Watch Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone's Jan. 7, 2019 Midterm Address
Good evening President Ballantyne, Vice President McLaughlin, Chair Normand and Vice Chair Ackman; honorable members of the Board of Aldermen--soon to be renamed the Somerville City Council; honorable members of the School Committee and our Somerville State Delegation, Superintendent Skipper; Chief Fallon, Chief Breen, honored guests, friends, family, and staff, and above all, Somerville residents. I also want to recognize my family, especially my wife, Nancy, and our four sons – Cosmo, Joey, Patrick, and James, who inspire and support me daily in my efforts to serve our city. I want to thank them for being there for me.
Finally, I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year.
2018 was a tumultuous year nationally, but a very productive one here locally. So I want to first thank the Board, our community leaders, our involved residents, our student leaders, and the city’s incredibly hard-working staff for the extraordinary efforts and progress we made on city goals together. I also want to thank you for the many ways we held to and stood up for our community values in the last year. The mid-term is a time when we take stock of the past year and look forward to everything we will do in the next. This year, I’m also going to focus on something just as important as what we do—I want to emphasize why we need to do the work we do.
A recent health issue reinforced something for me that we all know, but that gets forgotten: No matter who you are, how healthy you may be, how good you think you’ve got it, life is going to knock you back at some point.
It sure knocked me back recently.
Suddenly I was laid up in the hospital, dependent on strangers to take care of me. The good news is they did a fantastic job, not just with me, but with everyone there. Didn’t matter who you were in that hospital ward, they did their best by you. People of every stripe came in every day with every matter of concern all seeking the same thing—to get back on their feet again. And every day I saw doctors, nurses, and other staff treating everyone with the same care and compassion.
It’s humbling when you get to see, up close, an institution that’s truly dedicated to caring for all people, equally at their most vulnerable moment.
"Our mission is to improve our services—constantly, obsessively—to better serve our community —our whole community. "
What I want to stress tonight is that city government is also an institution that needs to be there for people at their most vulnerable moments. As we strive to run our city, deliver services, and maintain our infrastructure, we have residents in need of housing, food, jobs and dependable ways to move around. Franklin Roosevelt once said of the nation, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” Cities should be held to the same measure.
I could spend all day listing everything we already do to help people with this Board’s and the community’s support, but we should never just rest on our laurels. Our mission is to improve our services—constantly, obsessively—to better serve our community —our whole community.
That starts with housing. Last year I stood before you and unveiled 10 key strategies to address the local impacts of the housing crisis. Since then, we have created an Office of Housing Stability, re-launched our lead paint removal program, and reached the halfway mark on our 100 Homes goal. We’re setting up free legal support for tenants facing eviction, and we are establishing a universal waitlist for affordable units that gives priority to those in greatest danger of displacement.
We are also in the process of establishing an Advisory Board for the Office of Housing Stability to guarantee strong community input into the Office’s efforts to prevent displacement. In short, in 2019, we will establish an anti-displacement brain trust. Smart, committed people making sure we’ve got each other’s backs. I can’t think of anything more Somerville.
Production alone will not solve the housing crisis, but we cannot solve it without producing substantially more housing as a region. Therefore, I’m proud to say that as the co-chair of the Metro Mayors Regional Housing Task Force, I took a leadership role in bringing together 15 Greater Boston communities to commit to 185,000 new units of housing over the next decade. That is a mammoth step in terms of regional cooperation, and a testament to how much everyone is feeling the pain of this housing crisis. In every single city and town in the group, we’re hearing about how people are being crushed beneath the weight of runaway housing prices.
It’s not just us, and we’re no longer in this alone. But if we want to keep people in Somerville, we must increase housing locally.
"Simply put, if we are to protect housing in Somerville, we need to see it not as a commodity but rather as a human right—and we need the rules and regulations that back that up."
Last year, we added 707 total new housing units, including 98 affordable housing units. We also approved two new large-scale projects in Assembly Square that will bring us more than 500 new units including more than 100 new affordable units thanks to our 20% inclusionary ordinance. In many other cities that would be a decade’s worth of work. In Somerville, we will treat it simply as a start toward addressing a gargantuan problem.
This also starts with passing the right legislation. With this Board and the community, we’ve spent many late hours working to develop a real estate transfer fee to fund affordable housing.
I want to congratulate the Board for the fair and open process in developing that ordinance. If approved by the State, the transfer fee will protect owner occupants and target people looking to make a business out of housing in Somerville.
I am confident that, working together, we can also deliver a modernized condo conversion ordinance in the first half of 2019 that both respects the needs of owners and the rights of tenants. Without a new ordinance, we’ll see more landlords forcing out tenants. We must add protections, particularly for those most at risk, such as the elderly, people with disabilities and those with lower and moderate incomes.
Likewise, we must regulate short-term rentals, which drive up overall rental prices. The state just passed a law on this and we have already submitted a local ordinance to work in conjunction with it. I look forward to working with the Board to pass this in 2019.
That’s three key steps within our grasp that can have immediate and sweeping impact. We also need to move forward with the Community Land Trust, which would be able to buy property and designate it for permanent housing affordability.
We have a working group that’s spent the past year hammering out the nuts and bolts of how to establish and operate a community-based land trust. I want to thank them. That report is due any day now, and we need to be ready to act on it.
Simply put, if we are to protect housing in Somerville, we need to see it not as a commodity but rather as a human right—and we need the rules and regulations that back that up.
Which brings me to zoning. Passing the proposed zoning overhaul is the backbone of everything we’re doing to impact housing.
Through zoning, we can choose right now to move away from the NIMBY model that constrains housing supply and drives up prices. Through our proposed zoning, we can increase and incentivize a more diverse housing stock in our city. And through our zoning, we can provide our families, our seniors, our makers and artists, our younger households, and our most vulnerable all an authentic chance to remain here.
Our proposed zoning lays out ground rules for building a community for people, not cars, not sprawl. It is designed to enhance our quality of life, alleviate congestion, and promote healthy living. It reflects our values. This zoning achieves more than 100 of the nearly 600 goals set forth in SomerVision.
We can no longer afford to leave one of our best housing tools on the table. It is time to pass the zoning overhaul. Let’s get it done in 2019. Let’s commit that next year at this time, we’ll be celebrating that we passed it.
There’s no one magic solution to the housing crisis. Yet when you combine the Office of Housing Stability, the transfer fee, new zoning, an updated condo conversion ordinance, the brain trust and the community land trust, we will be able to help some of the most vulnerable people in our community in ways no other city in Massachusetts can match.
To continue our progress, we are also launching the first update to SomerVision, our community’s map for its future. The SomerVision plan was designed to be a living document that undergoes regular revision.
It’s time to re-engage our community, take new factors into account and make sure our goals best reflect where we are today. And the plan matters. We set lofty goals and we are making progress on them. We’ve seen more than 15 acres of new open space, almost 2,000 new housing units, and nearly 400 new affordable housing units. We’ve added more than 6,800 new jobs with another 735 anticipated in 2019.
The development and growth called for in SomerVision is generating new tax revenues from new sources faster than anticipated.
In Fiscal Year 2019 alone, we saw new commercial growth of $3.4 million in tax revenues. That’s more than double the previous year.
This is important.
Affordable housing, sewer projects, ADA accessibility, senior programs, roads, schools, opioid prevention--all of that costs money. When new buildings go up in Somerville and new businesses come in, we can more easily meet our needs and invest in our goals.
I know the pace of change can be jarring at times, but change has been pretty constant in the 52 years I’ve lived in Somerville. When I grew up it was people losing their jobs and moving away. New jobs coming in and money to help those in need is a much better place to be. Growth enables us to expand our ambitions and invest in all these things and more.
Like our schools. Our schools are where we directly serve our most vulnerable. We are a majority-minority district where two-thirds of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. One of the things I’m proudest of is that when the Great Recession hit a decade ago, we did not subject our children to an austerity regime like so many cities and towns around us.
Instead, we have maintained a historic and growing level of investment in our schools in recent years. It made a world of difference to thousands of children in Somerville, putting them on track for a lifetime of success.
Now that we are facing an uncertain national economic forecast for the upcoming year, I pledge our commitment to our schools will not waver. In fact, our investments will increase.
"At every level and in every school, we are striving for equity and building the necessary supports. We are constantly refining what a true student-centered education means."
For years we have been breaking new ground on what an urban school system can achieve. At the high school, we have an all-time low dropout rate and all-time high four-year graduation rate. We continue to increase support for our Next Wave/Full Circle program for children who traditionally fall through the cracks.
We have increased social service and immigration outreach for English language learners. For instance, our afterschool Enroot program now serves 60 ESL students with services that include tutoring, mentoring, internships and leadership development. We’ve established the SomerBaby program--reaching more than 200 families with newborns this year--to put children on the path for a healthy and successful start to kindergarten.
At every level and in every school, we are striving for equity and building the necessary supports. We are constantly refining what a true student-centered education means. Much of this focuses on early childhood development. Before- and after-school time is also key. We recognize that being truly ready to learn requires a holistic view of each and every child--and the community they live in.
The sad reality is we have students still facing fundamental challenges before they even crack open the first book. We have kids who still don’t get three full meals a day. We have families where parents are working more than one job far from home on long transit routes. We have underemployed parents who deserve better jobs. We have families worried that they will lose their homes. To give our students a true chance to succeed, we must address the challenges they face outside the classroom.
We already help in many ways. For example, we provide weekend and summer meals for children who otherwise might go hungry. But we also need to continue addressing fundamentals like job training and better transportation. We’re taking on these issues. In 2019 for one, we are intensifying and broadening job supports through numerous initiatives called for in our new Talent Equity Playbook. A good job and being able to spend more time with your family impacts your children.
Let’s strive to make sure every kid, family, and Somervillian has three healthy meals, easy access to open space, and stable housing.
I’m hearing about these issues directly from our city’s children. Our students are resilient. They overcome challenges every day that many of us have never had to face. On top of that they are speaking up for what’s right. We are seeing a new era of student involvement in public affairs, and it should be applauded. They’ve taken leadership roles in the March for Our Lives to protest gun violence, stood up for our immigrant community and been on the front lines of our efforts to address climate change.
The kids are more than all right. They’re fantastic.
They’ve got perhaps the highest stake of all in this community and they deserve a say on the direction we take. That’s why, working with the Clean and Open Elections Task Force and our student body, we’ve submitted a proposal to the Board to petition the state to extend the right to vote in our local elections to age 16 and up.
Our immigrant community also deserves that right. We all pay local taxes, either directly or via rent. We’re all working to make Somerville an exceptional place. We are all vested in our future together. If you’re a member of this community, you should have a voice.
Of course there are other pressures. Anyone who pays attention to the news knows we continue to receive dire reports about the vulnerability of our climate. We recently unveiled our community-driven Climate Forward plan, which commits us to stripping greenhouse gas emissions out of our city.
"Climate action cannot become yet another dividing line between the haves and have nots."
We are pooling solar energy, setting up programs to convert heating and cooling systems in rental buildings, and looking to distribute electric vehicle charging stations throughout the city. And we are keeping in mind that climate change will affect everyone, but it will not affect everyone equally.
The most affordable areas to live are usually the most susceptible to climate impacts, such as those prone to flooding or those that have been contaminated for years. Due to inequality and structural racism, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Climate action cannot become yet another dividing line between the haves and have nots.
It is our responsibility as contributors to this crisis to do everything we can to prevent climate change from getting worse. We have to do so in a way that makes Somerville more equitable and a better place to live.
Our focus on our environment must also continue to include our tree canopy and open space. Make no mistake, last year was a difficult one for trees in our city. From battling the emerald ash borer beetle, to the necessary removal of trees by the MBTA to make way for the Green Line and community path extensions, to needed removals to allow reconstruction of the high school, we lost many trees.
Together with the Board of Aldermen, we are gearing up to grow and protect our tree canopy through every part of Somerville. Their approval of another urban forestry position means that in 2019 we will double our capacity to keep our tree canopy growing and our existing trees healthy.
We’ve already intensified our efforts. The past few years, we planted more than 300 new trees annually. That’s more than double the pace of previous years, and we will only accelerate our work from here as we complete our new Urban Forest Management Plan in 2019. Meanwhile, we want to ensure the Green Line rail corridor is as green as the trains. In 2019, our staff will continue to work with the MBTA to ensure the corridor is planted and reforested to the greatest extent possible.
As for open space, 98% of Somerville residents are within walking distance of a park, but the quality of those parks matters. That’s why during my administration, we’ve renovated 75% of our City-owned parks - that’s 46 parks out of 61. We’ve struck agreements with developers or the State to renovate others. And in 2019, we will continue to invest in open space.
"People need to grow food, play sports, climb, play, slide and relax. Wildlife needs habitats. Pollinators need proper plant species. Our community needs stormwater management. Some people say cities can’t provide all of that. Our approach to open space is proving those people wrong."
Park upgrades are set to keep a steady pace, with Prospect Hill, the Allen St. Playground, and Foss Park, as well as other spaces coming up next. My administration has also committed to improving all of our outdated schoolyards.
We recently completed Winter Hill and Argenziano. The Healey, Brown, West Somerville Neighborhood School, and portions of the East Somerville Community School yard and Capuano field are next. We will also submit a funding request for the Somerville ArtFarm to move this project forward as a groundbreaking blend of arts and open space.
And to keep the momentum going, we just founded the Open Space Acquisition Task Force. In 2019, they will get to work identifying every opportunity to be greener.
People need to grow food, play sports, climb, play, slide and relax. Wildlife needs habitats. Pollinators need proper plant species. Our community needs stormwater management. Some people say cities can’t provide all of that. Our approach to open space is proving those people wrong.
In 2019 I look forward to working with the community and the Board to continue to expand our collective backyard.
We’re also going to make strides in improving how people get around this city. Great public transit connects workers to better jobs, and it also keeps the air cleaner for all of us. 35% of our city’s carbon footprint comes from motor vehicles. The GLX will change that radically when it comes online, but we can do more.
Every day, roughly 16,000 riders hop on a bus in Somerville. We have 15 bus routes that serve our residents, but MBTA buses are only on time about 60% of the time. We cannot pretend that our residents will elect to use the bus when they can’t rely on it. We cannot pretend that if the MBTA simply funded more buses or drivers that our bus service would improve. We must recognize that we own our streets and we as a community can prioritize this efficient, equitable, low-carbon mode of transportation.
So this year, we will launch dedicated bus lanes along Broadway in Winter Hill. Anywhere we can cut down bus times, we intend to do that.
We’re also ALL IN on Vision Zero, because in Somerville, safety comes first. We have committed to improving pedestrian and bicycle safety until we get to zero traffic deaths or serious injuries. That’s why we’ll continue to invest in protected bike lanes in key locations throughout the city, and install curb bump-outs and other traffic calming measures, making it safer to bike, walk, and cross our streets.
"We will continue acting as a bulwark to help our increasingly vulnerable immigrant residents."
Safety, of course, comes in many forms. So I’d like to note something truly remarkable. We’ve had a 58% drop in our crime rate over the past 30 years, and it continues to go down. Many factors play into this. But our outstanding police force and our commitment to community policing, which embodies the very best elements of public service, are central. Making sure everyone feels safe calling the police and stepping forward as witnesses also makes a difference, which is one reason why we must and will remain a Sanctuary City.
We will continue acting as a bulwark to help our increasingly vulnerable immigrant residents. Our SomerViva: Office of Immigrant Affairs and our intensive support system in the schools put immigrant residents in touch with needed services and pro bono legal counsel. Over the past two years the number of people SomerViva serves has doubled to 4,000, with the demand fueled by the federal government’s effort to drive out immigrants.
This work is happening amid the President’s non-stop efforts to equate immigrants with criminality. Those lies defy both statistical reality and common decency. Family separation and children dying in federal custody grab the headlines, but people are being singled out by nationality in our own backyard whether they are Haitian, Salvadoran, Syrian, or Vietnamese. It is a policy of ethnic eviction, and we will stand with our neighbors fighting to stay in their homes and keep their families intact. Again, I want to be clear about what our commitment is. We will stand up and fight for our values, our neighbors, our friends, and our children.
We stand with you.
We will also stand with another vulnerable group. Opioids are still an epidemic. Every year we hold a ceremony where we ring a bell for each of those we’ve lost to this terrible addiction, and it rings so many times it leaves your heart broken by the time it’s finished. The toll on our community is heartbreaking.
In 2019, we will intensify our outreach to those facing addiction. Police officers will be actively following up with overdose survivors to put them in touch with the services they need to put their lives back on track. We are training a new corps of recovery coaches in March. The reality is recovery extends far beyond detox, and we want people to have the support they need for the long haul.
We also need to make sure that the people who have profited from this pain are held accountable. So Somerville is also taking on Big Pharma. As promised, we will be filing a lawsuit against the manufacturers and distributors of opioids, to fight against the wave of addiction that has been killing people in our neighborhoods for far too long.
There is much I’m leaving unsaid tonight about other goals and accomplishments. There is so much more going on and so much to do. But if I leave you with one thing, it’s this.
There is no shortage of vulnerability in our city and no shortage of pressures on our people. We pledge to stand and deliver wherever we can, to be there for the people who need us most when they need us most, and thus serve all. I believe that the true success of a community is seen in how it treats its most vulnerable, and we are determined to make Somerville a shining model for all.
Thank you, and good night.
–Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone