Building a Better Brookline - July 26th, 2020

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This was the second public forum sponsored by Building a Better Brookline, titled "Elements of Successful Strategies. Held via video-conference.

Building a Better Brookline's first forum discussed how many areas are intertwined with housing affordability. We discussed the history of redlining. Redlining was a set of conscious choices, but we can make different ones. Brookline condoned racism through inaction. We'll need to move beyond 40B to provide housing choice. Residential developments have high parking minimums which increase cost and reduce tax revenue. Multi-family housing, commercial development and transportation are all related. Electrification of buildings will be necessary and our aging gas infrastructure will need updating. Achieving this goals will require multiple constituencies to work together.

Planning is an exercise of looking at the future, and understanding how you got to where you are.

(George Proakis, Somerville Office of Planning and Community Development) The green line will put 85% of Somerville within half a mile of transit. Somerville is largely dependent on residential taxes. Our mayor, Joe Curtatone is a co-chair of the Metropolitan Mayor's Coalition.

Somervision is the city's comprehensive plan. It was an opportunity to bring different communities together, develop value statements, and talk about how to achieve them. Small efforts allow you to improve things a little bit at a time.

Our process followed a model of outreach, dialog, design, and decide.

We focused on replacing older industrial areas that have outlived their useful lives, transit corridors, and future T stops.

Somerville has been working on a zoning overhaul. It's form-based, around the as-built characteristics of different areas. When you allow new development, you're able to ask for things to benefit the community, like inclusionary zoning, mobility, and sustainable development. Somerville had $10M in new tax growth this year, which offset the loss of meal and hotel tax revenue.

In summary, upzoning + value capture = new housing + benefits.

The state legislature is considering a housing choice bill that would lower the threshold for zoning changes that would allow more housing. The threshold would go from two-thirds to a simple majority.

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Question: if you want something different, you have to go about doing it differently. Was there anything unexpected that happened during this process?

Community members had different opinions on building height, etc. Some advocated for more height than we originally put into the plan. The union square plan has a fifty page introduction with a section on equity.

Question: what are Somerville's goals for low-income housing?

Somerville has 20% inclusionary zoning, with different income tiers. In 15 years, there's only been one case where the city took cash in lieu of affordable units. We're purchasing homes to make them permanently affordable. Ideally, we'd need 35% affordable housing, but it's hard to get there.

Question: Could Somerville's 100 homes project be a model for Brookline?

The hundred homes project required a lot of CPA funds, linkage fees from commercial projects, and an affordable housing trust fund. The 100 homes project targets housing where a rebuild wouldn't add units.

Question: How long has Somerville had linkage fees?

We've had linkage fees since the 1990s. We collect a fee on commercial developments over 30,000 square feet. This hasn't had a significant impact on commercial development.

Question: How did you assess the increase in the number of residents, and the infrastructure required to accommodate them?

Much of this work was done during our zoning overhaul, which was a seven-year project. It's also reflected in a series of neighborhood plans. We used Tax Increment Financing in union square. We also have a set of overlay districts that could be added to the zoning code.

(Janne Flisrand, Minneapolis) Ms. Flisrand played an active role in Minneapolis's Neighbors For More Neighbors campaign.

Neighbors for More Neighbors focused on revealing the invisible politics of exclusionary zoning. We need homes for everyone, at every income level. We need complete neighborhoods, that include businesses, walk-ability, and green spaces. The hard part is the politics of how to get it all done.

We focused on ending exclusionary zoning, and we had to daylight its racist history in order to build the will to address it.

Mapping Prejudice was a project that went through many property records in Minneapolis. We found 30,000 deeds with racial covenants and put them on map. When racial covenants were struck down by the courts, the city stepped in with exclusionary zoning. People generally don't realize that single-family zoning is exclusionary until you connect the dots for them.

We collected numerous stories of tenant hardship.

Minneapolis has a large racial disparity, which was used to frame many things in the 2040 master plan.

There was a campaign that opposed the removal of single-family zoning, and their supporters put out "Don't Bulldoze our City" signs. We mapped the location of these signs, and compared them to redline maps, and maps of property values. (Most of the signs were in areas with higher HOLC grades, and higher property values).

City staff were committed to ending segregation. They tried to get minority and marginalized groups involved in the planning process.

We turned out people to testify at public hearings, because the City Council needed a show of community support.

Building more housing prevents higher-wealth households from pushing out lower-wealth households.

Question: Was their anything in this product that you didn't expect?

The amount of passion in the city. People care about housing, but they don't always show up for it.

Question: Since ending single-family zoning, are you seeing changes in affordability?

We've spent 50 years building a housing shortage, and it will take time to build our way out of it. The zoning changes to allow triplexes were just passed this year.

Our 2020 rents are 13% lower than they were in 2019. This is not the case in our twin city of St. Paul. Minneapolis adds 3000--6000 homes/year. It took 20,000 new homes before we started seeing a shift in rents.

Question: How did you assess the impact of the build out?

Minneapolis used to have a population of over 500,000, so we have the infrastructure to handle it. We're building a high-frequency bus network. We have old stormwater infrastructure, and we're trying to capture more stormwater runoff onsite. We have to be smart about using the capacity we already have.

Question: Were there changes to minimum parking requirements?

In 2015, Minneapolis reduced parking requirements near transit stops, and the newer buildings had lower rents due to the lower parking requirements. And the buildings fit better into the surrounding neighborhood. They weren't surround by large parking lots. So yes, we reduced the minimums. Builders are better able to figure out what their parking needs are.

Question: How did landlords, developers, and businesses play a part in the discussion?

Some businesses engaged via the Chamber of Commerce. Our community development corporation tried to pull in more renter's voices. The main objectors were people holding onto land in the hope of developing it, and attorneys who were very familiar with the old laws.

Question: Could you talk about the importance of the community process? Did you find any best practices?

Talk about who wasn't in the room, and how we might be able to reach them -- that's your first event. Design processes to illustrate historic power imbalances. Engage with underrepresented groups first. Try to engage people in their native language.

Question: Has Minneapolis had tensions between YIMBYs and low income advocates? What kinds of contentious issues came up?

These kinds of conflicts were strong in California. There were concerns about tenants rights. We worked with tenant organizations. Just building housing isn't enough. If a low income neighborhood opposed a new building, we wouldn't support it. Affluence takes away choice. Focus on ending exclusion.

Building height and open space are contentious issues. To have both open space and housing, you need height. But there are can be objections to height. This can happen when someone proposes a four-story building next to a single family home. (i.e., one doesn't need a terribly tall building to raise concerns about height)

Contentious issues are often very specific. Focus on how the issue relates to values. Focus on providing stable, safe homes.

Some needs are more pressing than others. How we have the conversation is important, and will lead people to express themselves in different ways.

Question: Self-interest is an obstacle to change. Would you advocate a shaming strategy?

That's an interest strategy. First, be aware that you can't shame someone who has no shame. Some people are comfortable with being exclusionary. Ask yourself "How do I reduce harm, and uplift and dignify human beings".

Public hearings on housing can be a difficult place to put mid-level public sector employees.

Think about what will reduce harm the most. What strategies provide the most housing stability the fastest. Get people to notice things, and get them to show up.