Residents and business owners gasped at horror stories from their neighbors. Some had been hit harder than others. Oana Bandar, an owner of the relatively new East End Grille, sent a tremor through the room when she gave her numbers: the restaurant’s property assessment had gone up by more than 100 percent, from a payment of $2,500 per quarter to $8,000.
“That’s egregious, and it’s just not good governance,” she stated.
At the second info session on property assessments on January 27th in the East Somerville Community School cafeteria, lights flickered from hospital-wash brightness to a weak fluorescence, matching the growing atmosphere of drama in the room. Another restaurant owner in East Somerville echoed the same concern, saying that his assessment doubled this year. Abby Freedman, a resident of Prospect Hill, said that she was concerned about the effect this would have on small business owners, particularly in Union Square. “I’m worried they’ll move out when they can’t pay their taxes and we’ll lose the family-owned businesses that make it unique. I don’t want it to turn into another place filled with chain stores like everywhere else in America,” she said.
This year’s property assessments struck homeowners as well. Mr. Mafera, who lives in the house on Adams Street that his parents bought in the 1940s and bequeathed to him when they passed on, said his taxes doubled. “Is that the right thing to do?” he asked the Board of Assessors, arranged in swivel chairs in front of the lunch buffet lines.
Marc Levye, the chief assessor for Somerville, stated that while he could not comment on individual properties without specifics, properties east of Magoun Square, such as this resident’s home, “went up quite a bit on land value” because their previous assessments hadn’t accurately reflected their market value. Levye encouraged those who believed their properties had been unfairly assessed to file appeals for abatement – but quickly, as the deadline was February 3.
Property assessments, according to Levye, are based on the “real market value,” which is the amount that a buyer would willingly pay for a property within the current market, as well as the income/expense information for the property, such as the number of tenants or vacancies, and any development of the property. The sudden increase in some property values was due to the upswing in the economy since 2010, the last time there was a citywide assessment done. At that time, there was a “very flat market,” Levye said, and the “Board made very few changes.”
Now, Levye said, as the past few years has seen economic growth in the city, property has become more valuable. “Single-family homes went up, on average, twelve percent,” Levye stated. “This is because these properties are highly sought after, and highly valued. No pun intended.”
But some properties saw a more considerable increase. On one street in Union Square, Stone Avenue, which is mostly two- and three-family homes, the overall increases were between 14 percent and 21 percent, much higher than the 7 percent citywide average projection cited by the City in a statement released on its website last November. The increases on land assessments for these properties were even higher, at a nearly consistent 32.6 percent. One such property, 15 Stone Ave, went up $68,400 from just last year. Union Square, which has seen a cultural and economic rejuvenation and is targeted for even more injections of new commerce as warehouses are turned into venues and specialty boutiques, has been deemed a more desirable place to live in recent years. And, according to Wig Zamore, a founding member of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP), once the scheduled Green Line extension project is completed, those values will keep rising.
But, contrary to what concerned residents and business owners expressed at the meeting at East Somerville Community School, Zamore believes that the extension of the Green Line through Union Square will improve business by bringing in more people from Cambridge and Boston, which will in turn increase the number of job opportunities for Somerville residents. And the more people work in a city, the more they go out on their lunch breaks or after work, which keeps more of the money spent by Somervillians in Somerville.
“Small businesses would do much better with daytime business if people worked here, not just lived here,” he said. “Right now, most folks leave the city during the day for work and only return at night, so you’re not getting a lot of foot traffic, except on weekends.”
Currently, the Boston metro area offers an average of .6 jobs per person, said Zamore, which is about what it should be. “In any population, you assume about half of the people don’t work because they’re too old, or too young, or sick,” he said. “But in Somerville, we fall way short of meeting that ratio” – about 5,000 jobs per square mile short, in fact.
Not only would an increase in the number of jobs mean more business for local entrepreneurs, but it also means that commercial properties could take more of the tax burden away from residents, which is what the City hopes to do with the redevelopment of Assembly Row.
The new value created by this enormous undertaking, along with other construction and renovation sites, has shifted some of the city’s overall taxes away from residents. But despite this transfer, as noted in the City’s November press release, “more than two-thirds of the tax burden is still resting on residents while businesses contribute less than one-third.” So, while lower tax rates were trumpeted late last year for residents, some may see a steep increase, depending on which part of the city they inhabit.
Residents of Davis Square are no stranger to this concept: their property assessments increased based on investments by the city to make it a social and economic hub. Union Square residents are now being served the same deal, but the return on their investment depends on whether the City, and the MBTA, will finally fulfill a promise that is decades in the making.
Acutely aware of residents’ mounting concerns, the City held a press conference on Tuesday, February 11, at the Argenziano School to release the findings of “Dimensions of Displacement: Baseline Data for Managing Neighborhood Change in Somerville’s Green Line Corridor,” a report conducted through a collaboration by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC) and the City. The report examines ways to mitigate negative effects of the Green Line’s arrival in Somerville and the projected further hikes in property values and rents that could potentially displace lower income residents. The full report is available at mapc.org.