Proposed Tenant Rights Legislation Would Ease Somerville’s Housing Affordability Crisis

State Representative Erika Uyterhoeven of Somerville recently filed a petition regarding Bill H.4208 before a joint committee of the Massachusetts General Court. The bill, one of several recent tenant opportunity to purchase laws, would allow Somerville to create a program where tenants of a property would have the opportunity to jointly purchase it before it was marketing. Uyterhoeven’s petition comes after an earlier version of the bill previously passed both houses but was vetoed by Governor Baker.

The TOPA legislation is becoming increasingly popular among tenant rights activists and lawmakers concerned about the housing affordability crisis. As housing prices continue to rise in Somerville and cities across the United States, it has become increasingly difficult for residents to obtain affordable housing and avoid eviction.

According to Uyterhoeven, the bill is a local option, meaning it must go through the state legislature for local governments like Somerville to have the choice and ability to pass it.

Councilman Ben Ewen-Campen, who represents Somerville’s Ward 3, described how the housing affordability crisis specifically affects Somerville, particularly communities of working-class, immigrant and senior residents.

“The vast majority of people who live in Somerville are renters,” Ewen-Campen said. “There is effectively no working-class person or family capable of buying a house in Somerville.”

Sam LaTronica, property manager for the Somerville Community Corporation, also noted that housing inaccessibility and gentrification disproportionately affect communities of color in Somerville.

“As this continues and existing triple stories are cut up and converted into condos, the people buying these condos tend to be affluent white people, and communities of color have fewer and fewer options,” he said. he declares.

Legislation such as TOPA seeks to give tenants first priority in purchasing the property they live in in case their landlord tries to sell it. TOPA laws would allow tenants to work with a third-party organization to help with financing.

Uyterhoeven also criticized real estate speculation as it impacts housing affordability. Many properties are being bought up by investors, causing house prices to spike and a large number of evictions.

“[Investors] are not part of … the reasons people choose to settle and live in Somerville,” Uyterhoeven said. “They’re not part of building this community, and that’s why people want to come and live here and stay here. And yet, they take advantage of it. »

Along with the TOPA legislation, Ewen-Campen stressed the importance of introducing other housing affordability policies, including the application of transfer fees, which take funds from large property sales and direct them to affordable housing.

“If you look at the price of housing in Somerville, it’s been going up one percent almost every month for several years,” he said. “So all we’re asking is that a very small part of this huge value that’s pouring into our real estate market be used to help people facing displacement.”

The TOPA legislation also comes with other work Somerville has done to increase housing affordability, such as CSC’s 100 Homes project. The program buys properties in Somerville and uses public funds to keep rent affordable for tenants. 103 properties have been purchased since the start of the project.

“This is an effort by the city to preserve some of the naturally existing affordable housing stock in Somerville,” LaTronica said. “Every time a property changes hands, it becomes more expensive…we need property owners to realize that if you’re going to sell it for that high amount, it’s not going to be affordable anymore.”

Ewen-Campen also highlighted the impact the upcoming MBTA Green Line extension would have on housing affordability in Somerville. The Green Line extension plans to provide improved infrastructure, employment access, and access to public transportation in the Greater Boston area. Ewen-Campen argues that this development comes at a cost to housing affordability.

“It’s a huge plus for the city that we get the Green Line,” he said. “But because we don’t have meaningful protections for tenants, we don’t have rent stabilization – it’s caused this massive run on real estate anywhere near the green line because you can rent or sell apartments or houses for much more.”

Both Ewen-Campen and Uyterhoeven cited misinformation as a barrier to TOPA and other housing affordability laws.

“We hear a lot of alarmism from the real estate industry,” Ewen-Campen said. “On a local level, when we were talking about transfer fees, there was a really unfortunate misinformation campaign from the local developer community where they were lying and basically spreading misinformation – especially to a lot of older people – on what this legislation would mean.”

Uyterhoeven pointed out that the TOPA legislation is intended to target larger-scale property transfers and likely wouldn’t impact the sale of single-family homes or owners with fewer than seven units.

“It’s really about leveling the playing field between speculators and renters, and frankly, even small landlords and landlords,” she said.

LaTronica also noted that Tufts students should be aware of their role as members of the Somerville community and how they can impact the housing economy.

“I think there can often be tension between students and existing communities,” he said. “Students live in a community for a short time, and people view them as uninvested, as transitory, as disrespectful to the community…just being aware of that and doing what you can to create space and maintain the space for long-time members of the community. .”

Uyterhoeven and Ewen-Campen recommended that those interested in joining the accessible housing movement check out resources such as Homes for All or City Life/Vida Urbana, community activist groups that advocate for housing and tenants’ rights.

“Because this requires statewide action, we really need to build a statewide coalition,” Ewen-Campen said. “These are issues that I think affect communities across the state. It’s just a matter of building political power and support.

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