NEWBURYPORT – The seven candidates for five at-large City Council seats tackled questions about affordable housing, the future of Waterfront West and the quality of education in the city in a live internet radio forum Saturday morning.
The candidates on the Nov. 5 ballot are incumbent at-large Councilors Barry Connell, Joe Devlin, Afroz Khan and Bruce Vogel, and challengers Robert Germinara, Paul O’Brien and Charles Tontar. Tontar is the current Ward 4 councilor but running for one of the five at-large council seats.
In the 1½-hour radio forum on Local Pulse, host Joe DiBiase asked what the candidates would do to provide affordable housing to senior citizens.
All seven agreed the shortage of affordable housing for seniors, families and individuals is a serious problem, with several citing the current push to have at least some affordable apartments required if the former Brown School in the South End is redeveloped.
O’Brien said councilors “need to do better. We need to learn how to blend (affordable housing) into all of our city,” not just in specific buildings.
Tontar said in his discussions with Newburyport business owners, they often cite the lack of affordable housing many of their employees face.
During the master plan review, the city hired a consultant who interviewed downtown business owners and found “the No. 1 problem for business was the lack of affordable housing for their employees,” Tontar said.
Devlin noted the pushback by some residents when affordable housing is proposed in their neighborhood, as in the case of the Brown School, when it “seems like the weight of the city is against you.”
The impact of affordable housing “should be shared by everybody” in all neighborhoods, he said, stressing that he proposes any development with six units or more must have “a certain amount” of affordable housing required.
In the case of the proposed Waterfront West development in the boatyard between the old Black Cow restaurant and Michael’s Harborside, the latest iteration called for 12% of the proposed 215 apartments being affordable. Several candidates said the council has to make sure New England Development meets the affordable housing requirement and builds those units onsite — not in another part of the city.
Germinara, a longtime advocate for an open waterfront, said he believes the Waterfront West proposal “is nothing but a glorified Airbnb,” implying that if apartments are built there, they would become short-term rentals by nonresident owners.
“We’ve got to clamp down on the developers” who turn buildings with several units into high-end condos or single-family dwellings, he said.
Khan was one of five councilors who voted in the majority to scrap a proposal for a ballot question that would have indexed seniors’ incomes to the state’s circuit breaker, possibly making 200 more people eligible for senior tax breaks.
She cited drawbacks to the proposal and a need to consider senior citizens and families when looking at the shortage of affordable housing in Newburyport. And she encouraged people to attend a Pennies for Poverty-sponsored panel on the affordable housing shortage Oct. 16.
“A lot of people don’t understand, what does it mean for affordable housing,” she said. “There are not just seniors, but there are families as well in that mix. ... We need to get the dialogue going and to get an understanding amongst the community of the need” for housing, she said.
Vogel said “we have to continue to work hard” at providing more affordable housing, citing the approval of the apartments under construction near the commuter rail station, which include affordable housing as a condition for the project’s approval.
He cited his concern that limits the council put on infill housing and in-law apartments had limited housing options for families in the city.
O’Brien said he would support requiring at least 15% affordable units in developments and ensuring the housing isn’t clustered.
“We need to put it in all our wards,” he said, and should seek assistance from the state to increase the amount of affordable housing. “We should be more aggressive in our goals for affordable housing” and “to learn how to blend it into all of our city.”
Connell, the council president, said he supported the senior tax exemption, adding, “the overall benefit far outweighs the problems it may present.” He also said he would support a requirement that any Waterfront West development have at least 15% affordable housing.
Germinara, for his part, said “a 15 to 20% requirement should be a minimum” for developers.
To listen to Saturday’s forum, click on the Local Pulse logo at www. newburyportnews.com, then click on “Show 274.’
Richard K. Lodge is editor of The Daily News. Follow him on Twitter @RichardLodge_DN.