September saw the end of the Council’s reduced summertime meeting schedule. We’re now back to our typical cadence: regular meetings every other Tuesday, and subcommittees and Committees of the Whole on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Happily, we’ve had a busy start to the fall. Here’s a taste of what we’ve been discussing in the Chambers: read on for updates on the Housing Production Plan, Housing Stability Notification Ordinance, Tree Ordinance, draft Comprehensive Plan, Municipal Minimum Wage Ordinance, and more.
But first... Thanks to local photographer Nicole Maria for this shot of me and Council colleagues Nicole Morell, Justin Tseng and Zac Bears enjoying the Chamber of Commerce's Oktoberfest celebration last weekend!
We passed the Housing Production Plan
I’ll start with something I’m truly excited about: On September 27th, we passed the City’s Housing Production Plan. This was a goal I spoke about often as a candidate last year, and I am so happy that we finally voted on this document – the product of much hard work by the Planning, Development & Sustainability office and their partners – and sent it along to the State for final approval.
A Housing Production Plan is not a binding action plan, but rather a document that presents specific goals for increasing and improving housing in the community (how many units? what types? where?) and lays out a menu of options and strategies for doing that (i.e. zoning changes, creating an affordable housing trust, developing relationships with affordable housing developers, etc.). In this way, a Housing Production Plan is more of a prerequisite for progress than it is a direct catalyst for action. None of the housing production strategies in the HPP are triggered to go into effect just because we have passed it: they are all still things that would need to be worked on by City staff (i.e. Strategy #15: “Continue City recruitment of mission-based developers”), budgeted for (i.e. #14, “Increase the housing planner position to full time”) or passed by the City Council (i.e. #4, “Adopt affordable infill zoning provisions”).
Even so, this step is an important one. As I like to say in City Council meetings, I wish this had been done already – but since it wasn’t, I’m glad we’re doing it now. Having these goals on the books, and these strategies formally articulated, will make it procedurally easier for us to follow through on many of them – for example, by making us more competitive for certain housing-related grant opportunities. This HPP also shores up the importance of one of our upcoming Council projects, which is Phase 2 of zoning recodification. That’s when we’ll have the opportunity to take up many of the zoning-based strategies in the HPP.
Drafting a Housing Stability Notification Ordinance
Staying on the topic of housing, but moving from the macro to the micro: On September 27th, the Housing Subcommittee, which I chair, met for the first time about a Housing Stability Notification Ordinance. This ordinance was first proposed by former Councilor John Falco in 2021, and I am very grateful to him for bringing it up. In June, we resurfaced the paper and resolved to schedule a subcommittee meeting to get the ball rolling.
This ordinance is a fairly simple one: It empowers a City department (in our case, this would fall to the Planning, Development & Sustainability office) to create a document that informs tenants of their basic housing rights and where they can learn more about them; and informs them about resources and assistance available for housing-related issues (i.e. local nonprofits and agencies as well as municipal resources). It also creates the requirement that landlords send this document to tenants at the termination and/or at beginning of any lease. In short, it’s a way to help ensure that tenants know their rights, and a way to more consistently get the word out about housing assistance that is already available.
Information is a key part of the social safety net – many renters really aren’t all that aware of their rights in the landlord-tenant relationship, and not for lack of interest. I’m especially keen to work on this ordinance because of my organizing with the Medford Know Your Rights campaign in 2021, with Our Revolution Medford and Mutual Aid Medford & Somerville. That same year the Planning, Development & Sustainability also did a one-time “Know Your Rights” mailer, which I was glad for the opportunity to weigh in on. This ordinance would make that kind of conveyance permanent.
Those projects felt urgent at the time because so many households were experiencing acute housing insecurity because of the economic consequences of the pandemic. It’s been over a year since we were flyering for KYR and waiting for our first vaccine shots, but we now have unprecedented housing costs and unprecedented housing scarcity. Housing instability isn’t going away. This ordinance seeks to infuse useful information into a low-information environment because that really can make a difference for a household that’s short on cash, facing an eviction, or experiencing other uncertain ground in the tenant-landlord relationship. On top of that, this ordinance wouldn’t only empower tenants: it would require notice and resources be sent to homeowners in the event of foreclosure.
Our drafting and discussion process is advantaged by the fact that many of our neighbors already have Housing Stability Notification Ordinances on the books. In our subcommittee meeting, we reviewed the HSNOs that have passed in Somerville, Cambridge and Boston in the past couple of years. They are all extremely similar, and we agreed that our first draft need not reinvent the wheel. I’m tasked with creating a draft HSNO for Medford, and getting City staff’s feedback and guidance on the draft ahead of our next subcommittee meeting. It’s heartening that this project is a priority shared by so many on the Council and in City Hall. Stay tuned!
Work on the Tree Ordinance Continues
On September 21, we met again in Committee of the Whole on the Tree Ordinance, which may ultimately turn out to be three Tree Ordinances. Regardless of how many buckets this ends up going into, I’m excited for the result: we have a path towards strengthening protections for public shade trees; protecting the tree canopy rooted in privately-held land; as well other potentials, like a tree-cutting moratorium until this legislation is finalized or a committee to help out with tree policy and education. It’s not a debate that trees have a huge environmental, public health, and aesthetic impact, nor that our tree canopy is sorely lacking – and worse in some neighborhoods than in others.
I also believe this project exemplifies City Hall’s current bandwidth shortage. At our last meeting on this topic on June 1, we resolved to have KP Law, the City’s contracted law firm, take our directives for modifying the ordinance – splitting in into sections for public shade trees, trees on private property, and a Tree Committee – and noting where these could go in our existing code of ordinances. We would then take up each part from there.
(Quick aside. Why split it up into sections? Public vs. private trees are governed differently – public trees have special regulations under Mass General Law – and so it would make more sense for us to amend and strengthen our existing regulations around public shade trees, and separately create regulations for trees on private lands, potentially through zoning regulations or the special permitting process. Plus, the current draft ordinance calls fo the creation of a volunteer Tree Committee; it’s conventional for Committees to be established in their own ordinance.)
But we didn’t get any of that reformatting; the firm’s message was for us to make the policy decisions that are up in the air and go from there. Several Councilors, including myself, were at that point looking for clarification – what are the policy decisions that are causing this roadblock? – because our requested next steps were more of the formatting variety: chop it up and slot it into the code of ordinances where it ought to go, instead of being a monolithic ordinance involving public land, private land and a volunteer committee. KP Law messaged that they lack the capacity to do that work, and posited that maybe City staff could take this on. And maybe they could, if we had a solicitor and assistant solicitor – but both of those positions are still unfilled.
Seeking to move this forward, we both resubmitted our request for legal help with breaking the draft ordinance into appropriate sections; and to keep the ball rolling, we also asked staff from Planning, Development & Sustainability and the DPW comment on the proposed draft, where it would implicate their departments. For example, our DPW Commissioner raised a helpful point that we will need to reconcile the draft ordinance’s regulation of public shade trees, with the regulations set forth by Mass General Law, and ensure they’re not in conflict.
Our lively discussion about the draft ordinance also included members of the public, and I heard many comments that I thought were great food for thought. For example, one constituent brought up a residential exemption for the high tree-removal permitting fee – or at least conditions for fee reduction – so as to not burden homeowners who have to remove trees that pose a hazard. I think that’s well worth considering. That also gets to the point of why we may want to take up regulations of trees on private land as part of our zoning re-codification. There are ways we could use the performance standards and site plan review processes to target our tree regulations at the sites where they will do the most good – holding large developments to the highest standard, and making sure that removal fees do not end up being regressive. A per-square-inch removal fee might end up a gut punch for a single resident, while the same formula could create a fee that a big developer could easily write off. That doesn’t feel fair and it wouldn’t necessarily result in us preserving as many trees as possible – which is the goal!
So, we’ll collect staff comments, and the Tree Ordinance will continue its journey in the Environment, Transportation & Sustainability subcommittee rather than Committee of the Whole, which is where our three meetings on it this year have so far been held. I hope that the details can be hashed out there and we can efficiently move this ordinance closer to passage.
Reviewing our Draft Comprehensive Plan
On October 5th, we met with Planning, Development & Sustainability staff and their consultants for a presentation on the updated draft Comprehensive Plan. This vast document has been 18+ months in making and has been shaped not just by those professionals but also by the input and volunteerism of so many residents in our community. Overall, I’m a huge fan of the draft: it lays out a vibrant, resilient, inclusive vision for our community’s future and many specific strategies for realizing that vision, nearly all of which I would love to see implemented as quickly as possible.
The rub, of course, is that it’s easier to make a plan than it is to implement one. Much of the Council’s discussion in this Committee of the Whole centered around that theme: This is great, but do we have the resources and capacity to actually do it? On what timetable? And if we don’t have the resources right now, do we know what it will take to reach that level of capacity?
To be fair, answering those questions is not necessarily the charge of the Comprehensive Plan’s crafters; but knowing what we know about our city’s structural deficit, it is hard for my mind not to go there immediately. How do we make sure this plan is implementable? One of the newer pieces in the draft Comprehensive Plan is, indeed, a chapter on implementation: strategies for leveraging human and financial resources (operating budget as well as one-time funding opportunities) to bringing about different parts of the plan; as well as options for how to measure and track the Plan’s implementation and message that progress to Councilors and the community.
It’s a great start. But we know how much Medford already isn’t doing because of a lack of resources. I want to talk about raising the ceiling, but right now, it feels like we’re looking up at the floor. (To briefly reiterate some of what was in the June 2022 soapbox: $200M backlog for road and sidewalk repair; a single, part-time position for housing stability for the whole city; nearly every department, including the Board of Health and the Office of Outreach & Prevention, operating at minimum levels of support; a Economic Development Director whose salary is funded by grant money that will expire; a City website that I find barely navigable, let alone isn’t available in languages other than English…).
It’s not that I’m pessimistic about how much of this Plan we can really implement in our community. Clearly, the shared ambition and values are there in spades, or the plan would look much different. But resources-wise, we are not close. I know that we have the capacity and the grant opportunities to do parts of this plan, and that’s genuinely great. But we need to take a systematic approach, and find a systematic solution, so that we can guarantee consistent, reliable, ambitious progress towards the future this community deserves.
Residents and business owners can still submit comments on the draft Comprehensive Plan through 10/14 – that’s this Friday – through medfordcompplan.org or by emailing email@example.com. Staff and consultants will continue to make final revisions, then submit the plan to the Planning Board for final approval, and finally, it will go to the State for approval.
Two new(ish) ordinances regulating city pay and benefits
On October 11, the Rules & Ordinances subcommittee (which I’m in) met to consider two ordinances proposed by Councilor Knight in 2019 and 2020. The first would set a minimum wage for City and public school employees – either at $15/hour, and then adjusting according to state minimum wage when it exceeds $15/hr; or otherwise, just set to correlate to the state minimum wage from the get-go. The second would be to establish a Extended Illness Leave Bank (or sick leave bank) for municipal employees. This would set up a structure for folks to donate their unused sick time and PTO; employees who may have exhausted their own sick days due to an long illness could then benefit from their fellows’ unused time. (It feels like implementing a mutual aid structure for city employees, and I love it!) We just met about these two ideas this week, so we’re right at the beginning of the process. I’m excited to move them both forward.
The draft Community Control Over Public Surveillance ordinance remains in discussion. Over the spring and summer, we considered and incorporated a lot of feedback that we received during and after our first meeting on this ordinance in the Public Health & Community Safety subcommittee, which I chair. Our next meeting to review the updated draft ordinance is next week on October 19th. Surveillance technology remains inconsistently regulated – or not at all regulated – at the state and federal levels, and these nascent technologies have many serious implications for civil liberties and civil rights. I’m glad for the chance work on this ordinance that would proactively create a process for vetting public surveillance technologies before they can be deployed in our community.