The Commuter City: Salem struggles to make room for new residents

Collins Cove, a flood zone in Salem which is facing redevelopment. (John Kraft)
Collins Cove, a flood zone in Salem which is facing redevelopment. (John Kraft)


By John Kraft

Salem, a tourist town located north of Boston, is becoming one of the most rapidly expanding gateway cities outside of Boston.  However, the housing developments that have taken place over the past 5 years have returned very little in terms of affordability.

The witch city is one such city that still adheres to the 10% minimum requirement for affordable units in new developments; a bare minimum that almost all new developments have not gone above.

And the affordable housing units that have been build tend to sit in the 80% AMI region, a number that ends up being far from affordable for many current Salem residents as well as newcomers.

“I ended up choosing Medford,” said Krishna Hemanth, a Boston tenant looking to move closer to his work in Salem. “Its almost the same price as Salem but a little cheaper.”

Hemanth, who is currently in the process of moving from his apartment on the border of Brookline and Boston, mainly wants to reduce his travel time from home to work.

Salem is one of many cities located on the commuter line out of Boston’s North Station, and one of Salem’s biggest selling points, with new developments planned right near the Salem station.

However, commuting between Boston and Salem is less than idea, with Hemanth’s commute from his apartment taking over an hour on a good day, with no delays or shutdowns

“It’s awful,” said Hemanth, referring to his daily commute and the $8 price attached to a commuter ticket to Salem.

Transit has long been a big part of Salem’s economy, transporting both workers and tourists.  And the local economy has been going strong for decades, making it unlike many gateway cities.

Karl Seidman, an economic development consultant and professor of urban planning at MIT, said cities like Salem don’t fall into the general description that most gateway cities fall under. “They’re cities that were not getting as much of the economic growth and development as  Boston and Cambridge stuff,” he said. “So I think it’s been a lot of attention to trying to strengthen the development markets for those communities.”

Despite a recent influx of new apartments, housing needs in Salem still haven’t caught up to the city’s growing economy.

Out of all new and upcoming developments, only one so far has committed to more than 10% affordable housing in its unit make-up.

Leefort Terrace is a public housing community currently in the planning stages of redevelopment, where the city plans to more than double the unit size at all affordable rates up to 60% AMI.

However, the plan includes a working relationship with Beacon Communities, a private development company who will oversee management of the Housing Authority property after the building is finished.

According to Seidman, financing is an important step in gateway city development, especially when it comes to classically underfunded public housing.

While less than ideal, a public-private financing partnership can make a big difference, but beyond that there can be reason for concern.

Seidman said that with these partnerships, “ownership or management, you know, isn’t diverted, You know, then it’s more than a financial transaction. And also, you know, it depends. I say the devil’s is in the details in those situations.”

And the issues facing Salem’s housing crisis is only exacerbated by opposition to any more development in the city.

“There’s a lot of residents that will oppose new multi-family housing. Even even if even if they support the goals,” said Seidman. “In theory, even if a lot of people will say yes, we need more diverse housing and community. We need more affordable housing and community.”

The city has attempted multi-family zoning ordinances before, but none have so far been approved due to pushback from residents.

Beyond zoning changes, the city’s efforts have mostly been focused on new mutli-use developments.

These developments however, also face opposition from residents, with the main argument being floodzone development, with planned construction on buildings like Leefort Terrace and the Crescent Lot near the commuter station being located on floodplains.

About John Kraft 4 Articles
My name is John Kraft. I studied Social Thought and Political Economy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and I’m currently finishing my masters in journalism at Emerson College. My reporting interests lie in politics and social issues and I strongly believe in following the money when searching for the truth. I one day hope to get into investigative reporting.