March was the first time in history that you could speak up at a City Council hearing in Salem from comfort of your own home, through a remote meeting. Remote meetings are being conducted in many cities and towns due to the limitations on social gatherings in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
The City Council is currently considering two separate zoning amendments via remote public hearings. Each zoning amendment is proposed to increase the supply of affordable homes in Salem. The zoning amendments were submitted to the City Council back in January, before the state of emergency. Before COVID-19, Salem and the rest of the region were facing a housing crisis. To shed some light on what the housing crisis looks like, a typical two bedroom here in Salem is around $1,800 month where the median income for Salem renters is $37,000. There are residents who were already paying more than half of their income toward housing! Unfortunately, COVID-19 has just exacerbated the housing crisis. That is why we are continuing to conduct these hearings, within the limits of social distancing.
The first zoning amendment proposes to allow accessory dwelling units. An accessory dwelling unit is a residential living unit that is on the same property as another home, such as a basement apartment. The second zoning ordinance would require new housing developments to set aside a portion of the units as affordable. That is referred to as inclusionary zoning. Both proposals rely on the private sector to create affordable housing with no public subsidy. You can find more information about the zoning amendments at www.imaginesalem.org.
Holding a public hearing remotely is a new concept. It can be uncomfortable to venture into a new way of doing things. That said, there are older adults who do not like to drive at night, are afraid they will not get a seat or find it difficult to hear in the council chamber, so they do not attend the traditional in person council meetings. There are also parents who are unable to attend in person meetings due to a lack of childcare. While remote participation began as a method to offer a continuity of governance within the constraints of this public health crisis, it is not limiting participation. Remote meetings are removing barriers that have been in place for too long. On March 30, at the first joint public hearing on the zoning amendments, 160 members of the public attended. Then on April 13 there were 92 public participants. Those numbers do not include City Officials. To put the participation numbers into perspective, the council chambers has a maximum capacity of 98 people. I suspect and hope that we will continue to give community members the option to participate remotely even when social distancing is over.
I also want to highlight that Salem Access Television (SATV) has recorded the zoning amendment hearings and broadcasts them on Channel 22. The next airing of the April 13 joint public hearing will be on Channel 22 on May 1 at noon. SATV also provides an option to watch or listen to the meeting on demand at www.satvonline.org. You can also still send the city councilors comments on these zoning amendments by emailing the city clerk at ISimons@Salem.com or mailing in a letter with attention to the City Clerk at 98 Washington St., Salem, Mass., 01970.
The next public hearing on the two zoning amendments will take place remotely on May 4 at 7 p.m. An agenda for the meeting has been posted on the calendar at www.salem.com. There are a lot of ways that you can join this meeting from the comfort of your own home. You could do so by any of the following methods:
1. Watch the hearing live on May 4 at 7 p.m online via Zoom (just click the link on the agenda where it is posted);
2. Call the toll-free number on the agenda and listen into the meeting live;
3. Watch it live on Channel 22;
4. Or you can watch it after the meeting on Channel 22 (check the schedule), or online at http://www.satvonline.org.
There will be a public comment period during the live meeting. If you want to speak you will have the ability to do so by calling in on the phone or directly through your computer. The old-fashioned way of sending comments prior to the meeting, either by letter or email is also an option.
Amanda Chiancola is a senior planner for the city of Salem and a member of the Salem for All Ages Housing Task Force.