Mark Niedergang Candidate for Ward 5 Alderman Responses 2013
1. Significant commercial and residential development is projected for Assembly Square; along the Green Line Corridor (including Union Square); and eventually for Inner Belt. What legislative or programmatic initiatives would you propose or support to ensure that a significant share of both construction and permanent jobs go to Somerville residents?
MN: Somerville should do everything it can to support local hiring. Last year, the Board of Aldermen considered a strong local hiring ordinance. While many aldermen voiced support, some expressed concern about constitutional issues and potential court action. The Mayor formed a committee to look into the issue and the BOA did not take action. The committee recently reported out and discussion and debate continues. The Mayor has proposed a linkage fee program under which developers would pay into a fund for job-training programs. I favor this although I do not think it goes far enough.
I would like Somerville to have a strong local hiring ordinance, but if it would not stand up to legal challenge, then, as an alternative, the City should develop a “Community Benefits” public-private partnership program for local hiring and job training. A Community Benefits package would be implemented through negotiation and agreement with large developers, such as Federal Realty Investment Trust in Assembly Square, and those who are their contractors or lessees. The City should use all the regulatory mechanisms at its disposal to put pressure on developers to hire Somerville residents and to provide job training for them through a Community Benefits agreement.
Experts like the Metropolitan Area Planning Council are projecting that thousands of new jobs will be created in Somerville as a result of public investment in Assembly Square, Innerbelt, and Union Square. Since developers and employers are benefitting from the investment of tens of millions of local tax dollars in transportation and other infrastructure, it is only reasonable to expect them to support efforts to ensure that Somerville workers get a decent percentage of the resulting construction and long-term jobs. The City needs to use every tool available to leverage developer/employer participation in job training programs, community benefits agreements, first source hiring agreements, and other strategies which ensure that Somerville residents will get their fair share of the jobs.
The City should explore partnerships with state and federal government-supported job-training organizations such as the Boston Private Industry Council and local workforce development organizations. It should work with employers to develop job training programs. The City should also advocate for developers to sign project labor agreements with construction trade unions. Since the City has a prevailing wage law, most jobs are likely to be union jobs, but it is in the interest of everyone to have union safety programs, high-quality work, benefit programs and apprenticeship programs for construction work in Somerville.
2. What should the city do to avoid or minimize displacement of residents and neighborhood businesses as Green Line expansions increases property values?
3. Generally, what should the city do to keep Somerville affordable for families of all income levels?
MN: I am going to respond to questions 2 & 3 together, as they both focus on one of the key questions for Somerville’s future: Who is going to be able to afford to live here in 10 or 20 years?
Somerville is diverse, both ethnically and socio-economically. It’s something many of us love about this community. One of my greatest concerns as someone who has lived here for 30 years is that our wonderful population mix will be lost as rents and home values continue to increase. Solving this problem will not be easy, even if the Green Line does not get extended beyond Union Square through the heart of the City in the near future.
Somerville’s escalating housing prices and diminishing economic diversity are driven by regional market forces that we cannot control or even influence. If we are serious about keeping our city a place for people of diverse incomes and cultures, we must permanently remove some portion of our housing stock from the inflationary market cycle. Any substantial affordable housing subsidy that comes from or through the city government should also come with a deed restriction that limits the amount of equity that a homeowner can accumulate, and therefore, the resale price of the home. With this restriction, even homes purchased at market prices today would become “affordable” over time.
There are a number of things the city government could do to create and protect as much affordable housing as possible:
Residential housing developers are making a fortune in Somerville. The City should increase the percentage of affordable units that developers need to provide from 12.5% to at least 15%.
Increase the condo conversion fee from $500 per unit to $5,000 per unit and deposit the funds in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund which supports affordable housing.
The City should expand its program of subsidizing loans to help low- and moderate-income homeowners of multi-unit properties to repair their older homes, in exchange for a commitment to maintain affordable rents.
The City should issue affordable housing bonds, using its tax-free status and strong bond rating to obtain a low interest rate. It would lend the proceeds from these bonds to developers of affordable housing, using prudent underwriting guidelines. Developers would repay, with interest.
We should place a substantial portion of the roughly $1 million a year that we will receive from the Community Preservation Act in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
The City should use linkage and other funds to help moderate income purchasers of multifamily housing who commit to keeping rental units in their building affordable. The longer the commitment to maintain affordable rents, the greater the funding support.
The City should work with local banks and affordable housing developers to implement a reverse mortgage program that enables owner occupant seniors to remain in their home for as long as they choose, in exchange for a deed provision restricting the property to protect its affordability. The program could also incorporate a home maintenance component to oversee repairs and routine maintenance which the senior might not be able to manage.
When City properties or land are sold, it should be considered a “highest and best use” to develop them as affordable housing.
Another important factor in the affordability of housing is a family’s income. As a family’s income increases, housing becomes more affordable. But Somerville has two residents for every job, while Cambridge and Boston have two jobs for every resident. The city must aggressively recruit job-creating businesses. And through its zoning authority, it must insist that developers meet the city’s needs rather than the reverse.
It is in all of our interest to expand employment opportunities in Somerville. Especially important are job training programs for Somerville's blue collar workers whose job skills aren't up to date, for our many immigrant residents who came with a great work ethic, but without much formal education or skills training, and for high school students who will need to support themselves before or while they are pursuing higher education. We can build on and expand the excellent programs in the Vocational and Technical Program at Somerville High School.
4. What changes, if any, do you think should be made in the way the city makes decisions about selling municipal properties/buildings?
MN: There is a perception that decisions of this type are made by the Mayor and his Administration in a top-down manner without sufficient public input. For example, many residents believe that the decision to sell the Powderhouse School was made without adequate community consultation. A public-engagement process such as “Somerville by Design,” now being used in regard to a proposed hotel in Davis Square, should be used when any significant City property is under consideration for sale. At least one public meeting about the property should be held in that neighborhood, and there should also be a public hearing. This should occur before the City issues an RFP with guidance for developers on what the highest and best use of the property should be, so the community’s input can be incorporated.
The current process requires that the Board of Aldermen (BOA) first designate the property or building for sale. Often the BOA will put a provision in place during the approval process that it be entitled to review the Mayor’s decision about how to dispose of the property or building with an up/down vote. It might make sense to pass an ordinance that would require BOA final approval of any sale.
In general, the City should be cautious about selling buildings and properties. Property will only become more valuable in Somerville in the years to come. If the population of the city continues to change and grow, we may need a new school or other facilities. Somerville also has a desperate need for more parks, community gardens and open space. Before any sale is made, the City should carefully assess how the future community benefit of holding onto the property compares with the likely sale price and property tax benefit associated with selling the property. If there's no compelling benefit to selling the property, we should keep it. Somerville (and other communities) have been burned by short-sighted decisions to sell property in the past, for example, selling the Western Junior High School (now the Tufts Administration Building) at the bottom of the market and then paying for decades to rent space for City offices in that same building.
5. What initiatives would you propose or support (e.g., Ordinance, Charter Reform) to make Somerville city government more transparent and accountable?
MN: Following the resignations of Ward 1 Alderman Bill Roche last December and Ward 5 Alderman Sean O’Donovan in April 2013, and of Ward 1 School Committee Member Maureen Bastardi in December (to take the Ward 1 Alderman seat), there was widespread outrage and debate about the tradition of allowing an outgoing elected official to nominate their successor.
I helped the School Committee to create and implement a transparent, inclusive, and public deliberative process to choose Ms. Bastardi's successor. I am pleased that the Board of Aldermen -- responding to public criticism of the process leading up to the appointment of Alderman O'Donovan's successor -- has now changed its rules to emulate the School Committee's process for filling a vacancy. However, several options that were discussed and seemed to have be good ideas and had significant public support cannot be implemented without a change in the City charter, which requires a vote by the BOA and a petition to the State Legislature for approval. There should be extensive discussion by the BOA about these possible changes with at least one public hearing.
This spring, two competing campaign finance reform ordinances were proposed by two different groups of Aldermen. I thought both of these proposals were good and would significantly improve transparency and provide obstacles for lobbyists, corporate executives and City employees who want to influence elected officials through large contributions to their campaign funds. I am not sure why these proposals have not been acted upon by the BOA, but one of them -- or a combination of them -- should be approved quickly.
The Board of Aldermen should have its own legal counsel and not rely upon the City Solicitor, who works for the Mayor. The School Committee has its own legal counsel from whom we receive reliable legal advice. The cost of retaining our own counsel is worth every penny because we get experienced, independent legal advice. Public employment law is extremely complex, and our expert counsel helps us avoid costly legal mistakes.
The City Auditor should also be independent of the Mayor’s Office, as is the case in the state government, where the Auditor does not work for the Governor.
City staff have made noble efforts to update portions of our zoning code, but it remains largely outdated and, in many cases, unclear, confusing, and sometimes contradictory. It needs to be overhauled to provide a 21st century road map for development in Somerville that is transparent, consistent, and conducive to accountability.
Finally, Somerville has what is often referred to as a “strong Mayor” form of government. While I believe most of the Somerville Mayors in the last 30 years have done a good job, I believe that the Mayoralty in Somerville has too much power. The Board of Aldermen are not a sufficient check and balance. Such an imbalance of power leaves too much room, for example, for patronage when it comes to filling City jobs and seats on Boards and Commissions, and for behind-the-scenes deal-making around development, permitting decisions, etc. While many of the abuses of a bygone era have been eliminated, there is a continuing need, I believe, for changes that establish a better balance between the power of the Mayor and that of the Aldermen. In particular, under the present Charter, the Aldermen have a minimal role in developing the City's annual budget – they can only cut funds, and not propose any expenditures, programs or staff positions. In the coming years, Charter reform is an important area for the Board of Aldermen to focus on, and if I am elected, I will do so.
6. If additional revenues were available, what one or two budget items would you recommend for increased spending? If revenue fell below the amount required for level funding, what one or two budget items would you propose to cut back?
MN: With additional revenues, I would increase spending on youth programs and provide funding for a staff position to help low-income residents, seniors, and people with disabilities obtain the assistance they need to overcome challenges that jeopardize their wellbeing and ability to remain in Somerville.
Teen Empowerment (TE) is a terrific organization that effectively serves as Somerville’s youth development program and has made a positive difference in the lives of thousands of Somerville youth over the past 10 years. Recently TE had to make cuts in their Somerville program due to state budget cuts. If additional revenues were available, I would prioritize funding to make up for these cuts.
In the 1990s, I worked under Mayor Mike Capuano in the Somerville Police Department and also in the Mayor’s Office of Human Services (MOHS), which no longer exists. At that time, there were two City staff at MOHS devoted to helping at-risk residents get government benefits and services and other help so that they could take care of themselves better. At least one of these positions should be reinstated as there are many people in Somerville who are struggling and can use help with referrals and advocacy.
If budget cuts are needed, I would first look to make cuts in non-essential City services, including the Mayor’s Communications Office. Secondarily, while there is no question that Somerville is cleaner and looking better than it has in years, I would explore trimming staffing and overtime spending at the Department of Public Works.
7. What are the top three issues in your Ward, and what will you do to address them, if elected?
MN: I have been doorknocking in Ward 5 since March 10th, and I have had conversations with hundreds of Ward 5 voters and residents. Here’s what I believe are the top issues in Ward 5:
A. Development and affordable housing -- See #8 below for my thoughts on development and see my response to #2 and #3 above for affordable housing.
B. Quality-of-life issues such as rats and parking issues
There are policy issues here which will require changes in ordinances, regulations or new laws. These issues also require repeated phone calls, Board orders, and other interventions with City departments to make sure that problems are resolved. I do not know the solution to the rodent problem, but the City should explore a different solution than what has been tried so far, such as the City providing all residents with stronger, more-secure garbage cans, as has been done in Medford. Parking is a perennial problem in a dense City like Somerville and always will be. However, I believe it is time to ease up on the strict enforcement that was initiated five years ago as a way of supplementing the City budget in hard times. We also need to re-examine the residential parking restrictions that now blanket almost all streets in the City. Exemptions around some business districts such as Magoun Square in Ward 5 should be considered and streets where parking is not a problem could also be exempted.
C. For older residents, City property taxes, which have risen substantially in recent years and are squeezing may retired people who live on fixed incomes. For younger residents, environmental issues such as bike lanes, the Community Path, parks and open space.
On property taxes, the City should grant additional tax relief if possible to low- and moderate-income seniors and reach out to all seniors who are homeowners to make sure they are taking advantage of all the exemptions to which they are entitled. Taxes have increased significantly in the past 10 years in Somerville. While they are still low in comparison to surrounding communities, Somerville has a large population of retirees who live off modest pensions or social security. Many of them are struggling to pay their taxes and to be able to afford to stay in the homes they have lived in for decades. Some of these seniors have vacant apartments in their houses or are renting apartments at well-below market prices. City staff should reach out to and work with these seniors to help them rent vacant apartments, maintain their properties, and to charge reasonable, affordable rents. This would increase their income and help them to pay taxes and other expenses and to remain in their homes.
On environmental issues, see #8 below.
8. What are your top three overall priorities and how will you take action on these priorities if elected?
MN: As a Ward Alderman, my top priority would be to respond to the concerns of my constituents and to help them solve problems and get the help and redress they need to deal with issues and problems they have.
Looking at the bigger picture and the BOA’s responsibility to shape policy, make laws and chart the future for the City, my top three priorities would be:
Priority #1: Protect our neighborhoods and manage development wisely so that it is good for residents and not just for the developers.
I believe this is the #1 issue for the future of Somerville. The decisions made during the next 10 years will shape Somerville for generations to come. The pattern of future real estate development is the meta-issue issue confronting Somerville because it influences and shapes every other issue—housing affordability, economic diversity, carbon emissions, living-wage jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities, neighborhood integrity, citizen empowerment, and whether we can pay for the city services that we desire.
In addition to housing affordability, our two greatest real estate development challenges are (1) expanding our commercial property tax base and (2) empowering residents to protect the integrity and livability of their neighborhoods.
Commercial property pays taxes at 166% the rate of residential property while residential property does not generate tax revenue to cover what the city must spend to deliver the services we all want. To make up the deficit, the city relies heavily on state aid, so that when the Commonwealth makes cuts, Somerville is forced to cut services and lay off workers, as it did in 2001 and during the great recession of 2008-2010.
Meanwhile, Boston and Cambridge made intense, focused, and successful efforts to increase their commercial property base through land transformations. As a result, Boston’s nonresidential property value per resident is three times that of Somerville’s, and Cambridge’s is five times. In Somerville, homeowners carry a tax burden that is more equitably shared by commercial property owners in its neighboring cities. This tax burden has become a particular hardship for older homeowners in recent years.
Commercial development in Assembly Square, Inner Belt, Brickbottom, Union Square and along the Green Line corridor holds the promise of righting the balance. Assembly Square is the most immediately marketable, because of its transportation infrastructure. But the city has allowed developers to dictate its zoning. The outcome is retail and high-end housing development, which minimally increases jobs and tax revenues while usurping prime land that could be used for higher value commercial development such as office space and research and development. An example of exactly what we should NOT be permitting in Assembly Square is the proposed one-story supermarket for the prime parcel formerly owned by IKEA that is next to the new Orange Line MBTA stop and near the waterfront.
Another outcome of our current zoning code is outsized developments that assault the character of neighborhoods and are forced upon residents, such as the one at 20 Linden Avenue in Ward 5. Neighbors’ heartfelt pleas and compelling evidence are ignored. An ambiguous and fragmented zoning code allows political appointees to make zoning decisions that enrich developers and trample upon neighbors. These developers’ political contributions and the political connections of the lawyers who represent them are well known and have been well-documented in articles in a number of different newspapers over the past few years.
Among potential solutions are the following:
• Rewrite the zoning ordinance so that it is consistent with the excellent Comprehensive Somervision Plan and so that it limits residential development while emphasizing commercial development.
• Stop enabling favored developers whose actions are harmful to residents’ best interests.
• Adopt an ordinance that requires identification by name of the owners of any development.
• Form a public-private task force to aggressively recruit commercial developers and tenants.
Priority #2: Develop a lot more affordable housing and good-paying jobs so that people who grow up here, work here, or are committed to Somerville as a community can afford to stay here. This would also help to preserve Somerville’s character and diversity. See my reply to Questions #2 and #3 above.
Priority #3: Enrich and protect our environment, add more parks, open space and community gardens, complete the Green Line and Community Path, reduce carbon emissions. While Somerville is a small place, we must set an example and do all we can on the signature issue of our times -- preventing global warming and climate change by reducing the City’s carbon footprint and energy use.
I will address this huge topic briefly by saying I will support the many positive initiatives that the Mayor and Board of Aldermen have already taken, and focus on a few additional areas in which the City could do more:
• Strengthen the City’s program to support insulation of homes to reduce heating and cooling energy use and costs.
• Improve the bikeability and walkability of Somerville so that fewer people need to own and use cars.
• Provide zoning incentives to developers to provide more open space and prohibit them from maximizing profits by using a huge percentage of a lot to build as many units as possible on.
• Reduce the size and number of City vehicles.
• Actively enforce the “No idling” law.
• Significantly increase the tree cover in the city, and maintain our existing trees better.
• Provide incentives for residents and businesses to “depave” i.e., get rid of asphalt and concrete and replace it with permeable surfaces. The City should lead the way in transforming school playgrounds and other properties it owns that are predominantly pavement.
9. What political or community activism accomplishments that you have achieved over the past two years make you most proud?
MN: In the past two years, I have used my position representing Ward 5 on the School Committee to help improve the education our children receive. After 15 years of steady decline, enrollment in the Somerville Public Schools (SPS) has begun to increase.
Over the past two years, due to increasing confidence by the Mayor and Board of Aldermen in our school system, the SPS budget has increased by over 13%, enabling improvements such as:
• Parent/Guardian Liaisons in each school. For five years I fought for the creation of these positions, and they have been and instant success in engaging more parents and guardians in their children’s education.
• Foreign language instruction beginning in 6th grade.
• Expanded music, art, sports, and after-school programs — without fees.
• Coaching and a focus on improving instruction for our teachers.
• Expansion of the pre-school SMILE Program for four-year-olds by three classrooms, adding an additional 60 students in this excellent and free program.
I am proud that I represent parents’ concerns about the SPS and about their children’s education to the School Committee and Superintendent and his administration. I have worked hard to create an open and transparent school budget process with many opportunities for public comment. I have helped to transform the School Committee into a strong, effective body that takes leadership on big-picture school issues and exercises its power over the budget and policy.
10. Which progressive candidates have you supported in the last five years?
MN: I have actively supported many of the candidates that PDS has endorsed over the past five years. On the local level, I worked for Marty Martinez in his three runs for Alderman, Katjana Ballantyne, Rebekah Gewirtz and Christine Rafal for School Committee. I have supported Bill White and Dennis Sullivan for Alderman at Large.
In state elections, I have supported Pat Jehlen and Dennis Provost for decades, since long before PDS existed, as well as Carl Sciortino and Deval Patrick. Over the past year, I worked a lot on the Elizabeth Warren campaign and helped a bit the Ed Markey U.S. Senate campaign.
I have worked closely and effectively with Mayor Joe Curtatone on the School Committee and I supported him the last time he had an opponent. I do have my differences of opinion with the Mayor, but I believe that on the whole, he has a progressive record, especially on social issues and managing the City budget. Outside of a few important areas (development, the lack of plans for future use of City property and buildings, and the political culture of his administration), I think he has done a fine job of leading the City. For example, in times of austerity, he has not cut programs, but rather provided leadership for tough political choices to keep the City in a strong financial position. He has also done a great job as a School Committee member, consistently supporting progressive initiatives in our schools.
11. What else about your candidacy makes you a logical choice for a progressive voter?
MN: I am a community activist by orientation and experience. I have strong relationships with a diverse range of community leaders and will work collaboratively with them. I am willing to fight for what I think is right.
I do my homework, work hard, and I am always prepared at meetings. I ask pointed and tough questions. Yet I go about my business in a way that is respectful of my colleagues and encourages them to share their ideas and to do their best work.
I respect the unions that represent our School and City employees and have consistently spoken up for fair treatment of them. I am a strong supporter of labor. My wife, Marya Axner, is the Director of the New England Jewish Labor Committee, and I have been involved in many organizing efforts for workers who are struggling for fair pay and treatment. I already have the endorsements of the Carpenters Union Local 218 and the Pile Drivers Union Local 56.
I have served on the Boards of many community organizations, including the Somerville Community Corporation, Eagle Eye Institute, and Congregation B’nai Brith, the synagogue on Central Street.
I am a passionate environmentalist and if I am elected to the BOA I will devote significant time to environmental issues. I am a member of many environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club, Mystic River Watershed Association, Friends of the Middlesex Fells, Somerville Garden Club.
I have the experience and relationships in Somerville to get things done and make change happen. As a consultant to non-profit organizations, I help organizations realize their missions and achieve their goals. I manage and develop projects, solve problems, and raise funds, all important skills for an elected official. I have served on the School Committee for 7 ½ years and I worked in the Mayor’s Office of Human Services and Somerville Police Department under Mayor Mike Capuano for four years in the 1990s.
I am a hard-working candidate and began planning this campaign in March 2012. PDS’s endorsement would not be wasted on my campaign: I will use it on my website and in my literature. I have the enormous good fortune to have a committed progressive and experienced Somerville community organizer, Mary Regan, as my Campaign Manager. Mary worked for many years as an organizer for the Somerville Community Corporation.