August 25, 2016: Lack of life-cycle housing changes Belmont’s character

August 25, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Much has been written in recent times about the need to preserve the “character” of Belmont.  Even a quick ride around the Waverley Square area, or around the Grove Street Park neighborhood, reveals the disturbing trend toward massive newly-constructed housing units that tower over their neighbors and dwarf the homes that surround them.

In addition to these changes with the physical housing in Belmont, however, another equally fundamental threat to the character of Belmont is taking place at the same time. This threat, however, is less visible on a day-to-day basis and, as a result, has gained far less attention by Belmont’s policymakers.  People should take heed.

Belmont is increasingly becoming a community where a person cannot reasonably expect to live out their life, including when they are starting out and when they are aging.  The terminology used by community planners refers to “life-cycle housing.”

The lack of affordable housing certainly contributes to the failure to provide cradle-to-grave housing.  However, an exclusive focus on housing affordability diverts attention away from other factors affecting the supply (or lack thereof) of life-cycle housing.  Addressing the issue requires a consideration of housing types and numbers, not merely an examination of prices relative to income.

Belmont’s supply of rental housing, for example, is in sharp decline amongst our double-and triple-deckers.  In just the past fifteen years, the number of units rented in Belmont’s double-decker homes has declined by more than 20 percent; the number of rented triple-decker units declined by nearly one-quarter.  In 2013, Belmont had nearly 500 fewer rental housing units in two-family homes than existed in 2000, while there were nearly 200 fewer rental units in three-family homes.

The trend in decreasing rental housing is often associated with the increased conversion of two- and three-family homes to condominium units.  Each condo is individually sold, rather than the building as a whole being sold to a single buyer.  Each building that is converted to condos tends to eliminate a unit of rental housing.  Two owner-occupied units replace a one-owner/one-renter situation.

One impact of this decreasing supply of rental housing in Belmont’s double- and triple-deckers is the squeeze it places on Belmont’s aging population.  An older person in Belmont is no longer as able to live in a double-decker home, using the rent from the second unit to help subsidize the operating expenses, including property taxes, for the building as a whole.  If one of Belmont’s aging households no longer wants to live in a four-bedroom single family home, the supply of double-deckers, in which they historically might have lived in a smaller more manageable unit, while using the other as a source of income, is quite simply less available.

It’s also one reason that Belmont’s young adults cannot come back to Belmont to begin their careers.  Consider that the number of households age 34 and younger who rent in Belmont has declined by more than 30% just since the 2000 Census.  The number of Belmont households age 34 and younger, renter and owner combined, has declined by more than 20% in that same time period.

Belmont takes pride in preserving its “small town character.” One aspect of that community character, however, is the notion that one can be borne and grow old in their home town.  That character of Belmont is now slowly slipping away.  The character of Belmont inheres not solely in the physical structures that make up its housing stock, but in the people who live here.  Policymakers who assert their commitment to maintaining the character of our community should devote time to addressing our town’s small, and declining, supply of life-cycle housing.

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August 11, 2016: From mountain peak to music festival: Be here with us

Belmont Citizen-Herald: August 11, 2016

We huffed and we puffed and we finally made it to the top of Mount Royal, the peak located in the middle of Montreal.  While it’s hardly more than a small hill in the grand scheme of things, I had read, Montreal residents are justifiably proud of their local landmark.

In our trek to the top, we had decided to stay off the main path, and to take one of the trails that offered a bit more solitude from the busy city around us.  At times, the quiet could even let us imagine that we were not in the middle of one of Canada’s largest cities.  From the lookouts at the top, we could see a splendid panorama not only of the city, but of the port and the river beyond.  People stood at the iron railing click, click, clicking away on their phones and cameras.

Strangely, I thought of an experience I had had a few years ago in Belmont, and marveled at how those lessons can come back in the most unexpected of circumstances.  Our family was attending one of Belmont’s ecumenical Thanksgiving Eve services at the Payson Park Church.  Beth El Temple’s Rabbi Jonathan Kraus was speaking.  “I ask but one thing,” Rabbi Kraus urged the gathered attendees, “for you to be here. Don’t be still at your office where you left work undone before the holiday. Don’t be in your kitchen where tomorrow’s dinner is waiting. Be here with us for the next hour.”

As we stood there on the top of Mount Royal, I wondered how many of the people who stood with us were really there. How many were instead already on their Facebook page, thinking only about their next post? How many missed the grandeur of the vista by viewing it only through the viewfinder on their phone.  How many had an experience only to point and click?

We left the top of Mount Royal with not one picture, other than those imprinted in our memories of the experience. However, we did have a nice conversation with a couple to whom we were drawn by their ever so cute puppy.  We exchanged stories with a family about the differing routes we had taken to the top. We located destinations we had visited the day before, spread out in the city below us.

Which brings me back to that lesson I remember from Rabbi Kraus, taught far from the “mountain” we were standing on in Montreal. “Be here with us for the next hour” is really a profound statement of community, involving not merely a physical presence, but a sense of togetherness in the moment.  Belmont provides ample opportunities to contribute to, and be a part of, that sense of community. It’s one reason that my wife and I like so much to attend BHS basketball and soccer games.

Similarly, during the summer months, the Payson Park Music Festival is scheduled each Wednesday night to continue through the remainder of August.  The music festival provides an opportunity to put down the camera and leave the cell phone at home.  It allows people to be away from the work undone at the office, and the chores uncompleted at home.

I intend this writing not so much to be an “advertisement” for the Payson Park Music Festival. Rather, in this era where technology seems so frequently to isolate rather than to bring together, I simply note the opportunity provided by the music festival to gather as, and be a part of, the larger community.  “Be here with us for the next hour,” with all the meaning that sentence entails.