The Greatest Challenge Facing Salem - Mayoral Debate Fact Check (Question 1) - October 18, 2021
On October 18, 2021, the Salem News and The Frederick E. Berry Institute of Politics at Salem State University hosted a Salem Mayoral Candidate Forum, at the Sophia Gordon Center at Salem State University. A panel of current Salem State University students questioned candidates for the mayoral position: incumbent Salem Mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, and challenger, Ward 7 City Councillor, Stephen Dibble.
The first question the candidates were asked was about the greatest challenges they see currently facing the city of Salem. A transcript of their answers, followed by research we have done related to portions of their responses, follows. In order to watch the video of the this question, follow this link, and begin at minute 14:00:00.
"Question: (Question completely inaudible or possibly muted? From context clues, our best guess is something like, “What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Salem?”):
Driscoll: (First few words inaudible?)… the biggest challenge we face in Salem is housing, and affordable housing in particular. I was fortunate to be able to come to Salem as a student and to be able to continue to live here. I think one of the things that attracted myself and my husband to want to raise our family here is the diversity of people who live here, it’s truly a strength for us. My kids went to school with other kids who had two moms or two dads, they spoke different languages, may have celebrated different cultures from different religions, different income levels. It makes our community livable, but that is in jeopardy, due to fast rising real estate prices. It’s really hard to pour coffee or pour beer for a living and afford a place to live in our community, and it’s happened almost overnight. We are a victim in some ways of our own success and a victim of a really strong real estate market, which means we’re gonna have to dig deeper. The character of our community for nearly 400 years, we’ve had sea captains mansions around the corner from tenement houses. We’ve been a place that, me as a young adult, getting married, could afford to buy a home, our first home, two-family, just a stone’s throw from Salem State University. It’s really hard to do that these days. We’ve got housing prices that if you own a home its great you’re building a better nest egg, but if you’re someone who is trying to get into the housing market either as an owner or a renter, it’s a real struggle, and that has the impact of changing the character of our community. I don’t want to live in a place that is homogeneous, and only for affluent people. We want Salem to be livable, like we have been for 400 years, and that means we need to dig deeper and be more aggressive to tackle our community affordable housing needs.
Dibble: Well, there’s two big issues: our Salem Public Schools are suffering, and we’re overcrowding the city with more and more and more luxury apartments. So, Kim chose to spoke about housing, so I’ll do the same. We’ve just built thousands of units of, and there’s many many more on the way, thousands of luxury apartments that Salem residents simply can’t afford. We need truly affordable housing, we need senior housing, and we need higher paying jobs, and we’re not delivering. So, housing, crowding the downtown, which is, that’s ok, but on First Street behind Shaws, on Franklin Street, on Mason Street, Canal Street, Loring Avenue, Grove Street, all around the Salem, the mayor wanted 1,425 units of luxury housing at Shetland, and that’s our job, that’s our future there, we need to hold onto those jobs. For years she wanted thousands of units of luxury apartments at the power plant. Well, I put out a video that showed, oh, over 10,000 people watched it on Facebook, and we talked about overcrowding the city and offshore wind turbines that we could do with the property. Well, recently, about three months ago, the mayor flipped, 180 degrees, now she’s in favor of offshore wind turbines there, and the luxury apartment village has kind of gone away, at least for now, till after the election, maybe. But putting housing at Salem High School, behind Horace Mann School, behind the high school, taking away the athletic fields there is just wrong. 159 units of luxury apartments proposed at Lee Fort Terrace on top of senior housing. Doesn’t make any sense. There’s people there that are 90 years old, 107 year old woman, two blind people gonna displace them all then build 50 new units of senior housing, replace 50 for 50, but 159 units of luxury apartments on top? We can do so much better. The mayor called me an obstructionist. I was one of the deciding votes. Four councillors voted against putting, it was a total of 500 units of luxury apartments – 180 out front and 320 out back and I said no to changing that zoning. It was not in fitting with the neighborhood. The neighbors were upset about it. The neighbors would accept business there, or some senior housing, but the mayor wanted and having the planning department work on her behalf and on behalf of the developers put in 180 units. I said no, and it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen there, and what happened is Tropical Products is going to move across the street now, all those jobs are going to stay in Salem, huge taxes are building 4 times as big, and 123 new jobs. That’s planning!"
Here is the research, conducted by Salem 4 All, in response to some of these statements by the candidates:
1. "It’s really hard to pour coffee or pour beer for a living and afford a place to live in our community, and it’s happened almost overnight."
Minimum wage in Massachusetts in 2021: $13.50 (scheduled to increase to $15.00/hr by 2023)
Minimum wage in Massachusetts for servers in 2021 (not including tips): $5.55
Assuming an individual Salem resident who is earning the current Massachusetts minimum wage of $13.50 per hour works 40 hours a week at that rate, and takes two weeks off each year, they earn a salary of $27,000 per year. Most financial planning recommendations suggest an allocation of no more than 30% of one’s earnings go toward their housing costs. For this person, 30% of their earnings would come to $8,100 per year, or $675 per month. This challenge is not exclusive to Salem. Anywhere in Massachusetts, the average cost of an apartment is out of reach for someone earning at the minimum wage level. Tipped employees are often in much more challenging circumstances. While this has been a problem for many years, housing prices have increased dramatically in recent years. In fact, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a worker currently needs to earn $40.00 per hour to afford a 2-bedroom apartment in Salem.
2. "We are a victim in some ways of our own success and a victim of a really strong real estate market,"
Redfin gives Salem, MA a competitive score of 81 out of 100 (over the past 3 months). Factors include: Many homes get multiple offers, including some with waived contingencies. The average homes currently sell for about 4% above list price and go pending in approximately 20 days. Properties deemed as "Hot Homes" can sell for about 10% above list price and go pending in around 13 days. Typical down payments appear to be 30% of the purchase price, and homes are up 6.4% from last year.
The 2019 American Community Survey 5-year estimate data (also known as the long form of the Census that is conducted annually) shows that the rental and homeowner vacancy rate in Salem is at 1.3%. A healthy vacancy rate for a community is 5+% percent to encourage housing turnover. Tight housing markets due to low vacancy rate means housing prices will be inflated.
1. "We’ve just built thousands of units of, and there’s many many more on the way, thousands of luxury apartments"
The majority of housing units in Salem were not constructed in recent years, and the statement that 'thousands' of units have just been built is inaccurate.
In fact, from the chart below, created using data from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, we can see that we have not seen significant production of housing in Salem since the 1930s and earlier.
The U.S. Census Bureau data also shows us that Salem's pipeline of housing units that have made their way through our city's zoning process and received a permit to be constructed is also not in the thousands. It is important to note here, as well, that receipt of a permit does not guarantee that a unit will be constructed, and it is also important to keep in mind that projects that are permitted often take years to be constructed.
2. "the mayor wanted 1,425 units of luxury housing at Shetland"
In May of 2021, without notifying Mayor Driscoll, the City Council, or the city administration, Prime Group, the current ownership of Shetland Park filed an Environmental Notification Form (ENF) with the state, proposing to redevelop their property into 1,425 units of housing. As we can see from a statement issued by Mayor Driscoll on May 18 on Facebook, she was "surprised and dismayed by this notification" and reached out to them to express her concern about this proposal, and asked them to withdraw the ENF filing, which they did.
3. "For years she wanted thousands of units of luxury apartments at the power plant"
Pages 216-229 of this report show a presentation by Mayor Driscoll in 2012 about her hopes for the redevelopment of the Salem Harbor Power Plant site. Residential use is not listed as a significant potential use for the site. She also indicated in her presentation that in a community survey, of all the potential reuse opportunities for the site, residential is least favored by the community. On one of the slides she presented, there is a suggestion of a small corner of the site potentially serving as “mixed use” development, with residential potentially over commercial in that corner, though these were very preliminary discussions about the redevelopment of the site, and no specific unit numbers were suggested. Most of her suggested plan in 2012 was focused on maintaining the commercial and industrial use of the site, and maintaining the tax base that the site generates. This was at a very early, conceptual stage of the planning process in which many stakeholders were at the table to brainstorm about possibilities.
4. "about three months ago, the mayor flipped, 180 degrees, now she’s in favor of offshore wind turbines there, and the luxury apartment village has kind of gone away"
Also in this report from 2012, the use of the land to support wind generation was already being seriously and extensively discussed by the task force, though there were not yet any proposals on the table. Wind is mentioned more than 60 times in this report: https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2016/08/uy/full-task-force-report.pdf
5. "159 units of luxury apartments proposed at Lee Fort Terrace on top of senior housing"
We have already fact checked this claim in a previous report by Salem 4 All, and details of our findings can be seen in the following two posts:
6. "500 units of luxury apartments – 180 out front and 320 out back"
These projects were proposed for the parcel along Highland Ave, formerly referred to as the ‘CinemaWorld’ site, and formerly the home of Highland Gardens.
7. "the mayor wanted and having the planning department work on her behalf and on behalf of the developers put in 180 units"
It is inaccurate to state that the neighborhood was not in favor of or driving the desire for this project, or that this was driven by Mayor Driscoll. Following the very unpopular “CinemaWorld” proposal from recent years, many neighborhood meetings were held - initiated by the Ward 3 City Councillor, Lisa Peterson - about this parcel, ahead of this project proposal being developed, including a meeting, hosted by the Ward 3 and 4 City Councillors and Mayor Driscoll, in early 2018, asking neighbors to collaborate and weigh in on how they wanted to see this parcel and this entrance corridor developed (prior to any new sort of proposal of any kind coming to the table). The residents of the neighborhood were found to be widely in favor of apartments or condos, with a higher-end restaurant, at the site of the parcel. A wide variety of outreach efforts were made and several meetings were held over the coming months, in order to include everyone in the immediately abutting neighborhood who wanted to discuss the parcel, especially once the private development proposal was ultimately introduced. The Barnes, Clark, Wyman Neighborhood Association ultimately assembled, with an invitation for all neighbors to attend, to take a vote. Residents with homes throughout the neighborhood participated. While the vote was not unanimous, a majority of the neighborhood vote was in favor of the project, and as a result, the association began supporting the project and the necessary zoning changes that would be required for it to be created. In spite of this neighborhood support, this proposal was ultimately voted down by the City Council, and was unable to be constructed.
8. "Tropical Products [...] 123 new jobs."
From an announcement by Governor Charlie Baker at Mass.gov: "Tropical Products, Inc. (Salem) - For 28 years Tropical Products has been a family-owned manufacturer and bottler of pet care and cleaning products. Their current 45,000 sq. ft. facility is poorly situated and extremely inefficient. The planned new facility will increase the seven current production lines to between 14 and 20. Tropical's plans for adding to its workforce include hiring employees from specific demographics including veterans, persons with disabilities, and individuals who were previously incarcerated. The company plans to create 123 new full-time jobs, retain 10 full-time employees and make a private investment of $21.5 million. The city of Salem approved a five-year TIF valued at approximately $474,668. The EACC Board has approved EDIP investment tax credits in the amount of $340,000."