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The four contenders share their thoughts on the popular housing reform

Mayoral candidates Katjana Ballantyne, Mary Cassesso, Will Mbah, and William “Billy” Tauro explain their positions on rent control and how they would like to shape policies around this issue, if elected.

Katjana Ballantyne

We must use every tool available to confront the affordable housing crisis, including rent stabilization. I support lifting the state prohibition on rent control to enable municipalities to act locally to protect tenants. As mayor, I’ll continue my decades of work for affordability with renewed urgency.

I voted to create the Office of Housing Stability, and I will push to increase OHS funding. I’ll continue my enthusiastic support for the Community Preservation Act, the Somerville Affordable Housing Trust Fund, the Affordable Housing Overlay, the Inclusionary Zoning ordinance, the Condo Conversion ordinance, and the 2000 Homes program. Because federal, state, and regional support are insufficient, we need to do more.

As mayor, I will apply my experience in creating affordable housing. I have served as a volunteer and as the board president for Somerville Community Corporation, an affordable housing developer, during the development of several projects created to serve our community. I am also proud of the many years of work and advocacy I have completed on behalf of the residents of Clarendon Hill (state-subsidized public housing) to win their struggle for new, healthy, sustainable housing—including open space, and community amenities.

Presently, we need to extend the eviction moratorium, support families recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, create a tenants bill of rights, and more. We have accomplished much in the cause of affordability, and we have much more to do to make Somerville affordable. I know that with the right leadership, community process, and smart policy, we can make Somerville better for renters and owners alike. I am uniquely qualified by my inclusive leadership, and proven experience to lead us to an affordable Somerville where we can all thrive together.

Mary Cassesso

Somerville’s affordable housing shortage must be addressed with a multipronged approach, and rent control is one of several tools that can help. High rents have and continue to force our friends and neighbors to leave the city. Last year the state legislature was unsuccessful in obtaining passage of Bill H.3924. I support rent control, and the legislative process is the necessary first step. It’s critical to work to pass the current bill that will enable cities like Somerville to enact the appropriate ordinances to respond to housing rents for tenants and property owners for repairs and maintenance.

As mayor, I would use every tool available to counter our current imbalanced market that is forcing low-income and working people to leave Somerville because they can’t afford rent. It is important to mention that true rent control must be “need blind,” meaning it controls units on the market, not who gets to live there because there’s no income test. As we wait for the passage of the current bill, we need to keep moving and concurrently explore every other channel to create, protect and preserve affordable housing in order for us to remain a diverse and inclusive community.

This includes the 20% Inclusionary Zoning, new publicly subsidized affordable housing, utilizing Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, Section 8, and the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program. I will preserve long-standing “naturally occurring affordable housing” stock, and protect all existing community-owned, publicly subsidized, nonprofit, and expiring deed-restricted housing. To get the resources we need to invest in affordable housing, I will explore development incentive fees from market rate residential, energy efficiency grants, and continue to strongly support a transfer fee.

I worked to get the Community Preservation Act passed and have spent 30 years on the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. I will continue to utilize the Trust Fund’s important work and resources in Somerville. Affordable Housing has always been a top priority of mine, based on my lived experience growing up in a rented three-family in East Somerville to the present day. “

Will Mbah

We need rent control to ensure that Somerville’s working and middle class families are not displaced.

Rent control is the most effective tool to ensure that Somerville’s working and middle class families are not displaced. There is clearly a housing affordability crisis in Somerville right now, and it is quickly becoming a city that is unaffordable for working families, as far too many renters fall into rent-burdened or severely rent-burdened categories (paying more than 30 or 50% of their income in rent). Enacting rent control, when combined with a comprehensive approach to addressing housing affordability, can ensure that working families can stay in Somerville and not live in fear of being at the mercy of a hot housing market. While we create stability in the rental market for working families through rent control, we will enact bold programs to increase tenant protections and the stock of affordable housing.

I know first hand how hard it is to live in this city when you have to move year-after-year because of rising rents. When I moved here in 2011, I fell in love with this community, but I quickly learned how expensive it was to live here. I moved five times in six years and was even temporarily displaced because I repeatedly saw the cost of my rent increase. Housing is a human right, and nobody should have to deal with this constant threat of displacement. Unfortunately, many families have and will move out of Somerville as a result of having their rent repeatedly increased.

Some will argue that this housing crisis is one we can build our way out of: If we simply allow developers to build more apartments with little to no regulation, the cost of rent will decrease and become affordable to working class families. One only has to look at the skyrocketing rental prices that have resulted from this approach to know it is untrue. It is the same logic used by advocates of trickle-down economics and those who oppose increasing the minimum wage. New apartments are often purchased by people from outside of our community who have the means to pay a premium on rent.

Rent control will put a cap on the impact speculation is having on rising rents and protect Somerville’s middle and working class that is quickly being displaced. If we don’t act soon, families that have lived in Somerville for generations will be gone, forced to move because of the high cost of rent in our community.

William “Billy” Tauro

I am not for rent control, but instead I’m for making proper assessments. Let me begin by stating that I was very disappointed that the two current councilors Ballantyne and Mbah voted to downsize the availability of low-income housing from 20% down to 12% and were not called out on it. I believe that a number of factors have contributed to this disappointing rental issue. The overdevelopment, high taxes, and overcharging of permits has had major ramifications to renters desiring to occupy an apartment within the city limits within their budgets. Identifying the problem is only part of the solution. I intend on increasing the low-income developments to include a 25% cap. I will revamp the ISD [Inspectional Services Department] to be more user friendly and lower fees for homeowner projects. I will readdress and inspect the tax rates for sewer and water tax assessments of the correct fees. With these actions, a domino effect may be more appealing to homeowners. As a result of easing off the pressures of financial burdens, this may influence lowering of the rates. It should open up the door for low-income citizens to rent a more affordable residence. I will push for more affordable rentals by appealing to the common sense of financial strangling, and with hope, the rental market will be made more affordable for all.

Note: The Somerville Wire received the following message from Ballantyne’s campaign, on August 31, stating, “Councilor Ballantyne has not cast any vote to downsize the availability of low-income housing from 20% down to 12% during her seven and a half years on City Council.”

The Somerville Wire also received a message from the Mbah campaign on August 31, stating, “Mr. Mbah was not in office when FRIT received an affordable housing waiver and has never voted to downsize the availability of low-income housing. In fact, as a candidate for office in 2017, Mbah campaigned against the FRIT waiver that allowed the developer to get away with 12% inclusionary housing. Mbah testified publicly against the waiver granted to FRIT and circulated a petition in opposition to the waiver.”

This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service of the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.

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