Why are we so afraid to govern?
On inclusionary zoning, we have a choice between doing something or nothing
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The hits just do not stop coming! Just in the past week or so, we saw this…
…and then, earlier this year, there was this…
…and don’t forget this…
These are not the first—nor, surely, the last—glossy artist renderings of large, stand-alone “luxury” and/or “market rate” housing developments to splash across homepages of our local news sites. Where back in 2016, the similar announcement of 145 Front Street—an ur-figure of this type of development in the city—carried the symbolic weight of a harbinger, these sorts of proposals are increasingly routine. They’re also eerily similar, and not just in their size or bland design choices. They’re all funded by vague amalgamations of capital with befittingly vague names—“AKROS Development,” “Lundgren Equity Partners,” “Churchill James, LCC,” “WP East Acquisitions.” Public statements from officials representing these investment firms all reliably hit the same three notes: That the “Worcester Renaissance” (or some version of the term) brought them to town, that the project will address a “critical need” for more housing, and that the housing they’re providing is “market rate,” a term which deserves serious unpacking.
Take, for instance, this quote pulled from a statement by Zak Kiritsy of AKROS Development, regarding its proposed Fairway Beef development.
"As a proud son of Central Mass., this is a very special project for me, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the Worcester renaissance."
And this line from the Planning Board application submitted for the Mount Carmel project.
"(The development) will provide much-needed and in-demand market rate housing to support the city’s critical housing stock while improving the economic vitality of the neighborhood and the city."
The vast majority of new housing developments in the city take the form of these large, boxy complexes, which promise a luxury urban experience and come at a price the majority of Worcester renters cannot afford. In a May report, which may not even take into consideration some of the above projects, city officials outlined a remarkable disparity: While there are 1925 units of “market rate” apartments in the works, there are only 129 “affordable” units in the same pipeline. The housing coming online is overwhelmingly geared toward a more well-off customer, and while there’s a case to be made that new high-end housing might alleviate the squeeze on cheaper stock, it falls apart when the westward movement of people priced out of Boston is taken into consideration.
While I’m sure it’s good business for developers to publicly position their real estate investment as some sort of public service, we shouldn’t be under the illusion that such statements are anything but marketing. These housing complexes are merely investments and the only real responsibility the developers have is making a return on that investment. It’s a point that wouldn’t bear articulating if the developers weren’t claiming that they’re at all concerned with things like “the economic vitality of the neighborhood,” whatever they mean by that.
Put “economic vitality” next to “market rate” on the list of terms in the dialect of housing policy that warrant a deep cross examination. “Affordable” is the worst of them all. Housing is rife with words which become more hollow and deceptive the closer you inspect them. One effect (particularly vexing for what I’m currently trying to do with this thing you’re reading) is it becomes very hard to meaningfully write about this stuff. Making sense and/or holding the attention of normal people who don’t have to be fluent in this bizarre tongue can feel like a Sisyphean task. The conspiracy theorist in me tends to believe this is by design. The vocabulary itself is a buffer against reform.
So if I accurately described the demand The Worcester Together Affordable Housing Coalition made at a rally Wednesday—to alter a draft inclusionary zoning ordinance so that the required 10 percent of income-restricted units in new developments would be set to accommodate households making 60 percent of the area median income instead of 80 percent, as it’s currently written—it feels like I’m speaking in some sort of foreign language. The people who stand to gain from the status quo this language perpetuates are quite fluent—the developers, the hedge fund managers, the attorneys and the City Hall people who work with (for?) them. They know what I’m saying! On the other hand, the people who stand to lose—really, anyone who lives here and makes less than $100,000 a year—couldn’t be blamed for having no idea what any of that means. If you’re not a housing advocate or work in public policy or a weird nerd (me), why the hell would you bother to learn this impossibly boring language?
Smart policies that would have real popular appeal are thus buried behind a fog of inscrutability. It’s just so hard to craft a compelling message. So I suppose the best way to kick off my attempt at such a message is to quote the only person in history to come up with a good one: Jimmy McMillan, who famously said in no uncertain terms that the rent is just too damn high.
The rent is too damn high. That’s it. That’s the whole argument. Any housing policy measure which doesn’t stem from the basic moral argument that the rent is too goddamn high is bad policy. Conversely, policy that seeks to address the issue is good.
The current housing debate in Worcester, which will come to a head at the City Council meeting tomorrow night, is a simple one to understand within this context. Acting (?) City Manager Eric Batista is proposing a policy measure which claims to address the problem of rents being too damn high. It sounds nice. It looks nice. It’s got the word “inclusion” in the title (Trump voice: Inclusion, folks! We love it. We love the word! I say it often!). But in reality it won’t do anything at all. It’s what we like to call “toothless.” All gums. And it’s got no teeth because concern it might inconvenience the people making the rents go up (developers) have rendered it useless to low-income renters, the demographic which the policy claims to benefit, and the very thing that makes it inclusionary in the first place. I’ll get into the details (painfully dry but instructive of the real values of City Hall) later in the post.
Housing advocates want to see the policy tweaked so that it will do something—anything at all!—to help people who are being displaced and otherwise throwing an unsustainable share of their earnings into the roof over their head. No one is under any illusion this tweak will fix the ‘too damn high’ problem. We need to be doing a whole lot more. But it will be something. A start.
Passed as written, sans tweak, this policy will be worse than doing nothing. Not only will it be useless, it will provide cover. City Hall will be able to throw up its hands and say ‘we tried!’ when they didn’t really try. And the argument that more needs to be done, while just as correct as it was before, becomes harder to make.
So without getting into the nitty gritty, that’s the overall dynamic of the situation here. If you’ve been paying attention over the last year it should sound pretty familiar. We’ve been down this road before, and it’s not hard to envision how this is going to play out on Tuesday. The inclusionary zoning policy is likely to pass as written. The vote will be something like 8-3. The housing crisis will rage on unabated while City Hall claims to be “proactive on the issue” and “demonstrating leadership.” The people they actually care about, like developers, will be kept happy. People they’ve shown to not care about, like renters, will remain neglected in a worsening situation.
Meanwhile, Acting City Manager Eric Batista will eventually be given the full-time job without having proven himself against other candidates. Mayor Joe Petty will do what he said he wants to on Talk of the Commonwealth last week. He’ll get the votes he needs to hand Batista a fat contract and will succeed, yet again, in forgoing a national search for a city manager and instead make a purely political appointment. Then, it’ll be widely hailed as a good move. After all, as Candy Mero-Carlson said, the developers like Batista. And what could be more important than that?
Yep, this fledgling little progressive coalition we got going here, which put on the rally Wednesday to call for a better policy, is going to take it on the chin. Again. They will have made a stand against a bad policy and, short of some insane turn of events, lost. And then, when it’s inevitably on the agenda, they’ll make a stand against Batista’s appointment without the due diligence of a search, and they’ll probably lose that too.
But, like every other loss since January, there’s an important takeaway. Fighting for City Hall to do better exposes the forces, and the people, standing in the way. You put them in a position to show who they really are, who they really consider to be their stakeholders, and what they really value. Claims to the contrary can then be held against past actions. The mask slips off, an inch at a time.
In making this stand on inclusionary zoning, housing advocates have incidentally laid bare a huge change-preventing force: the prevailing attitude of city officials toward developers. Without having made the stand, we wouldn’t have been able to see it so clearly. And what we’re seeing is a cuckold level of subservience to developers, which calls to question whether they even believe they’re in control.
But that story is not an easy one to tell. In order to really show this cucked dynamic, we have to dive deep into the weeds of both housing policy and municipal government. Check for ticks!
The inclusionary zoning policy in question here was first proposed back in May by then-City Manager Ed Augustus. That such a policy hit a council agenda at all came as sort of a welcome surprise. City Hall hadn’t had much of a track record of taking the housing crisis all that seriously. It was an odd change of course.
The policy, as outlined by Augustus in a report to the city council, would require most new housing developments and some rehabilitation projects to set aside 10 percent of the units for apartments that would be “affordable.” As I mentioned earlier, “affordable” is an incredibly vague and tricky term when it comes to housing. In the context of the policy, the definition of “affordable” is tied to 80 percent of the area median income. These are numbers derived through an incredibly wonky process that I don’t think I could even explain, but nevertheless it is the metric which underpins this whole thing. In a report to the City Council, City Hall folks break it down by household size.
So, as an individual, you would qualify for one of these “affordable” apartments if you made $61,900 a year or less. The developer would be required to set rent at a price that’s reasonable for someone who makes that kind of dough. “Reasonable” means a maximum of 30 percent of income going toward rent. Thirty percent of $61,900 divided by 12 monthly rent payments is $1,547. Like I said, “affordable” is a wiggly term. A $1,500 apartment for one person is not “affordable” by any colloquial understanding of the word.
If it’s you and a roommate or spouse, the definition of “affordable” is then tied to $70,750 between the two of you. For two people making this sort of money between them, the “market rate” is only marginally out of reach. The 30 percent rule would cap rent for this household at $1,768 a month.
While rent for these apartments is tailored to the income of each household, by the 30 percent rule, they also can’t exceed the following “fair market” prices. Per the report:
If the policy was changed so that “affordable” was tied to 60 percent of the AMI, as housing advocates want, we’re getting a lot closer to the sort of person who stands to benefit from government intervention in the rental market. But it’s still not amazing. For a one-person household, rent would be capped at $1,161. For two, $1,326. Etc. These rents are at least under the “fair market” rates, if only slightly.
If you’re reading that and saying damn that wouldn’t really help me at all, welcome to the club. I live in a three-person household. At 80 percent AMI, the maximum they could charge is almost $200 more than we’re paying currently. At 60 percent, it’s only $100 cheaper. We’d probably do well enough between the three of us that we wouldn’t qualify, but even if we did, it wouldn’t be any more or less “affordable” than our current situation. And we’re fortunate enough that, for now, we’re paying a rent which is at least somewhat reasonable. But it’s going up every year.
There are plenty of households in Worcester in a worse situation than ours. Over 65 percent of the city’s renters, even measured by household, earn less than $50,000 a year, according to the Main South CDC.
For these households, which are the ones most at risk of displacement and most adversely affected by the housing crisis, this policy, even tweaked the way housing activists want, is a cold comfort.
Steve Teasdale, the executive director of the Main South CDC, articulated the situation quite clearly at the rally Wednesday morning.
“What does this really mean?” he asked after sketching the broad strokes of the policy. “Well, a policy that ties affordability to 80 percent of median income would allow developers in Worcester to charge up to $2,300 a month for an affordable three bedroom unit. That's not affordable to most families in Worcester. With an affordability requirement targeting households of 60 percent, this number would drop to $1,724 a month. That's still no giveaway.”
Still no giveaway is perhaps the best way of looking at the request these housing advocates are making. They want the city to change the inclusionary zoning policy so that it has a shot of marginally helping the residents who are in need of more affordable housing. And City Hall has staunchly refused to entertain it. Why is that, you think?
Well to answer that question, we have to go right to the source: the Worcester Chamber of Commerce, an organization which enjoys a freakish level of political influence around here. David Sullivan, the organization’s new Gúrzyul, Mouth of Sauron, appeared in the Telegram’s write-up of the housing press conference Wednesday, his comments standing alongside people who described the desperate situations the housing crisis has put them in.
As the Telegram is always happy to do, Sullivan was given equal time despite the story being about a rally which he did not attend. At several points, the story’s narrative structure even implied that Sullivan and Teasdale were engaged in a debate, but let’s not open that can of worms. This is what Sullivan said on the matter:
(Sullivan) said that, based on conversations with developers, an across-the-board 60% AMI threshold wouldn’t work.
“We’re supportive of inclusionary zoning, absolutely. We just want to make sure it happens in a smart way that doesn’t disincentivize development in the city.” … “If developers are dissuaded, they will go to another community and we will not see that housing…We need options and we need incentives. We don’t need deterrents.”
Translation: Developers are to be feared and pampered. We as a city government are but jesters in their court. Do anything they don’t care for, and it’s off with our heads.
Later in the story…
…Sullivan stressed a market-based solution to the affordable housing problem.
“We’re not denying an issue of housing affordability,” Sullivan said. “We need housing of all different types in order to increase the supply of housing which will decrease prices.”
Translation: Against all available evidence, trust that an unregulated market will sort this out.
And then this next line is just… come on. I’ve bolded the part that warrants bolding.
“We want inclusionary zoning but the policy can’t be self-defeating by dissuading development in Worcester,” Sullivan reiterated. “We just want to make sure it’s done in a way that involves the developer community because they’re the most important partner in this.”
Woah! Quiet part loud! Imagine saying the developers are the most important consideration in a story which also includes a Worcester resident who was put in a situation which nearly left him homeless? I get that the comment is in defense of free-market neoliberalism as a solution and not an overall value statement but the fact he didn’t check himself is in itself a value statement.
It’s no surprise that a spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce is willing to say “we should continue doing nothing as the problem worsens” because for his organization, it’s not a problem. It’s a good thing! The squeeze it's putting on more than half the city’s residents is just an unfortunate byproduct but hey what can you do? The free market is an orb to be pondered and its teachings cannot be challenged. To suggest otherwise is heresy.
The trouble is that this perspective is shared by the majority of the City Council, the City Manager’s Office, and the relevant City Hall divisions. Since before I was born and probably a lot longer than that, City Hall has operated on a philosophy that development should be pursued at all costs, that every development is a political victory to be celebrated, that every development of a certain size is to be hailed as a turning point for the city—Polar Park, the DCU Center, St. Vincent’s, CitySquare. All treated like panacea for the city’s ills because they were big and shiny. Post-Reagan free market thinking made all cities operate like this pretty much but the overall philosophy combined with Worcester’s general lack of self esteem made the idea of exercising any sort of authority over developers thoroughly unthinkable. As such, we never did any significant city planning, and our zoning codes haven’t been touched since like 1985. The people controlling city government have not used it to shape and manage the growth of the city but rather to facilitate any sort of growth that came along by whatever cost. Who are we to decide what goes where? And what if we lose it to Lowell? The city became a sandbox for developers who didn’t care what castle went where so long as they made their money back. And neither did City Hall, so long as there was something big and shiny to take photos in front of. That’s why downtown is so bizarrely hollow and weird. And with Batista taking over for Augustus the mentality is not going anywhere. He is a product of his environment as we all are.
Now, through nothing we did good or bad but just the mysteries of the market, we’re experiencing a development boom that desperately calls for a city government willing to intervene—to actually manage the growth by exercising authority over developers. To understand that growth has negative consequences and to then seek to use the power available to city government to alleviate them. But thinking like that makes you a radical around here.
An inclusionary zoning policy, even if it’s meaningful, is nearly useless if it’s not accompanied by a package of other changes, like zoning reform that fosters density, meaningful investment in low to middle income housing stock, long term planning with an actual vision that’s not written by developers (I see you, Worcester Now/Next), and public transportation options that foster the growth.
Something like the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund could be a useful tool, but we’ll have to wait and see how that money actually gets spent. Because there’s a good chance it all gets sucked up by the big developers who are making the problem worse. It’s worth noting that the inclusionary zoning policy as written will allow developers to pay into this fund instead of creating affordable units. ‘Payment-in-lieu’ is what we call it. So there’s huge potential for this fund to get quite slushy. A whole lot of money moving around and not a lot of affordable housing to show for it. Time will tell.
But for now, if we can’t even pass a meager affordable housing requirement without making it bullshit on purpose, it doesn’t inspire confidence we’ll be able to do anything about single family zoning, or our prohibitive building codes or anything at all that interferes with cars. It certainly doesn’t inspire confidence that the millions of dollars sitting in that trust fund will be put to good use and not slipped back into the hands of the developers we’re so hesitant to offend.
That Batista and the majority of the council appear to be incapable of budging on this one small thing out of fear it might cut into a developer’s expectation of windfall profit is a symptom of a large and deeply-ingrained failure of imagination and confidence here in this weird little city.
So with this draft ordinance on the council agenda Tuesday, we’re presented with two options: Do we change it so that it’s not functionally useless, and in doing so signal that we’re willing to just consider taking ownership of how our city grows? Or do we continue our long tradition of subservience to developers at all costs, and adopt something we know is useless just so we can lie about having tried to do something? Do we make an earnest attempt at real leadership? Or do we yet again press our face to the floor and call it a ceiling?
I mean, we know the answer already. Barring some wild course of events, we are going face-to-the-floor by an 8-3 vote. At least. And the debate leading up to the vote will be mind-erasingly stupid and petty. And then after it will be hailed as a significant policy decision. We’ll move on.
But if for nothing other than self respect, it’s worth dying on the hill of the first option—let the record show that at least some people called this feckless policy out for what it is and, if they had the votes, would have done something useful instead.
Thank you as always for reading! Please consider a paid subscription. I don’t paywall anything or do any gimmicks, I just ask nicely :-) It’s dumb but that’s what I do.
And don’t forget the Worcester Sucks merch store! If you ordered in the past couple weeks, I haven’t forgotten about you! Going in the mail this week.
Sam Barsky heads, check out what my good pal Chris Robarge got me over the weekend! Shana Tovah!
I maintain that Barsky’s 9/11 sweater post is in a class of its own.
Man that fire at Doherty was wild huh? I’m glad it seems the project wasn’t too adversely affected by it. While I’d like to say some Nightcrawler-style intuition led me to be “first on the scene” it was really an accident.
I was at That’s Entertainment picking up some books and I said you know what, let’s take the long way home and see how the new Doherty is shaping up. Why not. And shortly after the above video I hear the blaring sirens of what felt like a hundred fire trucks. And then going down Park I could see the fire over the Newtown Hill treeline and everyone in the city was just sort of gawking at that big cloud of smoke for an hour.
What a time! One thing’s for sure, I’m glad the cops have a drone now.
The City Council meeting on Tuesday is going to be a freakin doozy. There are like 30 petitions. Important reports on TIF policy, a racial equity audit, the urban forestry master plan, banning jet-skis on Indian Lake (and thereby ‘jet-ski people’ if you catch my drift), marijuana delivery, and the mismatched city council and school committee districts. There are also twenty or so orders from councilors, including Kate Toomey trying to figure out how to get cops back into schools and Petty deciding that the council should meet more than once a month, ostensibly so he has more time to give Batista the city manager job.
This is what happens when you don’t meet for months at a time. Bikeshedding at its finest.
As always, we’ll be covering it live on the Worcestery Council Theater 3000 twitch stream. 6 p.m. Tuesday. Come hang!
Unfortunately, the council meeting is overlapping with a super cool event that I would much rather go to.
Defend ATL Forest is an awesome organization doing righteous work in an extremely frustrating situation. Like imagine if the cops wanted to turn the Cascades and Boynton Park into a shooting gallery that only they can go to.
Funny enough my dad was in Atlanta this past week on business and he sent me a link to their website and also said via text “This is a black city that is being taken for a ride. Great college town. Artists. Music. About to be overrun by rich people looking for a cheap opportunity. Maybe the best route for the locals is to do what Gen. Sherman did. Burn the city down.”
Something to consider!
Real heads may know Street Fight Radio. They’re like The Stooges of low-effort leftist podcasting. The other week they riffed on my tweet about the cops stealing some guy’s valor. It starts at about the 30:45 mark and you can listen to it here.
Funny stuff. Love it.
More audio content of interest to a Worcester audience: the John Lurie interview on WTF With Marc Maron is great and full of little tidbits about his time in Worcester. The whole thing is worth a listen I think but the best moment is at 28 minutes in, when Lurie describes how he got his first saxophone. The story is absolutely bananas. Not only am I convinced it’s true, I’m convinced it’s something that could only happen in Worcester. I won’t spoil it, you’ll have to listen.
Oh and before I forget, there’s a line up there about pressing our faces to the floor and calling it a ceiling. I stole that from Dom Mallary, the late great Worcester poet and frontman of Last Lights. The line is in Last Light’s “Love and Rent,” which is still spooky good.
There must be something human still left in this being.
Lack of meaning is also a meaning.
Lack of feeling is also a feeling.
Don’t press my face to the floor and call it a ceiling.
I wouldn’t be the person I am without this guy’s writing. Rest in peace, Dom.