By Michael Weiskopf
On Aug. 17, the Somerville Community Land Trust held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at its first property acquisition at 7 Summer St. By maintaining community ownership of the property, the SCLT hopes to increase the availability of affordable housing in Somerville.
Community land trusts purchase properties like other developers, but instead of trying to flip properties for a profit, they hold onto the land and rent or sell the housing at affordable rates.
Mike Gintz, a founding board member of the SCLT, said that the land trust is addressing Somerville’s shortage of affordable housing.
“I think the shortage in Somerville isn’t housing, per se, it’s housing that anybody who isn’t super-rich can afford,” Gintz wrote in an email to the Daily.
State Sen. Patricia Jehlen, who represents Medford and Somerville, also expressed her concern about longtime Somerville residents being priced out of their homes.
“Many of the people [who have] lived here for their whole lives don’t have enough income to stay here as renters, and some of them are being priced out even as homeowners,” Jehlen said in an interview with the Daily. “But particularly renters are at risk of being priced out … Middle income families can’t afford to buy [and] can’t compete with the large corporations that buy and renovate and turn buildings into luxury condos.”
Some advocates also point to the fact that many Tufts students live off campus in Somerville as exacerbating the housing crisis in the city.
“Tufts has expanded its student body without providing enough housing,” Jehlen said. “That’s true of many universities, but it certainly has an impact in West Somerville on what’s available for other people to live [in].”
Ward 3 City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen says he does not believe Tufts students significantly impact the availability of affordable housing in Somerville.
“We’ve had Tufts students living in Somerville for decades,” Ewen-Campen said in an interview with the Daily. “I think that Tufts should build more affordable housing for all of its students. I think that would certainly help, but I don’t think we can place the blame individually like that.”
Gintz is optimistic about his organization’s ability to help alleviate the housing crisis in Somerville.
“What it means for us to be a community land trust is that when we acquire land, we remove it from the speculative market — and keep the rental or ownership units on that land affordable — forever,” Gintz wrote.
To ensure its housing stays affordable, the SCLT said that its board of directors will be two-thirds Somerville residents and one-third housing professionals or community leaders, so that members of the community have a majority vote in any decisions the land trust makes.
Ewen-Campen also emphasized the importance of removing properties from the speculative market.
“We are trying to take some of the land in Somerville off the speculative, for-profit real estate market and use it for the purpose of reasonably priced housing,” Ewen-Campen said. “The community land trust is a way to create affordable housing and make it available to working-class people in Somerville and keep that land permanently under community control, so that it can’t be sold out from under the people who live there.”
Gintz acknowledged that his organization is unlikely to single-handedly solve the Somerville housing crisis; rather, multiple strategies need to be used simultaneously.
“SCLT is just one organization of many who are working on this problem in Somerville, and part of our approach is also about fitting into this tapestry and augment the effectiveness of all the other groups in Somerville and Massachusetts who are advocating for housing as a human right,” Gintz wrote.
Jehlen agreed that the Somerville housing crisis requires a multifaceted response.
“Every bit helps, but [the SCLT is] certainly not the only solution,” Jehlen said. “It is a tiny part of the solution, but it can save individual properties from being permanently unaffordable.”
Ewen-Campen argued that state-level policy will also need to change in order to alleviate the housing crisis.
“I think there should be reasonable regulations on how much rent can be raised each year, and I think tenants should be able to stay in their home … Those are large-scale policy issues that will require changes in state law,” Ewen-Campen said. “So, Somerville is doing everything we can to push for those changes at the state level. But the land trust is a really important piece of that puzzle.”