SALEM — For as dry a topic as it can be, zoning is one of the most intensely debated issues in recent years in Salem.
As that debate rages, families who lost their homes to fires and have the means to afford apartments simply can't find them.
"Go to Craigslist and put in 'housing,' and put in 'Salem,' and see what you find," Mayor Kim Driscoll said. "You won't find very many units — and the ones you do find are the cost of what a mortgage is."
Beyond that, more than 150 students in Salem Public Schools come from homeless families, "people who don't have a regular place to go," Driscoll said.
"If we care about this next generation, we want people not to just be moving from other places, we've gotta figure out ways to address the housing challenges we have," said Driscoll.
Addressing an escalating crisis
For at least the past decade, the region's housing market has gradually exploded. High demand and short supply have caused prices to climb out of control and inventory to gradually decline. With that, property assessments and tax bills have continued to grow, pricing many out of the Witch City.
On Tuesday, Cynthia Nina-Soto, president of the North Shore Association of Realtors, explained that housing availability is the root of the region's housing crisis. In January, housing inventory was down 37 percent from the prior year. By May, that number had grown to 51 percent — a clear sign that COVID-19 is magnifying the housing crisis.
As supply continues to draw down and demand doesn't match that decline, the price to buy a home goes in the other direction.
“Soon enough, we’re going to reach a $500,000 median sale price in Salem," she said. "And I’m sorry; at a $65,000 median income for a Salem resident, you can’t afford that. You just can’t.”
One alternative is to do nothing and let the market continue on its own. Or, officials could achieve the inverse of addressing a need.
"I've joked... 'Well, gee, if you really want housing prices to fall, you can just make Salem suck'," said Salem City Councilor Josh Turiel on Monday. "I don't think that's a solution anybody actually wants; 'Let's make the city awful, and then that way the prices will drop through the floor.'"
Zoning in on a fix
The other alternative, Driscoll suggested, is to create programs and policies that allow city leaders to guide development and trigger the production of housing that tackles the crisis head-on. Zoning isn't a solution to the housing crisis, but not using zoning as a tool can perpetuate the status quo, she suggested.
"If you just allow people to use the current zoning, you also run the risk that you're going to get what the market wants (and) supports," she said. "We can have a say in ensuring that as properties are developed, they're also meeting a community need."
The City Council has approved several zoning changes — some narrow, others broad — to push for specific kinds of development. One recently approved example is the "Municipal and Religious Reuse" special permit, which allows unused church and city-owned buildings to be redeveloped for housing with particular rules set by the city, including specific parking and affordability requirements. The permit is powering the redevelopment of two church properties by the North Shore Community Development Coalition.
There are two housing-related proposals in front of the City Council: one that seems to have broad support, the another with just enough opposition that it has stalled.
Another proposal on "accessory dwelling units," or in-law apartments, is currently stalled in front of the City Council. It needs eight votes to pass with a super-majority, but only seven city councilors back it. Today the ordinance allows units for only relatives or caregivers, after which they must be destroyed.
Whatever happens with the proposals and others that may leave the mayor's desk in the future, something has to change in order for the crisis to dial back, she explained.
"If you keep it stagnant, you're only going to end up with what private property owners want to do and fit within that box," Driscoll said. "You aren't necessarily going to be able to address a major community need like more affordable housing, more housing that meets the demands of people who want to live there."
Live conversations continue Thursday
The Salem News continues its weeklong series on the housing crisis facing the North Shore on Thursday with Mickey Northcutt, CEO of the North Shore Community Development Coalition, to detail the creation of affordable housing in an effort to keep people on the lower end of the income spectrum in their city. Watch live at 12:30 p.m. on The Salem News' Facebook page, Facebook.com/SalemMANews.
The five-part series will conclude Friday with Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, to talk about where the North Shore goes from here.