement for all the public housing units destroyed at Julian Steele!
Great, some access. A stop sign there, a crosswalk here. That doesn’t get to the core of CBA’s mission.
So they came up with an action of interrupting Cox’s little marketing campaign to the rich Bostonites (which by the way, the city spends a lot of taxpayer money on). The bright-green-shirted CBA contingent of about 30 was not confrontational; on the contrary, the invited attendees seemed interested in what the CBA members had to say. I’ve been told by CBA volunteers they had some great conversations with these potential new Lowell residents. They seemed to like the idea of an active citizen community (after all, a lot of young professionals are also sympathetic to those causes, and to the central “attraction” of Lowell - the artist community.)
However, the city manager or his staff decided that being civicly embarrassed was too much for them. From my point of view, it didn’t have to be that way, if only the city would, say, have meeting with Acre and other residents on the big issues of development in this city. But a lot of people know that this does not happen. The Planning and Zoning boards are not run for the people, they are run for the connected developers. So. To put this issue to bed in my opinion, the CBA never had real access, and wasn’t going to get it by playing by Cox’s rules, because the fix was in a long time ago. As a result, they agitate and organize and the Sun loves to give the impression (because they’re the Sun and their reporting leaves a lot to be desired most of the time) that the CBA is in leadership disarray and made their own bed and should lie in it. I don’t know about most of you, but I never take the Sun, or Cox and his administration, at their word. The Sun doesn’t like to dig for real answers (like most lazy corporate media) and Cox has his own agenda. As we saw last Tuesday when he proposed spending $50K without much discussion. Thank god the City Councilors woke up to the fact that he was trying to sneak in proposed spending on a project before a democratic decision making process could begin. And don’t think for a minute that was an accident on Cox’s part.
Next, I would like to say, I have never in all the time I’ve volunteered or talked to CBA members, heard that they are against high-end development. Let’s get that straight. What they want is for the city to plan its development in a fair manner that includes its more vulnerable residents as well as its upper-class. Sheer gentrification is just plain dumb. Sorry, but it is. Smart city planning not only helps the vulnerable residents stay in the city, but it’s better long-term because plain market-driven gentrification has a failing record in many communities once no one but the rich can afford to live, work, or shop there. Do we want the city of Lowell to lose all the things that make it great to live in? Like being a first stop on the path of many waves of immigrants? Or being affordable enough to have an amazing culture of artists, musicians, theatre and other events? Didn’t think so.
The CBA has had a summit and many meetings where they’re talking about innovative ways to accommodate this fairness; ideas like
exclusionary (edit: oops, INCLUSIONARY not exclusionary) zoning and affordable development of abandoned properties. The CBA knows more about civic engagement than most of the city’s elected officials. That’s something the councilors and the city administration should be co-opting and incorporating rather than fighting. But City Manager John Cox does not to my experience know how to give access. He would prefer to fight (and lie about it afterwards, as evidenced at the last city council meeting) than to provide a conduit for a working relationship with people who disagree with him. I know there are city councilors who themselves are out there in the community, being involved, who must in their heart of hearts know this. I am pleased that last week they showed they do not want Cox to determine the direction of the city by himself (”I got the impression the council was for this” - yeah, right.)
Some good things were planned last decade for the city. We’re seeing good results from those years, and some bad results. The CBA wants to turn those bad results around and make them good. I think we can all agree that the current city development plan is not perfect, has flaws, and needs work. I don’t trust the developers and the connected to make all those decisions for the good of all city residents. Simply going after the money doesn’t fly (trickle-down economics is a myth, people). But, the city can work with those who want to make money, and those who want to ensure that the powerless have a voice, and create innovative solutions to produce a result where no one loses. This isn’t rocket science. It’s just good sense.
The Coalition for a Better Acre is hosting a meeting this weekend to continue the discussion and action that began on the October 22 Affordable Housing Summit. Unlike the so-called “Gang Summit” which we heard a lot about from councilors before the election as some sort of grand event which, as far as I can tell, has had little followup except for a couple of motions to create some sort of pamphlet (correct me if I’m wrong), the CBA is serious about finding useful, coherant, and creative solutions that would preserve the good things about Lowell’s residential economic development while solving the problems it has presented. It will be this Saturday at 1:30pm. This is from the CBA’s email:
Join Us and Help Our Community Find Solutions to Our Housing Crisis in Lowell, Mass!
This Saturday November 19, 2005
Coalition for a Better Acre
517 Moody Street
On Saturday, October 22, 2005 nearly one hundred and fifty residents from Lowell and surrounding areas got together to begin formalizing a platform that lists concrete ways that we can stop our housing and transportation crisis in Lowell.
Our Keynote Speaker, Boston City Councilor and longtime human rights activist Chuck Turner, helped us make connections between our local and state housing crisis and emphasized how important it is for our communities to get organized and build power in order to improve our way of life by increasing our affordable housing stock.
Our facilitators, organizers Steve Meacham and Cheryl Lawrence of City Life/Vida Urbana in Jamaica Plain; Harry Smith, Director of Community Organizing at Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation; Allen Penniman and Maureen Flynn of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations; Darcie Boyer, Organizer & Planner for the Coalition for a Better Acre; and Lenore Azaroff, faculty member of the University of Massachusetts- Lowell’s School of Health and Environment, helped us facilitate the discussions on empty lots & abandoned buildings, housing costs, housing regulations, section 8, inclusionary zoning, transportation and homelessness.
We spent a full afternoon with exciting discussions, analysis and entertainment…
Now is the time to begin re-shaping our Affordable Housing Platform so we can launch our Citywide Affordable Housing Campaign.
Join us Saturday, November 19, 2005 @ 1:30PM and let’s make our housing crisis in Lowell history!
Housing is a Basic Human Right!
Call us at (978) 452-7523 Extensions (801 or 803)
Childcare will be provided.
Do Not Miss It!
Our world is rich enough to provide housing for all… No human being should be left out in the cold, under bridges, in the streets…
Let’s work together to provide housing for all!
I’m hoping to be able to make some of it and I hope you will join me!
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