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I believe that I understand, at least in part, the frustrations of Salem city councilors over the inconclusive deliberations to include affordable housing in the city’s development policies but I know that I do not understand the larger context in which these debates are being framed.

There is a housing crisis, apparently: Mayor Driscoll says so, several city councilors say so, and the Salem News says so. I recently had a discussion with a new Salem resident who moved north simply because she was priced out of Boston: our city was not on her radar screen until she became aware that our rents were much lower than in Boston. She didn’t seem to know much about Salem, but she believed that it was our “responsibility” to pave the way for more migrants from Boston by fostering a climate for more affordable housing. Governor Charlie Baker, so praiseworthy for his role in managing our commonwealth’s COVID-19 crisis, seems to agree: He expressed a similar frustration that Salem, the “type” of city which should be welcoming expanded affordable housing without question, was putting up some resistance in the guise of four recalcitrant city councilors.

We could go back a century and witness a similar discussion. In fact, and in context, Salem has always been an open and welcoming city with a diversity of housing options for its residents, in sharp contrast to its neighbors, including neighboring Swampscott (on the train!) where Gov. Baker lives. We have experienced a building boom for at least a decade, maybe more, but somehow these new units are never enough: never enough because they are market-priced, and never enough because they are a reaction to some developer’s desires rather than the culmination of a thought-out, transparent plan. Nineteenth-century Salem was able to accommodate new building, and newcomers, without compromising the significant material legacy bequeathed to it by generations before; 21st-century “historic” Salem does not seem so respectful of this legacy.

Salem is a not a suburb or a constituent part of a metropolitan district. It is a city, with its own sovereignty and responsibilities, and its current residents, whether housed comfortably, vulnerably, or not at all, should be its primary obligation. Salem is also the nexus of a region, but we cannot serve that region’s needs if we have no clear proactive vision of who we are, and what we want to be.

Donna A. Seger


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