February 12, 2015: Belmont 2040: Housing

February 12, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

“Housing diversity.”  It’s a hot-button issue in Belmont.  Some local officials in Belmont recently have sought to conjure up images of housing diversity as a threat to the character of our community.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Increasing housing diversity references the need to create work-force housing in Belmont.  An increased supply of work-force housing is critical to the long-term viability of both our state and local economies.

Consider the December 2014 report of the United States Chamber of Commerce. The CoC noted that improving access to housing “is one of the greatest ways to boost. . .economic growth in America. . .If housing were just about housing, the topic would be important enough. But it’s about more than that.”

The consequence of lacking adequate housing opportunities, according to the CoC, is that “highly productive cities [are] walled off from many of the people who are best able to contribute to the local economy.” “We could do a lot worse,” the CoC said, “than offering job creators and recent grads decent places to live that don’t suck up all their capital or force them into far-off communities.”

The CoC analysis reflects conclusions reached more locally by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC).  MAPC is the regional planning agency serving the 101 communities of Metro Boston. MAPC reported in 2014 that its planning region, which includes Belmont, will need to build 435,000 new homes by 2040.  Two-thirds of these, MAPC found, will need to be multi-family units (such as condominiums, townhouses and apartments).

The changing face of Massachusetts supports the creation of additional multi-family housing, MAPC found.  The state’s households, for example, are smaller today, decreasing from an average of 3.5 people in 1970 to 2.5 people today.  Even if a community’s population stays constant, MAPC said, its need for housing units will increase.

In addition, the population will become younger in the next 25 years.  In Belmont, more than 25% of all residents are age 55 or older.  Not only will those aging residents need smaller places to live (if they are to remain in town, while living independently), but their retirement from the workforce, MAPC noted, will deplete “the supply of our region’s most critical asset: a skilled, well-educated workforce.”  An adequate supply of quality affordable housing is essential to attracting new, younger workers.

To continue to attract that new work force, “a community not only has to be special, but it has to be attainable,” according to Don Ensign, one of the founders of the Design Workshop, an international urban planning firm.

Attainability can be measured by housing affordability.  An even more accurate measure of affordability, however, is “location affordability,” a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) metric combining both housing and transportation costs.  For a community to be affordable, HUD says, the combined cost of housing and transportation should not exceed 45% of income.  On average, Belmont’s current location affordability index is 53%.

Belmont residents can sit back and hope that the world won’t really be different in 2040.  We can insist that we like things the way they are right now, and that change represents a threat to our community’s character. Or Belmont residents can help contribute to the viability of our community’s future.

That doesn’t mean that Belmont must have large-scale dense development everywhere.  But to consistently oppose smaller, denser housing anywhere in Belmont is wrong.  We owe it to ourselves, to our children, and to our grandchildren to recognize the needs of maintaining a vibrant economy, and a vibrant community, not only in 2015, but in 2040 and beyond.

December 4, 2014: Income disparity in Belmont

December 4, 2014: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont has a large and growing disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom of the income ladder.  This according to local Census data published in late October.

According to 2013 data released by the Census Bureau, residents in the top five percent of income in Belmont have annual incomes more than 31 times greater than residents living in the bottom quintile.  Each “quintile” represents 20% (or one-fifth) of Belmont’s population.

The income inequality in Belmont is half again higher than the spread in Arlington, Watertown and Waltham, Belmont’s three neighboring communities.

Belmont’s income gap is fast increasing, with virtually the entire income growth in the past six years going to residents having the most with which to begin.  From 2007 to 2013, while the average annual income of households in the top quintile grew by nearly $120,000 (from $288,000 to $406,000), the average income of households in Belmont’s bottom quintile increased less than $800 (from $22,700 to $23,500).

The resulting problems do not turn on the level of poverty in a community, but rather on the gap between the “top” and the “bottom” and on the absence of a “middle.”  In Belmont today, 52% of all income flowing into the town goes to the one-fifth of residents with the highest incomes, while only 3% goes to residents in the bottom fifth. Indeed, Belmont residents in the bottom two quintiles combined (40% of Belmont’s total population) receive only 11% of all income coming into the town.

Income inequality has long been of concern to urban planners. The Metropolitan Planning Council in the Twin Cities (MN), for example, reported in March 2014 that large disparities are unhealthy for a community in several ways.  Concentrating income in a small uber rich population base creates a consumer spending base that is too narrow.  As a result, small local businesses are difficult to maintain. Local business districts often have empty store fronts.

Just as the consumer base becomes too narrow, the tax base becomes too limited as well.  Financially supporting basic municipal services such as education, public safety and road maintenance imposes unsustainable tax burdens on many people.  Tax burdens become problematic no matter how necessary or reasonably-priced the municipal services might be.  Objections to local taxes, whether to reduce class sizes in schools or to repair roads, are largely grounded in the lack of a middle class that can afford to pay for those services.

Specific steps can be taken to address local income disparities, even in a community as small as Belmont. Local employment opportunities are necessary.  Easing the unreasonable permitting review for new and expanded retail business would not just be good economic development policy for our Squares. It would also help create middle-income local jobs.

Allowing greater housing diversity is also needed to address Belmont’s burgeoning income gap.  “Housing diversity” does not simply mean low-income housing for the economically disadvantaged.  Belmont’s planning officials need to end their antipathy toward two-family homes and town houses, both of which provide affordable local homeownership opportunities for the middle class.

Providing services to keep middle-class post-high school families is necessary.  Services such as a strong library and vibrant recreation opportunities help keep people in town even after their kids graduate from Belmont High.

The disappearing middle class is not just a national phenomenon.  The recent Census release shows that it is also a trend affecting Belmont.  Whether you have an interest in your child’s school, or in the condition of your neighborhood streets, or in the vitality of your neighborhood business district, you should also have an interest in addressing Belmont’s income gap.

August 28, 2014: Belmont needs to be more affordable

August 28, 2014: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Fifty years ago last week, on August 20, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law.

The President declared that the law would “help our people find their footing for a long climb toward a better way of life.”  LBJ stated that “in helping others, all of us will really be helping ourselves.”

In enacting this legislation, Democrats and Republicans, both, joined America’s War on Poverty declared by the President just months earlier, in his January 1964 State of the Union address. Fifty years later, it is appropriate to reflect upon how that effort has played out in our own local community.

One important first step in this reflection is to acknowledge the extent of economic hardship in Belmont.  More than 1,400 Belmont residents today, young and old, live with an annual income below the Federal Poverty Level.  One-quarter of these residents are Belmont kids under the age of 18; another one-in-five are Belmont seniors age 65 or older.

A discussion of poverty, however, does not reveal the complete story of economic hardship in Belmont.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) calculates a living wage for all Massachusetts communities.  A living wage is that income needed for a basic standard of living without outside assistance.

In Belmont, MIT reports, a living wage for a household with one parent and one child is $25.94/hour ($53,961/year).  A two-parent family with one child needs a wage of $20.99/hour ($43,699/year), while a two-person household with no children (which covers most of Belmont’s aging population) requires $17.33/hour ($36,050/year). These living wages are between three and four times higher than a Poverty Level income.  More than 4,900 Belmont residents –one-fifth of our community– live with income below 300% of Poverty.

Belmont is a generous community in supporting local residents who may be facing financial hard times.  The Belmont Food Pantry offers free assistance with groceries.  The Belmont Affordable Shelter Fund offers emergency assistance for housing-related crises.  The Town offers property tax breaks for those who need them.  Belmont Light offers discounted electricity rates for those in financial need.

And, yet, these initiatives do not fully address the aspirations that LBJ so eloquently expressed in 1964.  Addressing the short-term financial crises facing our neighbors isn’t quite the same as providing “the answer of opportunity” that the President discussed.

While the War on Poverty declared by President Johnson cannot be won by local government actions, local government actions are needed to support any progress that might be made.  Actions to support economic opportunity need not originate in Washington.

  • Belmont needs to be wary of the lack of welcomeness toward affordable two- and three-family homes, whether expressed explicitly or inherent in a lack of attention to disproportionate burdens imposed on persons not living in single-family homes.
  • Belmont should fully fund its education system, so that “activity fees” will not pose barriers to participation in fundamental educational activities such as theatre, athletics and music.
  • Belmont should continue efforts to ensure that it is a bike-able, walk-able community, allowing residents to avoid a necessary reliance upon expensive single-occupancy automobile trips for basic household needs such as shopping and medical attention.
  • Belmont should provide a range of housing opportunities, serving the needs of residents in all stages of the life-cycle, from the young to the old.

On the 50th anniversary of our national commitment to economic opportunity, we should not merely celebrate that commitment, but we should renew that commitment both individually and collectively through local public policy.

July 31, 2014: How Belmont can lower electric bills

July 31, 2014: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Sky high. The temperature on a hot New England summer day.

Even more sky high. The electricity prices that accompany those hot New England summer days.

Under the leadership of former Selectman Ralph Jones, Belmont Light, our local municipal utility, recently moved forward with constructing a new electric substation. That construction will ensure Belmont Light’s ability to reliably deliver the highest levels of electricity used by Belmont residents each summer (called “peak demand”).

The new substation, however, addresses only part of the problem. What still needs to be addressed is the high cost of our electricity supplies caused by Belmont’s summer electricity usage.

As usage increases on very hot summer days, the cost of producing electricity increases as well. Wholesale electricity prices at times of peak demand are substantially higher than at other times. Belmont Light must then pass-on those costs in higher rates to customers. In addition to being the most expensive, the electric generating stations used to meet peak demand on very hot days are the dirtiest as well. Hot summer temperatures also increase the immediate public health dangers posed by air pollution.

Belmont is in an enviable position to address both the cost, and the environmental degradation, associated with high electric use. We run our own municipal electric utility, with Belmont Light under the direction of our Town’s Board of Selectmen.

Using that local oversight, Belmont Light has programs available to it, should it choose to pursue them, to reduce the adverse impacts caused by high summer electricity usage. One such program that Belmont Light could and should implement involves a simple technology called Direct Load Control.

Under such a program, Belmont Light would install a small radio transmitter on a customer’s central air conditioning system. On the hottest summer days, Belmont Light could reduce its peak demand, lower costs, and reduce air pollution emissions, by cycling residential air conditioning off.

The most common Direct Load Control program involves cycling air conditioning off for 12 to 15 minutes per half hour during a four to six hour period on the hottest summer afternoons. Even while the air conditioning is off, however, the fan remains on. Most customers don’t even realize their air conditioner has been off for a few minutes.

Participation in such a program is purely voluntary. In fact, the benefits are so great, utilities pay customers to participate. Payments range from $5 – $20 a month for the summer months (June – September). Payments are made whether or not the utility needs to control its load in any particular summer month.

Utilities large and small use Direct Load Control programs. Utilities offering such programs range from very large companies such as Consolidated Edison (New York City), Commonwealth Edison (Chicago), and PECO Energy (Philadelphia), to 33 small electric cooperatives serving rural Indiana.

Indeed, one of the first utilities to offer Direct Load Control was an Oregon municipal utility much like Belmont Light. The Milton-Freewater municipal utility, which began its Direct Load Control program in 1985, serves just over 4,500 customers, about half the size of Belmont Light,.

Operating its own municipal utility gives Belmont the ability to pursue initiatives delivering benefits to the local community. Direct Load Control is one such initiative. It is a proven technology. It is both simple and inexpensive. It offers rate rebates to program participants, and reduced rates to all Belmont ratepayers. It produces distinct environmental benefits.

Belmont Light will soon begin planning its 2016 energy efficiency programs. Through that process, the Board of Selectmen should approve the roll-out of a Direct Load Control program for the Summer of 2016.

June 19, 2014: Is “Town of Homes” image real?

Belmont Citizen Herald: June 19, 2014

A Town of Homes.  How many times have you heard that description applied to Belmont?  What image does that phrase conjure up in your mind?

Too frequently, the image conveyed is of a community of single-family detached homes.  That image is wrong.  In Belmont, out of roughly 9,600 housing units, nearly 3,200 are two-family units.  Another 950 are three- and four-family units, though the count of triple-deckers is not separately tracked by the Census Bureau.

If the error was only one of image, perhaps it would not make much difference in the real world.  Unfortunately, however, public policy is too often developed based on that erroneous image.  And it is costing people real money.

One such problem lies in Belmont’s water rates.  Belmont has what is called an “inclining block rate structure” for its water rates.  That phrase says that the price people are charged for water increases as their water usage increases.  Belmont customers pay $5.68 per hundred cubic feet (CCF) for the first 30 CCF of water used, and pay $6.53 per CCF for all consumption over 30 CCF.  The average Belmont household consumes about 20 CCF of water per month.

In many ways, the inclining block rate makes sense.  Increasing the price of water as usage goes up gives people an economic incentive to conserve.  If reducing your water consumption will lower the price you pay, people will more likely engage in reasonable water conservation efforts (e.g., not running the faucet while brushing teeth; fixing running toilets and dripping faucets).

Using the inclining block rate to promote water conservation, however, does not make sense when applied to a double- or triple-decker home.  In Belmont, most double- and triple-decker homes are on one meter and receive only one bill for the entire house rather than having a separate meter for each unit in the house. As a result, each bill is based on the combined usage of multiple families rather than on the individual usage of each separate housing unit.

When the inclining block rate is applied to these homes, therefore, the higher rate is triggered almost automatically, not because the families are high users, but rather because the usage of two (or more) families is being added together before the higher price is applied.  That’s not fair.

The solution to the immediate inequity is simple.  I am currently working as a consultant in an electric rate case in Minnesota, proposing an inclining block rate for Xcel Energy, a large multi-state electric utility. To avoid inequities to multi-unit buildings, we have recommended that Xcel follow the lead of Minnesota Power, its sister utility, in increasing the first block of usage in proportion to the number of units in a home when a multi-family unit is served with one meter.

In Belmont, that would mean simply that where the town serves a double-decker with one meter, the higher rates wouldn’t be charged until after 60 CCF (2 units x 30 CCF/unit); the limit for a triple-decker would be 90 CCF.  Our Board of Selectmen should make this simple change in Belmont’s water rates starting in the coming year.

The bigger problem needs more active attention.  The bigger problem in Belmont involves the inequities that arise when our policymakers act as if the single-family image conveyed by the phrase “A Town of Homes” adequately reflects reality. Until that changes, residents of Belmont’s double- and triple-deckers will too often face policies, such as those embedded in the unnecessarily high water rates, that do not adequately recognize, let alone address, their needs.