View Mayor Ballantyne’s Mid-Term State of the City Address (January 3, 2023)
Exactly one year ago, I stood right here and shared my vision for how we’d work together to translate our progressive values into progress for all. Tonight, I’ll outline how we put that mission into practice this past year (...) ―Mayor Katjana Ballantyne
Good evening, everyone, and Happy New Year.
President Ewen-Campen, Vice President Pineda Neufeld, Chair Green, and Vice Chair Krepchin, honorable members of the City Council, honorable members of the School Committee, and our State Delegation, Chief Femino, Chief Breen, Superintendent Curley, honored guests, and friends: Thank you for being here tonight.
It’s so great to be able to gather with everyone here tonight while also including all those who are joining remotely.
To my family: Thank you for your enduring patience and support. I love you. And I’m a better Mayor because of you.
To the Veterans and Gold Star Families with us tonight or watching at home: Thank you for your service and your sacrifice. Thank you for protecting our freedoms and liberties.
To the employees of the City of Somerville: It can be nerve-wracking to work through a Mayoral transition. Thank you for welcoming me, for your partnership, and for your hard work from Day One. I am so impressed by your dedication, and I am proud to serve alongside you.
To the people of Somerville: Thank you for trusting me with the opportunity of a lifetime. I have to say – I really like the job. It’s been an honor to serve you, to be challenged by you, and to make this place we all care about even better.
Putting Progress for All into Action to Build Our Collective Future
Exactly one year ago, I stood right here and shared my vision for how we’d work together to translate our progressive values into progress for all.
Tonight, I’ll outline how we put that mission into practice this past year -- how we got straight to work, day in and day out, on building our collective future. A future where all – not just some – can thrive.
Whether that’s building systems, building relationships, or building capacity to address both our immediate needs and the global challenges that affect us here at home, we have been steadily taking action to move our city forward.
Meeting the Needs of the Pandemic
In my first weeks as Mayor, we faced some steep challenges. After two years of compounding COVID-19 impacts, I took office during a peak of the Omicron surge. It can be easy to forget what that was like.
Hospitalizations were spiking again. Residents were scrambling to find testing. Small businesses were struggling. Our most vulnerable, as throughout the pandemic, still faced the greatest barriers to access food, housing, employment, or good health.
Some people might call that trial by fire. But I saw it as a call to get straight to work.
We rapidly stood up new testing sites, launched weekly vaccination clinics, acquired 260,000 high-quality masks, and distributed more than 50,000 test kits.
We quickly added housing and outreach staff to help people access essential resources. We disbursed more than $2 million to help our small businesses, and sent staff door-to-door to get them directly tapped in.
As we’re very aware, COVID isn’t over. We know cases in our region are rising once again, and we continue to follow CDC guidance. We are evolving our health and recovery efforts to meet every new surge, including the current one.
And always, we search for gaps, asking who are were missing? Who is most in need?
Historic Opportunity: ARPA
We also had a unique, once-in-a-generation opportunity – a $77 million opportunity, thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act. With this remarkable source of funds, we could deliver rapid-response aid while also pursuing bold, longer-term initiatives to unravel deep inequities in our community.
Investing in Women and Girls: Child Care and Closing the Wage Gap
And we seized the chance to do just that. As a former executive at a nonprofit serving at-risk girls, and as a mother of two daughters, I know how critical it is to invest in girls and women.
So even before taking office as Mayor, with the former administration, I committed an unprecedented infusion of $7 million into local childcare programs.
Massachusetts families face some of the highest prices in the world for childcare – more than housing. More than college tuition. Low-income households bear a disproportionate burden, and our low-income households are overwhelmingly led by women of color.
This isn’t a new crisis. It’s just been disregarded for decades, and now it’s more urgent than ever. It’s time for governments to step up to the plate. When we invest in girls and women, we correct an injustice, and we improve our communities for everyone.
In December, I also committed $2 million to fund local nonprofit projects focused on closing the wage gap for women. It’s 2023, and women still earn $17 less for every $100 earned by men. The gap grows even bigger for mothers and women of color.
The gender wage gap threatens not only the economic security of Somerville women, but also their families and children. We must do better to break this cycle, and Somerville will do better with this vital step forward.
Universal Basic Income
This year, we’ll also take another critical step to address poverty. With ARPA funding, we will pilot universal basic income for the first time in Somerville. Universal basic income directly addresses the impacts of poverty. And poverty is stealing health, wellness, and opportunities from Somerville residents. Through this program, we’ll provide funds to eligible low-income residents to spend on needs they themselves identify.
There was a headline in The Washington Post last month that read, “Universal Basic Income Has Been Tested Repeatedly. It Works. Will America Ever Embrace It?” Well, I can tell you, Somerville is embracing universal basic income. We’re going to learn what works with this pilot, and we will chart a longer-term path from there.
My administration is ready to use every effective tool we can to keep Somerville affordable and equitable.
Commitment to Inclusive Government
Central to my administration is inclusive and transparent government. I am steadfast in my commitment to incorporating community voice in decision-making and seeking out diverse perspectives, especially those not typically heard at a public meeting or on social media.
Too many residents don’t feel included, or worse – feel dismissed. That really keeps me up at night. We can’t be content with the easy way.
Robust, diverse, meaningful engagement takes longer – absolutely. It gets complex. It requires that we all practice humility as we listen to one another. But we ultimately get better results because we find our shared purpose. We will always check in with the community as we find our path forward.
And there’s no bigger decision to be made than how we spend our money. That’s why we’re launching a participatory budgeting initiative -- another historic first for the city. This spring, we are giving residents a completely new way to engage in government and shape their own priorities. Through this initiative, residents will decide how to spend $1 million in City funds.
Likewise, I’m working with the Council and staff to be sure our larger budget process is transparent and responsive. As Somerville grows, it’s imperative that the community has a say in what our future looks like. We must create conditions not only to inform, not only to engage, but to do so meaningfully.
Language Access Capacity
In order to do that in a city as diverse as Somerville, we need robust resources for language access and accessibility.
This year, we’ll develop a five-year multilingual language access plan, which includes American Sign Language and Braille, and we will seek to partner with the Council to pursue a language justice ordinance to embed this commitment into everything we do.
Racial and Social Justice
These values are also at the core of our Racial and Social Justice work to dismantle systemic racism and create public safety for all. We’ve taken critical steps, driven by intensive community engagement with those most directly impacted, including residents who face racism daily and neighborhoods seeking to address crime and safety.
Specifically, that has meant gathering feedback from more than 1,000 community members for The Public Safety for All Survey, meeting with more than 50 local businesses, hosting hundreds of hours of Community Visioning Focus Group Sessions and events in seven languages, and knocking on hundreds of doors. I’m listening and knocking on doors too.
In addition to technical analyses, we are consulting with other cities and towns and experts, and we are gathering lived experience from individuals as empirical evidence. All of this will help our community to shape our policies on public safety models and civilian oversight.
And we are making progress:
- I’m proud to announce that our new Racial and Social Justice Youth League and our new Racial and Social Justice Community Engagement Ambassadors are ready to hit the pavement early this year to deepen this work.
- This winter, we will announce the impact areas that will be prioritized by the City’s first-ever Racial and Social Justice Fund, which was seeded with $750,000.
- The findings of the Police Staffing and Operations Report will also be shared this winter– a critical step to inform our efforts.
- In January, constituents will be able to apply for the Public Safety for All Task Force. With feedback collected from thousands of community members, the Task Force will work to reimagine policing and public safety in Somerville and generate policy recommendations.
- In February, our Racial and Social Justice Department will host opportunities for the community to learn about civilian oversight and to hear from expert panelists to help guide the future of Civilian Oversight in Somerville.
We won’t fix centuries of oppression overnight. It takes time to build inroads, to build trust, and to make a difference. But Somerville is staying the course. We are making sustainable progress. We are meeting people where they are, and together we will shape policies that promote widespread public safety, equity, and accessibility for all across Somerville.
Investing in Core Services
This is the work of building a better world. Of building our collective future on so many fronts. And in order to build well, we need the right tools. In Somerville, we pride ourselves on our ambitious goals, and we need a strong foundation to deliver on them.
That starts with City Hall. I was the first new Mayor in 18 years. With my professional experience in business, nonprofits, and government, I wanted to take stock of our finances and operations through those lenses to understand needs and chart a course for the future.
We are ensuring we have a strong foundation so we can do the basics better like road paving, park maintenance, or sewer service to improve our daily quality of life.
Our bond rating remains at its highest in City history, and I am working closely with our Finance team and the City Council through our budget process to continue this tradition of strong financial management and planning.
We must also be sure to attract and retain the best talent and crews because these are the people who directly serve you. So, we expanded our Human Resources department, established an internal task force for employees, and we are investing in and listening to our City workers more than ever before.
And we are taking a fresh look at all our processes, trying new things, and figuring out what works so we can do the essentials and do them well.
Whether it’s addressing rodent activity through our SMART Box pilot, or exploring new methods to install green infrastructure, or developing more robust protocols for setting up emergency shelters, we are gathering data, evaluating best practices, and holding ourselves to the highest standards.
Navigating Growth and Change to Benefit All
A strong foundation at City Hall also sets us up to effectively navigate the transformational change we’re experiencing across our city. The Somerville of today doesn’t always look like the Somerville of yesterday. This we well know.
The Green Line Extension
Perhaps most notably: We have five new T stops. We have a fully operational Green Line Extension coursing through Somerville. This is the part in the speech when we get to celebrate for a moment. After three decades of advocacy and hard work, the Green Line Extension is open and running!
Let’s have a round of applause for the many, many people who dreamed up, fought for, and then fought some more for the Green Line Extension!
The Green Line Extension and the Community Path Extension are transformational.
This was a fight for environmental and social justice and to create opportunity for all in Somerville.
I remember going to meetings long ago as advocates strategized on how to get the Green Line here. Those were the seeds. Those small conversations ultimately grew into a giant $2.3 billion investment in our community and region. And the new Green Line branch is now putting us on a solid path to a more equitable, prosperous, and sustainable future.
But the work is not done.
- We must double down on efforts to address displacement and gentrification.
- We must continue to work for broader transportation equity.
- We must push the T to rebuild public trust and hold them accountable.
- And we must open the doors that transit offers us to bring in new, good jobs and connect and prepare our youth and workers – all workers of every background – for those new opportunities.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue this work. But today, let's celebrate this important milestone. This is a long, hard-fought dream, realized.
Ensuring Transit-Oriented Development Supports Community Priorities
As a community, we planned for this moment for decades. We fought for the Green Line Extension because public transit is a public good. It also sets us up to accelerate our community goals through transit-oriented development.
Building dense, mixed-use neighborhoods close to public transit brings in new housing and tax-paying businesses. And new homes, jobs, and tax revenues are essential to making our region more affordable, more sustainable, and more equitable. Bringing in new business helps secure our city’s financial health and helps pay for our public services.
But I want to be clear: We are taking deliberate action to ensure our growth is truly benefiting our people and our local economy.
In the face of unrelenting market forces, we need bold action to combat displacement across the region.
Somerville is not an island; it’s estimated that Greater Boston needs 400,000 new housing units by 2040 to help ease housing prices and maintain needed economic growth.
So, we are pushing for regional action while we also pursue local policies aimed at making sure Somerville families, artists, nonprofits, and small businesses can stay and thrive here.
That starts with safe, stable housing. We are laser-focused on preserving and expanding our affordable housing stock, building more housing overall, and finding effective ways to combat displacement.
Expanding Affordable Housing
Right now, we have 500 units of permanently affordable housing actively in the pipeline, and we’re pursuing creative ways to acquire more units.
Last year, we allocated $8.3 million to the Somerville Affordable Housing Trust Fund to acquire land or properties for affordable housing, and the Somerville Community Land Trust celebrated its first acquisition.
Legislatively, we’ve built a statewide coalition to advocate for a real estate transfer fee, which could bring in up to $10 million annually dedicated to affordable housing.
Identifying Innovative Housing Stability Programs
And we are not letting up. We are identifying innovative programs to keep people in their homes, targeting resources to those who need it most, and exploring every avenue to fill the gaps in the system.
Case in point: our landmark Municipal Voucher Program. One of the first of its kind in the state, this new program will deliver essential rental aid to residents in crisis, predominantly low-income families with children, including immigrant families that are often not eligible for other supports.
During the pandemic, we kept our local eviction moratorium in place longer than any municipality in Massachusetts.
And when State-funded COVID resources wound down, we stepped up and created an innovative flexible assistance program for tenants and homeowners.
Research shows Somerville eviction rates have been far below the regional average and far below that of our neighbors. When we are bold and strategic, when we take the lead, we change lives for the better.
Call to Housing Action
And when we work together, when we cultivate a collective voice, we build power. So I am calling on the whole community to come together to be a part of a solution to housing instability.
Homeowners: When you sell, consider sales to nonprofit affordable housing developers.
Landlords: Look for voucher-holders, or reach out to the City before considering eviction. There are win/win solutions to stabilize both tenants and landlords.
To our incredible Somerville delegation at the State House: Continue to fight for legislative solutions so we have the tools we need to keep Somerville residents housed.
- We need Right to Counsel to help low-income tenants get legal support in housing court.
- We need the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act to give tenants and nonprofits the chance to purchase their buildings when they go up for sale.
- We need the HOMES Act to seal eviction records for thousands of tenants.
- We need a Real Estate Transfer Fee.
- And we need rent stabilization.
Let’s get these done for our community.
Artist and Cultural Space
In addition to keeping residents here in Somerville, we need to keep the creativity that we're known for. Artists and makers of all backgrounds and disciplines are core to the city’s character and economy. Our artists are part of who we are. And they are acutely vulnerable to displacement.
So, I visited artist studios across the city last year, and I heard loud and clear: We must create, preserve, and diversify affordable spaces for the arts.
So how do we move forward? We accelerate on-the-ground action while building out our long-term strategy.
Over the next four years, we’ll see nearly 300,000 square feet of Arts and Creative Enterprise space coming online. That didn’t happen on its own. That’s thanks to our planning and zoning requirements. Planning ahead again, this year we will also hire staff to focus solely on managing space needs for artists.
In parallel, we’re developing the City's first Cultural Capacity Plan to make the community’s creative portfolio stronger, more accessible, more sustainable, and more diverse. I call on the community to get involved.
Small Businesses and Nonprofits
And when we talk of displacement, we cannot forget the pressures on our small, independent local businesses and nonprofits. Both are vital to our community but rising rents can put them at risk.
In addition to supports, such as $9.5 million in COVID relief so far, as well as technical assistance programs and our new portal for nonprofits to apply for ARPA funding, we need new tools.
This year we will revive and expand our Fair Housing Task Force to serve as an anti-displacement task force for residents, businesses, nonprofits, and artists alike.
We are also already seeking new partners to assess affordability risks to our local businesses and to seek new strategies to help address this challenge.
As we realize the change we have long planned and hoped for, we must strive to ensure that the people and places who make us who we are can stay here and thrive.
Collective Care for Individual Health and Wellbeing
As we shape the Somerville of tomorrow, our shared values must anchor us through change.
For me, one thing that makes this city special is its commitment to care. To compassion.
I remember, about 25 years ago, when I was still fairly new to Somerville, I bumped into an acquaintance in Davis Square. We got to talking about local volunteer opportunities, and they mentioned how much this community values diversity.
That moment is forever embossed in my mind.
Back then, it was a different time. I’d never heard the word diversity as something to celebrate and to value. As an immigrant, growing up, my family and I were frequently ridiculed because of our differences, whether it was our accents, our food, or simply our culture.
But I remember thinking in that moment with my Somerville neighbor: This is a place where I could live. I hear this same sentiment today from new immigrants who tell me they stay here because Somerville cares—and we put that care into action.
We may, at times, disagree on details, but we are clear-eyed in our collective resolve: To improve the lives of others.
For one, we will always prioritize the health and wellbeing of all our residents. We care for the collective by attending to unique needs.
Engagement Center for Persons Experiencing Homelessness
Among those unique needs, we have residents experiencing homelessness, living in shelters or unsheltered on the street.
At the outset of the pandemic, social distancing needs forced emergency shelter programs in our region to serve far fewer people. The result was a steep increase in the number of people forced to live outside and sleep on the streets. The increase in Somerville, alone, has been consequential and ongoing. We must expand resources that meet their needs.
So how can we help? To start, I’m proud to announce that this winter, in partnership with the Somerville Homeless Coalition, we are opening an Engagement Center specifically to support unhoused residents.
This facility will be open during the day, when most shelters are not. It will allow clients to meet with service providers or use a range of essential resources like mail and internet. Clients will receive personal care items and other supplies.
The Engagement Center fills one important gap, but I've directed departments to work with our community partners to intensify additional efforts as well.
Our unhoused families, individuals, and Veterans deserve safety, dignity, services, and supports. They deserve access to shelter and pathways to new homes. In 2023, I will continue to marshal our collective resources to better serve those among us who are most in need.
A Supervised Consumption Site to Save Lives
This year, we’ll also advance our work to open a supervised consumption site – potentially the first in Massachusetts.
We typically lose at least 15 people annually to overdoses. Year after year, this heartbreaking loss grows larger. Haven’t we had enough? When there are tools available to save lives, we need to use them.
Supervised consumption sites are proven, evidence-based public health solutions. We’ve set aside $500,000 for a site here in Somerville.
We’ll continue to engage community members, neighbors, and people with lived experience as we move closer to choosing a location, and, most importantly, we will move forward together to save lives.
Fighting Repression Through Local Ordinances
It’s critical we keep this energy and put our progressive values into practice. In 2022, the nation saw a disturbing rise in hate crimes, hate speech, and repressive legislation. But as hateful policies and rhetoric find footholds with some, we will not sit idly by. I’m grateful to our City Council for their commitment to combatting hate and upholding the rights of our residents.
Targeting Crisis Pregnancy Centers
Reproductive rights are under attack in our nation’s highest court and across the country.
In response, the Council proposed and passed legislation that I was proud to sign. It targeted deceptive so-called crisis pregnancy centers and reaffirmed abortion as health care.
Protecting Access to Trans-Affirming Health Care
Last year, states across the country accelerated their onslaught against transgender people, filing more anti-trans legislation than ever before.
Here in Somerville, our Council proposed and passed an ordinance I proudly signed to protect the rights of individuals seeking gender-affirming and reproductive health care.
Let’s take a moment and recognize the Council for these two initiatives as well as all of the good work that they’ve done.
Another key piece of our collective wellbeing is street safety. Heading out for a walk, playing outside, or running an errand should never feel like your life is on the line. It’s unconscionable, and every day our city can decide whether to accept the status quo or to fight it. Under my Administration, we have chosen to fight.
Last year, we propelled our safe streets agenda forward, delivering long-awaited improvements to College Avenue and Holland Street, and we installed more speed bumps, curb extensions, and crossing islands than ever before to slow down drivers.
Our overall crash numbers are down, but there’s only one acceptable number: zero. And tragically, we’re not there yet. In August, we lost another community member to a crash. We will not accept traffic fatalities as inevitable.
This year, we are tripling the number of traffic-calming treatments going in across the city – that means new raised crosswalks, speed bumps, protected bike lanes, and more.
We’ll also get shovels in the ground to rebuild Pearl Street, prioritizing pedestrian safety at intersections in East Somerville and Winter Hill around schools, day cares, parks, and senior housing. And I’m happy to share we will also strengthen our safe routes to school near the Healey, Brown, and Argenziano schools, and the High School.
I understand that changes to our roadways and to parking can come with challenges. But job Number One is to save lives.
We have to address traffic volumes and speeds. Physical changes that slow down drivers are the only sustainable, durable solution to traffic dangers.
I call on the full community to work with us street by street, driver by driver, and person by person – I’m calling on each of you – let's together achieve Vision Zero by slowing down, staying alert, following the rules, and putting life first.
Our health as a community is tied to the health of our environment and our planet. The stark reality is that our future is not guaranteed. And we, as a municipality, have the power and the responsibility to take action to help curb climate change.
This is no longer some far-off crisis we’re buckling up for – it’s here. And it’s an emergency. Massachusetts is warming faster than other areas of the country. We don’t have time to be timid.
My first week in office as Mayor, I raised our carbon-neutral goals because we must meet the urgency of this moment. If I have anything to do with it, Somerville will be carbon-negative – not just carbon-neutral – by 2050.
And we put our money where our values are. Last June, we passed a budget with unprecedented investments in sustainability initiatives.
In the year ahead, we’ll update the Somerville Climate Forward plan to guide our work and to ensure it is informed by vulnerable residents, who are most likely to bear the brunt of climate change.
We are making progress:
- I’m happy to announce that this spring, we’ll break ground on the long-awaited Poplar Street Pump Station to reduce flooding citywide, reduce water pollution, and build resilience to the severe weather wrought by climate change.
- In 2023, we will launch the Clean Green program that will make energy efficient upgrades more affordable for eligible low- and moderate-income households.
- And with our State delegation and our City Council, we’ve sought approval from the Commonwealth to ban the use of fossil fuels in new construction. Nearly two-thirds of Somerville’s greenhouse gas emissions originate from buildings. We must decarbonize our building stock to make meaningful progress on our climate goals, and I look forward to working with our partners to get this done for our community.
Somerville is stepping up. We will do our part to address climate change.
Pollinator Action Plan
Step by step, we’re building a healthy, resilient future for ourselves and our ecosystem. This year we began work on our first-ever Pollinator Action Plan, which will guide us in supporting our threatened pollinators like bees, wasps, and butterflies. They’re essential to a functioning ecosystem, and they need our help.
This plan is the first of its kind for a city as densely populated as ours, and it will serve as a model for other communities to replicate.
In Somerville, we are ready to lead the way on protecting urban pollinators.
Historic Investment in Youth
Finally, there’s no future without our youth. Our young people will always be a priority for me and my administration, and right now, their needs are staggering. They have weathered so much in the past few years, and we know they need extra support around academics as well as mental health and wellness.
That’s why, in our first budget, we delivered a historic investment in our public schools – nearly double that of a typical year. Our 10% budget increase was the largest in Somerville Public Schools history and the largest in the state last year.
These funds support core learning, pay paraprofessionals a living wage, expand our special education services, and add more counselors and social workers.
This will help ensure that all youth in our city, particularly students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities, have access to a high-quality and well-rounded education.
As we take on a transparent search for a new superintendent, we are well-positioned under Dr. Curley’s leadership to support our students. We can’t build the Somerville of tomorrow without them. They are our future, and we will always make a strong investment in theirs.
Teen Centers & Rethinking Senior Programming
Supporting our young people goes far beyond schools. Outdoor spaces, too, must be expanded and revitalized.
The Healey play areas opened in 2022, and the field will open later this year. We’ll also rebuild schoolyards at the Brown and the West Somerville Neighborhood Schools this year. We’re delivering dynamic spaces for learning and recreation that also serve the community.
And this year, I’m thrilled to announce even more dedicated indoor spaces for teens in Somerville.
The community has been asking for a Teen Center for a very long time: a free indoor space where all teenagers can just hang out and be themselves.
Last year, we quickly set up two interim centers at the Edgerly and Powderhouse Park, where Somerville teens have found fun and welcoming spaces.
I have to admit, I was picturing a Teen Center at one central location, but once we hired youth consultants and discussed with teens themselves, it became clear we’d need to pivot.
They want multiple spaces, scattered across the city, within a 15-minute walk from anybody’s house. It’s more accessible and also safer for them after dark that way. They identified the need for different programming for middle schoolers and high schoolers. They advocated for youth employment opportunities at each location, and for food – good food to be specific.
And once again, they’ve shown us it’s important to listen to any group we aim to serve – rather than to make assumptions.
We’ve likewise been listening to seniors looking to expand our services to better meet different phases of senior life. This year, we’ll be looking into new approaches to senior wellness, learning, and connection.
A Productive Year Ahead
I’ve shared tonight just some of the concrete, tangible ways we are delivering on our progressive values and focusing on quality core services. I’ve shared how we are guiding that work by listening to you. We are putting the pieces in place and building our collective future.
When I think back to a year ago and the progress we’ve made, I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished. Again, I want to thank every City Councilor, our delegation, and all the workers in this room and across the city for helping me steer this City toward a vision of Progress for All.
And I want to thank you, our community members. You’ve met me at meetings, at events, on sidewalks, and you’ve engaged in this work wholeheartedly.
In a time when so much feels turbulent, when currents elsewhere are moving toward division, and when once-in-generation challenges face us, I am forever grateful to serve a community that holds steadfast to the common goal of progress for all.
We are doing the work of building a better Somerville. A better community, a better world. With our vision set, our tools readied, we have a productive year ahead – together.
Thank you, and goodnight.
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