Column: Facing Salem's affordable housing crisis

DUSTIN LUCA/Staff PhotoChristine Madore, a city councilor representing the city’s Ward 2, speaks with members of a group at last month’s housing forum.

There is consensus! Salem needs more affordable homes.

From the Salem for All Ages Action Plan and Our Salem Our Kids to Imagine Salem, the data and people’s stories show that we need more affordable housing options.

Why does affordable housing matter? The lack of affordable housing creates many issues for people in our community. Seniors have been forced to move out of Salem and leave family and friends behind. People who work in Salem cannot afford to live here. Business owners have difficulty finding staff because of the high cost of housing. Families face food insecurity. There are even children in Salem schools who are homeless.

More than 150 community members attended a housing forum in early March. They spent more than two hours learning about affordable housing issues and strategies and talked with their neighbors. It is clear that the housing crisis has resonated in Salem.

Here is a glimpse of what is takes to live in Salem. According to Zillow, the December 2018 median home sale price was $358,000. That is up 53 percent from September 2011 when the median sale price was $233,000. The average rent for a one-bedroom is $1,675 a month. Consider this — 23 percent of all people who work in Salem are in the food service or retail industry. Salem certainly has the best restaurants on the North Shore. The folks who work at these amazing restaurants have an average monthly wage of $1,784 month. That leaves $100 for food, healthcare, transportation and everything else. It is nearly impossible for your server or bartender to live here.

Why do housing prices keep rising?

Salem is a desirable community and there are not enough homes. This is not unique to Salem; it is a regional problem. As such, there is regional competition for an insufficient supply of housing, leading to increased costs. High housing costs create the biggest problem for lower-income households because the high costs put a squeeze on their ability to meet other basic needs. Half of Salem’s households are low-income and feel that squeeze.

Many residents have a fear of being priced out. Consequently, some have recommended limiting luxury condominiums, or any market rate homes from being built. This would make the affordable housing problem worse. The higher-income folks have the means to pay “above market,” and thus, the middle tier of homes will shrink as prices rise. Constraining the market is not the solution, and yet it is unrealistic to assume the private market will provide all the affordable housing units Salem needs, or any for that matter.

We know the lack of affordable homes is an issue, what do we do about it?

The city is working on several affordable housing tools, and we need your help to make these tools a reality. A housing workshop is going to take place later this month. The workshop will build from last month’s forum, and we’ll dive deeper into two tools -- accessory dwelling units and inclusionary zoning.

Did you know  Salem allows single-family homeowners to convert a portion of their home into a small accessory unit (also known as an “in-law apartment”) for a family member or caretaker? This type of unit is usually a lot more affordable than a traditional apartment. In addition, the units can be added without having to use public dollars. However, only five accessory dwelling units have been created. At the housing workshop we will discuss opportunities to increase the number of moderately priced rental units by amending the accessory dwelling unit ordinance.

Inclusionary zoning is another tool we will be discussing at the workshop. Inclusionary zoning is a process that extracts some affordable homes from the private market. We have to be thoughtful in how many units are required to be set aside. Requiring too much from the private market will result in developments not being financially feasible. If a development is not feasible, then zero homes are built.

The inclusionary zoning and accessory dwelling unit housing workshop will take place April 23 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the CommunityLife Center. I urge you to attend the workshop to hear the city’s recommendations and to provide your input. There will be additional workshops in the upcoming months on a myriad of other affordable housing strategies and tools, from using public-owned land to evaluating micro-units and infill development. You can stay tuned in by signing up for updates at bit.ly/salemhousing.

Amanda Chiancola is a senior planner for the city of Salem and a member of the Salem for All Ages Task Force.

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