• By Dustin Luca Staff Writer
  • Mar 5, 2019

DUSTIN LUCA/Staff PhotoChristine Madore, a city councilor representing the city’s Ward 2, speaks with members of a group at Tuesday night’s housing forum.

DUSTIN LUCA/Staff PhotoJeanette Pantoja, a member of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, writes down feedback from a resident at a housing forum held in Salem Tuesday night.     

SALEM — Housing costs are climbing in a city where 50 percent of households are low-income. For every four households in the city, only one is affordable.

Those stats have put the Witch City on notice — its character is on the brink of taking a critical hit.

The housing problem, and pleas from residents, were the subject of a packed housing forum at the Community Life Center Tuesday night.

“We collectively, as a community, can come together. That means we’re going to need to think aggressively,” said city Mayor Kim Driscoll. “We want to shape what’s happening.”

The event saw Salem officials and members of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council take a crowd of a couple hundred residents through data to illustrate the housing crisis facing Salem. They then presented tools City Hall can use to address the issue and asked residents to weigh in on them.

“The city, and region as a whole, is facing what many are calling a housing crisis — skyrocketing housing costs, and that’s having a huge impact on our residents,” said Alexa Smith, a senior regional housing and land use planner with MAPC. “Since 2009, most communities in the Greater Boston area have seen at least 2 percent job growth, and many have seen upwards of 10 to 20 percent, and that’s great, but the downside means there are more workers.”

More workers aren’t an issue by itself. It becomes a problem when housing can’t keep up, according to Smith.

“We’re not producing homes fast enough to support the workers moving into this area,” Smith said. “More and more people compete for not enough housing.”

Salem is below averages in the area, but in a way that causes yet another problem to face: the median income in the city is $65,528 versus $74,167 state-wide, a difference of 13 percent. But housing prices are only marginally lower by comparison — 3 percent in fact, according to data shared at the meeting.

“Salem households are paying a larger differential of their incomes for housing costs,” Smith said. “These folks are overly cost-burdened by their housing costs.”

To meet demand and not allow Salem residents to get priced out of their community, 2,725 more units would be needed by 2030, Smith explained.

The meeting went over inclusionary zoning and a range of tools available to boost the city’s housing inventory. The crowd was broken up into 18 groups, including several setups of chairs arranged in circles.

Accessory dwelling units were one of the tools up for discussion. These are often known as “second units” or “in-law apartments,” and they’re generally built within homes to create a second unit.

Groups were mixed on the proposal, as they were on the others presented later. Pros included that it created “supplemental income for homeowners,” and it was a great way to keep seniors in the city once they retire.

Groups sharply pointed to short-term rentals like Airbnb as a massive problem for the idea. Others highlighted how the idea creates parking problems and increases the “perception of density but not reality.”

Residents were asked to dig into the idea of leveraging publicly owned land. Some groups saw that as a way for ensuring that new housing would be affordable, and that it would put “fallow” land to use.

On the con-side of the discussion, residents cited the loss of green space and how the idea represented selling the city off for one-time payments. One group drew stars around its statement, written in all caps: “SHOULD NOT BE SOLD TO MARKET RATE DEVELOPERS.”

The meeting also focused on a condominium conversion ordinance to turn apartments into condos and rental subsidies, thus basing rents on what a household can afford. They were then asked to vote for their two favorites via smartphone. The results of the poll were unclear at press time.

Up next: MROD’s second chance

The meeting came just a few days removed from the defeat of an affordable housing-building “municipal and religious overlay district” zoning package at the last regular City Council meeting. It sought to set up an overlay district that would allow currently and future vacant religious and city-owned buildings to be redeveloped into housing.

The package came a vote shy from passing, prompting an immediate move to reconsider the vote at next week’s City Council meeting.

That meeting will be held Thursday, March 14 in the City Council chambers at City Hal, 93 Washington St., at 7 p.m. 

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

“We’re not producing homes fast enough to support the workers moving into this area. More and more people compete for not enough housing.”

~ Alexa Smith, Senior Regional Planner for MAPC