SALEM — The housing crisis impacts large swaths of society. Nobody knows that better than those who make far below the region's median salary of $65,000.
Their faces are seen by everyone, perhaps without really being aware of it: senior citizens, single parents; crossing guards, teachers aides; dishwashers, restaurant waitstaff.
"A lot of people work in hotels, kitchens, and that's doubly hard," said Mickey Northcutt, executive director of the North Shore Community Development Coalition. "It's hard in a good year, but right now (under COVID-19), it happens those industries — the lower-wage workers in those industries — are the ones most affected by this crisis."
By the nature of his organization, Northcutt knows those people quite well. As the crisis has developed over decades, North Shore CDC has been building for them.
"We're the only (community development corporation) based in Salem, and one of the more active CDCs in the state in terms of housing development," he said. "We own about 400 affordable apartments. About 300 of those are in Salem; right now most are in The Point neighborhood, and we have about 110 units in Beverly and 30 units under construction in Gloucester."
But the housing crisis has developed despite all this. Now, with the damage done by the global pandemic becoming more apparent and housing inventory continuing to decrease, the problem is magnifying further.
"Once that crisis abates — we all know this will end — it isn't as though it was easy before," Northcutt said. "The housing crisis has been as stark as it is now for years."
A locked-in fix
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll bought her home in Salem decades ago, and part of the draw was the community's cultural vibrancy. She's concerned about the parts of Salem's charm that she valued for her family being lost to the crisis through those who can't afford to live here being priced far outside of the region.
"We run the risk of that being jeopardized, if Salem becomes only a place that people who can make enough to live here can afford to be here," Driscoll said. "Inaction will cause more gentrification."
Affordable housing is a key factor in keeping people on the lower side of the income spectrum in their city. But Northcutt said it's also a tool that — in many cases for North Shore CDC because of how it finances the projects — has intense longevity. Once they're built, affordable units typically become deed restricted.
"I always say affordable housing has such a multiplier effect," he said. "It isn't just those 62 families that move in. Those units being permanently deed restricted are resources for generations of families that are coming here for all reasons. That's a big point of pride for us, that we know those buildings — and the affordability — are going to outlive us all."
It's also something leaders are working on at City Hall. As they've developed tools to build housing that responds to the crisis, many have passed and led to projects getting permitted and built.
But again, this has happened as the housing crisis continued to intensify.
One such measure — "inclusionary zoning" — is before the City Council and was due for discussion and possible vote Thursday night. The proposal would require developers building six or more units of housing to make a portion of them affordable by city ordinance.
"That'll help us ensure there's a little better supply of units at the lower end of the market," said City Councilor Josh Turiel on Monday. "It's something, which is better than nothing."
North Shore CDC is also about to have a hot year of development. Renovations will hit 14 buildings in 2021, between them either creating or upgrading 79 total housing units.
But the crisis still continues to grow. More solutions are needed.
"We know, no matter how many apartments we build or buy or renovate, the need is just sadly insurmountable," Northcutt said. "So we're going to do as best we can — and frankly, that speaks to the policies that Salem is considering right now."
Series concludes Friday
The Salem News' five-part series on the housing crisis will wrap up Friday with Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, to talk about where the North Shore goes from here. Watch live at 11 a.m. on The Salem News' Facebook page, Facebook.com/SalemMANews.