Spring Legislative Update: Housing Stability, Surveillance Regulations, New Projects and More
Greetings to my neighbors, constituents, and friends. I hope that the start of spring has been treating you kindly.
(If you're coming here from my email newsletter, you've read this first part before – skip down to the first header.)
This is my first update since October, and there’s a lot of ground to cover. As a Council, we have been keeping up a busy schedule of meetings and events on every topic from outdoor dining, to proposed MBTA improvement projects, to grant funding approvals. In my spare time I’ve been enjoying community events like the JustFlix student documentary screening at the Saltonstall Building; the annual West Medford Community Center Legislative Breakfast; and returning to Tufts, my alma mater, to participate in a panel about getting involved in local politics.
This update will focus primarily on new ordinances, the product of years and months of work by many Councilors, City staff and community advocates. Over the winter and spring I was primarily focused on two ordinances as lead sponsor: a Community Control Over Public Surveillance ordinance, and a Housing Stability Notification Ordinance. We also voted on an Affordable Housing Trust Ordinance, a long-overdue measure which I have been looking forward to since I started campaigning in 2021.
As of March, after many months of effort, dialogue and negotiation, all these ordinances have passed. This means that Medford has new oversight for protecting civil rights and regulating invasive technology in our community; a new tool to make sure that tenants know their housing rights and where to seek help if they need it; and a new long-term mechanism for fostering affordable housing.
Now that these ordinances have passed, I am focused on updates to our waste hauling ordinance which would allow us to ensure mandatory recycling citywide; and a new Condo Conversion Ordinance, to better protect tenants from displacement and make sure that for-profit flippers are paying back into our community. Read on for details!
Community Control Over Public Surveillance (CCOPS)
CCOPS was the first major project of my term, and it also predated me by several years. An ACLU-affiliated community group, Medford People Power, first started advocating for a CCOPS ordinance three years ago. This isn’t a novel project: with the help of the ACLU and allies, CCOPS ordinances have passed in many cities across the US, and Medford has now joined that list.
So, what is CCOPS? These ordinances provide a way for local communities to have oversight over what surveillance technologies may be used by the municipal government. They empower City Councils – and, through Councils, the public – to ask: why do you want to use this technology in our city? What problem is this supposed to solve? How will it help? What are the potential risks? The City Council may then make a determination of whether the benefits outweigh the potential costs, and thus whether to approve the technology or not. The Council may also impose particular conditions or provisions for using that technology in the City.
As a sector, surveillance technologies are rapidly proliferating, and they’re severely under-regulated at the federal and state levels. For-profit hardware and software companies are much faster at innovating and marketing their innovations, than governments are at understanding and regulating novel technologies. Given that fact, CCOPS ordinances are a way for local municipalities to step into the glaring regulatory void. Surveillance technologies give their users the ability to surveil populations en masse, and while this is almost always ostensibly for public safety purposes, that also endows the ability to identify, record, and track individual people or groups. That poses real, demonstrated dangers, especially to marginalized populations. Many surveillance technologies, such as facial recognition technologies, have been found to produce inaccurate and racially biased results, and have resulted in false arrests. They have also been shown to exacerbate existing inequities in policing, enabling the over-surveillance of people of color and other marginalized communities. Civil liberties advocates find this class of tools concerning because they capture personal data and thus inherently pose a risk to privacy and civil rights.
We didn’t propose this ordinance in Medford because of a specific characteristic or perceived deficiency of Medford in particular. Surveillance technology is aggressively marketed to municipalities, big and small. A proactive policy is needed if we are going to protect our short- and long-term futures against technological overreach and under-regulation. That’s why I wanted to work with Medford People Power, the ACLU, and advocates to pass this ordinance that provides a structured process under which we can involve the public and hear from experts about specific new technologies.
How does our CCOPS ordinance accomplish this? It lays out a structure for meaningfully involving the Council and the community when the City seeks to use surveillance technology or data, so as to (1) make sure that the intended benefits of proposed technologies outweigh their potential risks or costs, (2) provide an opportunity for the Council to veto or modify the use of surveillance technology or data when it appears that its intended benefits will not outweigh its potential risks/costs, or when those potential risks/costs cannot be adequately mitigated, and (3) it creates annual reporting requirements for the municipal department deploying approved surveillance technology, both so that information about these impactful technologies are regularly, transparently available to the Council and the public, and so that the Council has an annual opportunity to halt use of surveillance technologies that are not operating within approved parameters.
Vice President Bears and I put forward a resolution to officially start work on this ordinance in February 2022, and this began a full year of work to where we are now. The Council discussed, modified, and evolved this ordinance several times in the Public Health and the Community Safety subcommittee, which I chair; then in Committee of the Whole; as well as in many one-on-one discussions with City administration, Chief of Police, other department heads, legal experts, and community advocates. And all that came after three years of work and advocacy by Medford People Power, who were liaising directly with the City administration and Chief of Police about this ordinance long before it had a City Council sponsor.
This past year of work in the Council saw substantial modifications, additions, and subtractions from the original ordinance draft. These language changes centered around paring down reporting requirements to make this ordinance more manageable and doable for City staff and department heads (staff capacity is always a concern); making it more clear what is and isn’t surveillance technology (just because it’s got a computer chip doesn’t mean it’s doing surveillance!); and clarifying that the reporting requirements are to be high-level and general, not onerous and granular.
This ordinance came before the Council for a vote in March 2023, where it passed 5-2 after debate that I’ll characterize as “lively.” It was then signed by the Mayor, thanks to compromises that we were able to reach during discussions with her office. The ordinance that we passed is truly a product of collaboration and compromise: I can confidently say that no one involved, myself included, is perfectly happy with the ordinance that we passed. Some people are on the side of “this goes too far,” others on the side of “this doesn’t go far enough.” I would love the chance to revisit this ordinance after it has been on the books for some time, when we have received some Annual Surveillance Reports from City staff in the Police and Parking Departments (where surveillance technology is currently in use), and discuss with Council subcommittee members and community advocates. While there are specific areas where I’d already like to see the ordinance evolved and strengthened, I am very glad that this framework for surveillance accountability is on the books in Medford, and I’m grateful for the years of work and collaboration that got us here.
Housing Stability Notification Ordinance
In contrast to the CCOPS ordinance, the Housing Stability Notification Ordinance is very straightforward. This regulation creates a new requirement that all property owners in Medford distribute a simple one- or two-page document, prepared for them by the City (they don’t have to write it themselves), to their tenants at the beginning and termination of any lease. This document includes information on tenants’ housing rights and where tenants can go if they need help on a housing-related matter. This document would also be required to be sent to homeowners facing foreclosure.
This paper was first proposed by former Councilor Falco in 2021. I was very grateful to him for proposing this paper and for my opportunity to sponsor it. Using the power of the City to ensure that tenants are better informed of their housing rights and resources was a specific priority of mine when I ran for office. During the earlier days of the pandemic, I worked with Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville (MAMAS) and the City’s ad-hoc Housing Task Force on a couple projects with a similar goal of broadcasting tenants’ rights information. The MAMAS Know Your Rights project was scrappy, volunteer-designed and donation-funded; the City version was sent out in the mail, funded by the City’s CARES Act appropriation. I was strongly struck by how backwards it is for such a mailer to be a one-time event (i.e. supported by temporary grant funding) or to be reliant on concerted volunteer effort. Housing stability benefits the community, good information supports housing stability; this is something that the City should be invested in.
The goal of this policy is simply to make sure that residents in Medford are aware of the housing rights to which they are entitled, and the resources that are already available to them. People should know what their rights are, what to expect, and where to turn for help – before some kind of stressful or emergency situation occurs. This information is often hard to find and inconsistently available in languages other than English. Whether you’re a tenant, an owner, an owner being foreclosed upon, or the City or housing agency that people turn to for help – having residents disempowered or under-informed in times of crisis is beneficial to no one. This ordinance ensures that relevant information is proactively distributed throughout the community in a way that is streamlined and cheap (landlords will be able to access the document from the Planning staff’s City web page and drop it in their tenant’s mailbox when they drop off the keys, or send it via email).
The Housing Subcommittee, which I chair, began meeting on this paper in the fall. We discussed examples from three of our neighboring communities – Cambridge, Boston, and Somerville – that also have Housing Stability Notification Ordinances, comparing and contrasting and selecting the best parts from each example. We also reviewed the actual notification document currently used in each of these cities. At every step we discussed with the city departments that would be implicated by the ordinance: the Board of Health, which would do enforcement; the Office of Planning, Development and Sustainability, which will create and update the notification document. The Office of Prevention and Outreach, whose work in our community is closely aligned with the goals of this ordinance, also offered their insight on equitable implementation strategies, including how to handle translated versions of the document. I’m encouraged that this ordinance has the enthusiasm of the City departments that already work on housing stability and community outreach in our community.
This ordinance is primarily intended as an educational tool, not a punitive one. Everyone involved acknowledged that it will take some time to ensure that landlords throughout the community are adequately informed of this new regulation; we have many methods for getting the word out about that (notifications sent out in water bills, etc).
Ultimately, this is one of those projects that is not at all groundbreaking – it should have been done already – but it’s an essential tool in the toolbox. I hope that with the implementation of this new ordinance, more tenants will have an expanded awareness of the housing rights they’re entitled to, and be better able to access housing resources when they need them.
Affordable Housing Trust Ordinance
The City Council recently passed an ordinance years in the making: an Affordable Housing Trust ordinance. Many municipalities have Affordable Housing Trusts (AHTs) or even Community Land Trusts to boot. Now that our enabling ordinance has passed, once the Trustees are appointed and the Fund is set up, Medford can begin to put assets and capital in trust, and they will be protected for the purpose of fostering and facilitating affordable housing projects and programs in Medford. What a long-overdue and deeply needed measure!
The City Council worked closely with the Office of Planning, Development and Sustainability in crafting this ordinance, and we were also guided by experts from the Metropolitan Housing Partnership, a regional housing nonprofit. I found their existing resources on AHTs, as well as their testimony during our meetings, extremely helpful as I was researching this topic. For folks who want to know more, I recommend the MHP’s public slide deck on AHTs – relevant info starts on slide 9.
Medford has a serious, documented lack of affordable housing. 42% of Medford households are eligible for subsidized housing, and we don’t have nearly enough affordable housing to meet that need. To be technically housing cost-burdened is to spend over 30% of your household income on housing costs. Sound like anyone you know? It’s incredibly hard to not be housing cost-burdened in Medford, and most places in the greater Boston area.
Our regional crisis of housing scarcity and affordable housing scarcity did not happen overnight, and likewise, the AHT presents no quick fix. Nevertheless, it is a unique and essential tool for increasing affordable housing in Medford. All too often, affordable units are only affordable for a short time – just until the property changes hands. In contrast, Medford’s AHT is mission-bound to be involved in projects that create affordable housing long-term.
Passing this ordinance is just the first step. What type of projects the AHT then engages with, where, and on what timescale, will be determined by the appointed trustees, and by what assets and funding are appropriated from various sources. (The more we put into the trust, the more we’ll get out of it, so get ready to advocate.)
There’s a really intriguing range of eligible programs and activities on the table for our AHT. I recommend you check out slides 16 through 39 of the MHP presentation for some examples of housing assistance programs, acquisitions, preservation projects, and new construction that other AHTs in Massachusetts have supported.
Huge thanks are owed to former Councilor Falco for proposing this ordinance in 2021, and to the many community advocates and groups that strongly advocated for its passage.
My current legislative priorities: waste and condo conversions
Now that my main projects, CCOPS and the Housing Stability Notification Ordinance, are passed, I have shifted my focus to two new ordinance projects. (Sponsoring two ordinances at a time has seemed like a manageable balance for me so far, so I’m trying to keep up that cadence.)
The first project is updating the City’s solid waste ordinance and waste hauler permitting standards, which I’ve been working on closely with Vice Presidents Bears and the Office of Planning, Development and Sustainability, the DPW, and the Board of Health. This is a parallel project to the recent work by PDS and the Solid Waste Task Force in creating recommendations for a Request for Proposals (RFP) for our next municipal waste hauling contract. After a final one-year extension, our current contract is up next year, and we have the opportunity to contract with a new hauler or to re-sign with our current one but under updated terms of agreement.
This presents an opportunity to raise our standards – both in terms of how sustainable and modernized our waste management stream is in Medford, and to get a better deal for residents, businesses and the City. My goal is that when we’re through with this update, recycling collection will be required of all commercial and residential solid waste haulers that operate in Medford. This will enable the City to sign a municipal waste hauling contract that will be a cost-competitive option for all residents and businesses in Medford, because it can’t be undercut by haulers not offering recycling.
Updating our current solid waste ordinance strengthens our ability to ask for more from our next waste hauler, and I believe it will improve our ability to get good, competitive bids from hauler applicants. Our current solid waste contract is very outdated; there are clear areas where it needs to be brought into alignment with current best practices from the MassDEP. Not only will that make it easier for us to enforce things like citywide, mandatory recycling for all types of buildings (which currently is not enforced), but adopting these best practices will also make Medford eligible for bigger grants from the MassDEP through its recycling dividends program. Municipal waste hauling is a gigantic budget item, so maximizing grant funding here is meaningful.
The RFP and the ordinance update share the goal of aligning Medford with contemporary regional standards for waste disposal, with the result of reducing waste overall. I am glad that this legislative update can support the goals we have from the RFP process, and I’m excited to see what results from it (we should get bids back early summer). It is my hope that we will see bids offering bundled trash and recycling collection citywide, as well as potential new programs like composting, and educational assistance to make sure that any changes to waste service are well-communicated and well-understood by all residents and businesses.
The second of my new projects is a Condo Conversion Ordinance, which we discussed for the first time in the Zoning, Planning and Development Subcommittee in March. This type of ordinance creates conditions and requirements that must be satisfied when a rental unit is converted into a condominium.
Let’s start with the obvious: We need rental units available in our communities so that people who can’t afford to buy a home, or don’t want to, still have housing options here. At the same time, condo conversion provides a fantastic money-making opportunity for for-profit developers or flippers. Especially in this market (and especially around the Green Line Extension), developers stand to make a bundle off of converting rentals into modern condos. But if developers are going to extract profit from our community, they should give something back: both to the individual tenants that may be displaced from their rental, and to the community at large. These ordinances provide a structure for doing so – a way to ensure that the public gets something in return (i.e., an appropriation to our Affordable Housing Trust) when the mechanisms of gentrification take place in our community.
As usual, we are looking to several of our nearby or comparable Massachusetts communities that have similar ordinances, for examples and guidance. Somerville, Boston, Marlborough, New Bedford, and Lexington each have a Condo Conversion ordinance, and this group of examples shows both some similarities and some contrasting options for tailoring the ordinance to fit specific goals. For the most part, that slate of requirements for condo conversion include: Notice requirements to existing tenants; protections against eviction during a conversion; tenant right to purchase or first right of refusal; city right to purchase; and relocation payments or assistance to a displaced tenant.
We had a fruitful first meeting with members of the Office of Planning, Development and Sustainability as well as the Building Department. Our main next steps are to continue gathering data – from the Building Department, from the Assessors’ records – and continue assessing the various requirements that we could enact in this ordinance. The goal is to get clear on the outcomes and results we want from this ordinance, and tailor it accordingly. For example, what we don’t want is for this ordinance to penalize elderly owner-occupiers of a multifamily building who are considering a conversion to make retirement more affordable; nor to unduly burden owners who want to convert a rental into a condo for conveyance to a relative. We have a lot of levers we can pull to ensure that these regulations are targeted at making sure that for-profit developers are paying into the community when they extract value from the community – not burdening residents who are modifying property that they intend to remain in their family.
Upcoming Events and Calls to Action
Last year, I was proud to be a volunteer and endorser of the Fair Share Amendment (which passed in a November referendum), which could raise $1B in new revenue per year and earmarked for public transit and infrastructure and public education. However, Governor Healey’s budget plan and the House’s tax package propose hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy. That would severely undercut this huge win for the public sector.
Candidly, I’m completely disgusted by these proposals. They are a betrayal to working-class Commonwealth residents who rely on vital but chronically-underfunded public infrastructure and resources. One way to speak up is to contact your Senator via this Raise Up Massachusetts form and ask them to oppose the proposed tax cuts to the ultra-rich and top corporations. I’m grateful to legislative leaders including Senator Jehlen and Rep. Connolly, who have been leading the charge on this.
There will be a celebration of Arab-American Heritage Month this Saturday, April 29th from 3pm-6pm at the Brooks School. It is organized by the Health Department, Office of Prevention and Outreach, and Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. There will be food, music, dancing, and henna art available. I look forward to stopping by and I hope to see you there!
The fight for housing justice on Bradlee Road continues. The last remaining household of the 22-26 Bradlee Road Tenant Association, which formed last spring when all at-will tenants were given 30 days’ notice to vacate so that the property owner could dramatically raise rents, is nearing their eviction court date. They are supported by the allyship and organizing of City Life/Vida Urbana, who has been helping them every step of the way and has arranged for pro bono legal representation. Myself, CLVU, and allied organizations in Medford are organizing a rally in support of these tenants on Friday, May 5th at 5:30pm in Medford Square. Please come out to support and demonstrate that this whole community demands a fair negotiation from Savage Properties. Come and bring a friend! Details and updates will be posted on this Facebook event.
Thanks for reading and please never be shy about reaching out to me. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, call me at 781-816-7676, or submit an idea to my Policy Suggestion Form.