With a data-driven approach to the issues facing Somerville, Hirsch plans to prioritize connectivity, community and collaboration.
“We may be a divided country, but in Somerville I don’t think we need to be divided,” says longtime Somerville civil servant Stephanie Hirsch. “You can literally hear what your neighbors are saying when they’re talking. You can smell what they’re cooking.”
Hirsch, who starting working in the mayor’s office in 2004 and later went on to work in performance management support for principals and teachers in the superintendent’s office, last week announced that she would run for Alderman at Large, making her the first challenger to enter this year’s aldermanic elections.
She tells Scout that her campaign will emphasize community-building—especially in terms of connecting Somerville’s diverse populations—by encouraging closeness in a social sense that reflects the physical closeness of living in such a densely populated urban center. She also plans to hone in on “good government,” taking a look at how policies and operations can help everyone from renting millennials to families to seniors and lifelong residents.
A key area of focus for Hirsch will be one of the most talked-about issues citywide: housing. “It’s front and center,” Hirsch says. “It’s the topic of every conversation at every dinner party.” She notes that while the city has made recent strides in this arena—including the groundbreaking 20 percent inclusionary housing bill that was approved last May—there’s room for improvement. For example, that ordinance only applies to new developments. People with kids, Hirsch notes, might not want or need a granite countertop with recessed lighting as much as they need a courtyard where their kids can play or to live within walking distance of a grocery store.
She adds that for families who make less than $95,000 a year, there’s currently not one affordable unit on the market in Somerville.
Hirsch says she’s willing to explore a range of options and creative win-win solutions in addressing the city’s housing woes, and would consider implementing programs like transfer taxes, where a portion of money from the sale of a building or unit would be used to build affordable housing or to purchase open space. In addition, she’s intrigued by a recommendation from Somerville’s Sustainable Neighborhoods Working Group that would create a right of first refusal program that gives current tenants the option to purchase a property at a fair market rate should their landlord decide to sell.
“For middle class residents, it would give them an advantage over investors, who will always win out in a bidding war,” Hirsch explains.
Either of these programs would be unprecedented in this region, but Hirsch says no idea, however simple or outlandish, can be off the table in these discussions, especially when it comes to reducing the household burden for Somerville’s families. As a result of her work with city schools, Hirsch knows that 67 percent of students come from families whose households make $50,000 or less annually. “How do you, across different categories of household expenses—food, transportation, recreation, healthcare—how do you relieve some of the burden or help households increase their income?” she asks.
Supporting families will be a key issue for Hirsch overall; she wants to build up the area’s youth-serving infrastructure, from recreational fields to community theater.
In doing so, Hirsch will emphasize the use of publicly available data, with which she’s familiar as one of the people who started SomerStat—the mayor’s office program that uses data to drive innovation and better city services—and later ResiStat. In an effort to address transportation issues and improving pedestrian and cyclist safety, she’d also like to someday access private data from the MBTA or apps like Uber and Waze.
“The main point of the work is trying to use all available evidence to help decision makers make the best decisions, including the most difficult ones: spending decisions.”
Finally, Hirsch says she’d like to introduce new interactive online tools. She has an idea for a program that could help a two-car family calculate the money they’d save, the length of time they’d add to their commute, their environmental impact and more should they eliminate one of their cars. She sees this as another way to learn about the people in the city—are people reluctant to give up their vehicle because they live in Winter Hill and don’t have easy access to a grocery store? Because they need to get to travel soccer games?—and find ways to address those gaps by expanding intra-school sports or increasing food access.
Hirsch will kick off her campaign with an event at PA’s Lounge on January 25, where people will experience her focus on community-building firsthand. Those who attend the event will get a drink ticket with a twist—in order to redeem it, everyone is required to talk to a stranger and learn their top concerns for Somerville. Hirsch hopes to hear from experts and neighbors alike to find out where the needs are, at PA’s Lounge and beyond.
“I want to really ask people, ‘What are you worried about, and how do we solve it?'” Hirsch asks. “And what would it take for you to be part of the solution?”
“All of us are experts on what it’s like to live here in the city,” she adds.