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Poll: Does Affordable Housing Have a Bad Name?

A debate about an affordable housing development in Union Square centers on a fundamental disagreement about one question: Are high-density affordable housing buildings good or bad for neighborhoods? (See poll at bottom.)

Last week, a group of Union Square residents .

The development, proposed by , would convert the former Boys & Girls Club building at 181 Washington St. into 40 units of affordable rental housing.

One of the fundamental disagreements about the project has to do with the nature of affordable housing. The Somerville Community Corporation, a non-profit, is dedicated to supporting affordable housing initiatives because it believes a diverse housing stock leads to a stronger community.

Members of Union Square Rising, the opposition group, say affordable housing is fine, but in moderation. Too much of it, concentrated in one neighborhood, is a bad thing, they say.

On Somerville Patch, .

One commenter, Matt C, said of Union Square Rising's position, "They are not saying they do not want to see any affordable housing options, rather their issue is primarily with density of affordable housing … a building with 40 units all of which is 'affordable' no longer is another apartment building—it is a housing project, which people looking to move to an area consider a negative, kinda like a major highway or power lines. They all serve a purpose but you probably, given a choice, would not choose to live next to one."

James had a different outlook. "Somerville is becoming increasingly unaffordable, largely because demand so exceeds supply," he wrote. "We must build more, preferably in smart growth areas like Davis and Union. Further, we can't only build luxury condos like … More supply—and more diverse supply—will allow younger people like me to follow their dreams in Somerville rather than leave to pursue them elsewhere."

In other words, when it comes to affordable housing, some think, The more, the merrier; others think, There's such a thing as too much.

What do you think? Are relatively dense affordable housing developments good or bad for neighborhoods in Somerville? (See poll below.)

Some other things to consider

Commenters raised a few issues and questions.

What sort of affordable housing?

Some people wanted to know what sort of affordable housing units would be in the Somerville Community Corporation's Boys & Girls Club development.

Danny LeBlanc, speaking last week after the community meeting, said the numbers are not "set in stone yet," but he said about eight of the 40 units would be "project based Section 8" units. Section 8 is a federally managed program that offers rental assistance to low-income tenants.

The most common form of Section 8 assistance, "tenant-based" Section 8, comes in the form of vouchers which low-income tenants can take with them if they move.

However, LeBlanc said the Union Square development would contain "project based" Section 8 units, which mean the rental assistance stays with the apartment, no matter who lives there.

The rest of the apartments would be low-income tax credit units, LeBlanc said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's website explains how this works: The developer, in this case the Somerville Community Corporation, is granted tax credits to build housing units for low-income residents. The developer sells those credits to an investor, who puts up money for the project. As a result of this investment, the developer has to borrow less to build the apartments, which means the developer can rent them out at a lower rate. The investor, in turn, can use the tax credits to directly lower the investor's tax bill.

Income requirements

LeBlanc said apartments would be reserved for people who make a maximum of 60 percent of the area median income. In 2011 numbers, that breaks down in the following way, according to a flier supplied by Somerville Community Corporation:

  • Household of one: $41,000
  • Household of two: $46,980
  • Household of three: $52,860
  • Household of four: $58,680
  • Household of five: $63,420

Would apartments be for Somerville people?

Those who want to live in the development will submit an application, and there will be a lottery to determine who gets to live there.

LeBlanc said, "For 70 percent of the units, we will draw only Somerville names."

In other words, he said, of the 40 units, 28 will be for people from Somerville.

The flier handed out by the Somerville Community Corporation tells a slightly different story. It says "Most units will be 'workforce' housing'" and that "70 percent of workforce housing units will be reserved for people who live or work in Somerville."

More on the Boys & Girls Club affordable housing proposal

mplo June 13, 2012 at 12:06 PM
Affordable housing is badly needed here in the City of Somerville. Sticking people in human warehouses or causing them to have to move out of a place that they've lived in for many years, or all their lives, isn't the answer.
Somerville Home Owner June 13, 2012 at 01:45 PM
mplo: A couple of points in response to your post. (1) Some would argue that large affordable housing buildings is similar to human warehouses, and that's why many are against them. (2) Things (and prices) change in life. People live where they can afford to live. Just because someone was able to afford to live in a location for a certain number of years doesn't entitle them to live there forever. Many people are concerned that folks are getting priced out of Somerville due to housing costs increasing faster than residents' wage increases. But what if housing costs stayed the same and the reason someone was unable to afford to stay in Somerville was because they got a pay cut? Should they still be entitled to continue living in Somerville? After all, they lived here for so many years.
mplo June 13, 2012 at 02:18 PM
If you're thinking of big, ugly high-rise buildings, then I'm in agreement with you. Imo, affordable housing could be done cheaply, though "infill" programs, which prefabricated housing could be erected on abandoned areas/lots throughout the city, without sticking heaven-knows-how-many families into large high-rises that, are, in affect, all too often human warehouses.
beenthere/donethat June 13, 2012 at 02:42 PM
It's a sad commentary on our city that housing that is affordable for, say, a beginning teacher or a school nurse or any of the occupations that one might think necessary for the functioning of a city our size is considered "project" housing! I'd suggest that the elite crew determined to reserve Union Sq. for the well-heeled (we can't all be corporate lawyers!) check out the starting salaries for school and other basic jobs in the city before they get to far up the track on their high horses.
Lucky June 13, 2012 at 02:46 PM
First, 40 units is not a warehouse. Second, SCC is doing something that is called "development without displacement" -- it is good for all of us. A diverse somerville -- low-income, middle-income, the 1%; a community that represents the racial and ethnic makeup of our increasingly global world -- means that we have access to the ideas, goods, and services that can help us learn and grow as a community. Communities hold values. Somerville is a place of the underdog and the newcomer. A place where first generation Americans come and their childrenn access a solid public school education, are the first in their family to go to college, and become active citizens. We should make a place for underdogs and newcomers -- many who are low-income and many who face the institutional racism which continues to persist in American. This structural racism creates an opportunity divide in and between communities. Affordable housing helps to reduce that divide--leveraging the talents of all and stopping the cycle of poverty. I could site statistics but instead will tell my story: I grew up poor but attended a great public school. First in my family to go to college, I also got an MBA. I own my own business that netted over 6 figures last year. I was lucky (and white). I give back financially and through a lot of pro-bono work. I know there are adults and youth who would do the same if we make a space for them. Somerville should be an example of diversity and inclusion.
mplo June 13, 2012 at 02:52 PM
What a great post, Lucky! Thank you very much for saying it like it is. However, while I agree that Somerville is a place of the underdog and the newcomer, it's also a place where all kinds of people reside. I agree that 40 units isn't a warehouse, and I support the idea of development without replacement. That's why "infill" programs are a good idea.
Dennis Fischman June 13, 2012 at 02:54 PM
Please take a look at SCC's housing that's already in place (Linden Street in Union Square, or the St. Polycarp's development in Winter Hill.) It's attractive and designed with parking for adults and play space for kids. It is the furthest thing from a skyscraper or a warehouse you can imagine.
mplo June 13, 2012 at 04:44 PM
Thanks, Dennis. I think I may have seen that particular housing building, and it is quite nice.
Kirk Etherton June 14, 2012 at 01:15 AM
Let's take a step back to define the terms of this (or any) discussion. Honestly, we're talking about housing that's "more affordable." The term "affordable" is misleading: many people doing important, full-time work are not able to afford even "affordable" housing. High prices in Somerville can be traced to two primary factors: 1) Proximity to Cambridge (with Harvard, etc.), and 2) The Red Line extension (to Porter and Davis Squares). As a 15-year resident of Somerville, I applaud the work I've seen done by SCC: it's usually superior to "luxury" developments. - Kirk E.
sister fennario June 14, 2012 at 01:24 AM
Amen! Well said!!
sister fennario June 14, 2012 at 01:36 AM
I was sad to read the comments about how good it is to see all the statues of Mary going away. I lived in the Ville for 23 years and I loved the Marys most of all. I was priced out and am now happy elsewhere, but I do miss the home that nurtured me for so long. The Marys gave it character. I found those comments to be so condescending and cruel and insensitive. It's unnecessary to insult people. Somerville has a smug problem these days. People are holier than thou. It's just sad. It is hard to be forced out of a town where we gave our life's blood - volunteered in the community, taught, went to services...our family was severed from our community and all the people we held dear. The worst part about the Ville now is how the newbies treat the townies/regulars. They speak down to us as if we are servants - garbage. We made this town great. That's why they come here!
Matt C June 14, 2012 at 03:29 AM
Why is this a sad commentary on our city? Our city has become such a great place to live that lots of people want to come live here, and invest in their community! I applaud the people who live here and the city government for making decisions that have made it the place that it is. The sad commentary is our societies valuation of "occupations that one might think necessary for the functioning of a city". We are ready to change how the market works for housing by creating artificial constraints and prices, but not for jobs.
Matt C June 14, 2012 at 03:54 AM
First, I love that you really believe that the "1%" lives in somerville, My family is one of those new comers who came to the US (living 2 blocks from where I live now) in their 20's learned to speak the language, worked hard, started a family, in thier 30's got their bachelors degrees (first in family as well) and unlike you never got close to breaking the 100k club. My family made difficult decisions about where and how they lived and sacrificed in some areas to have in others. They never expected or felt entitled to live anywhere - they rented where they could afford, they bought a home that they could afford, and they helped make that community what it is today and have reaped the reward of their hard work and plan to retire in the next few years. I do not think we are unique - especially in somerville. That said, I am happy to see affordable opportunities spread across the city, but rather than building a large, 40 unit building dedicated affordable opportunities lets increase the housing supply (lower prices) by incentivizing smart growth and incorporate the the standard x% of affordable units in it. I would challenge you in your comment that 40 units is not a large development, maybe not in Boston or Cambridge but there are very few 40 unit buildings in the city.
Ron Newman June 14, 2012 at 04:03 AM
I don't see these comments about statues of Mary. Were they removed?
Matt C June 14, 2012 at 04:13 AM
I think we need to consider the difference between how we increase the stock of housing in the city in general and how we provide affordable housing. I believe that the first concern should be increasing the overall stock of housing and then within that consider how you can provide opportunities for affordable housing. The number one way we are going to drive growth in our housing stock is by changing our zoning, beyond that we can further enable growth through incentives for developers and by making it easier for developers to do business in the city. Included in this can be regulation on required proportions of affordable housing, that can be managed either by the developer or by the city. This approach not only promotes economic diversity, encourages growth in the core economic zones of the city but also reduces the fear of individuals loosing their investment in their homes because of local development.
Matt C June 14, 2012 at 04:34 AM
sister fennario, we all have things we miss about what somerville was, for me it is the grape vines that so many people had growing over their driveways, but I am sure there are many things that we do not miss like the reputation for crime and violence the city once had. Yes, insensitive things have been and are said by me and by others. More often then not they are intended to articulate a point rather than be hurtful. The residents of past years ago helped shape the somerville we see today and the residents of today will shape the somerville of the future. That is why these discussions are so critical, and it is a statement to the community that we have so many people who are willing to take the time to participate in this discussion and continue to build somerville into the community where they want to live.
Jasmine June 14, 2012 at 08:56 AM
The 40 unit complex that SCC has proposed *is* a human warehouse. It is out of scale and out of style with the Union Square neighborhood. Union Square is zoned such that any new private development must have 15% affordable units. This is a smarter way to grow the affordable housing stock than concentrating it all in one place. And it is done with private - not taxpayer funds. I would much rather see a sustainable solution than government funds and tax credits to the likes of JP Morgan and Chase Manhattan funding projects like these. I think there is something fundamentally wrong with selling tax credits to the 1% in order to fund affordable housing. It is almost as if they're selling dependency. In addition to 20% interest on your credit cards, the banks will give you a nice place to live - provided Uncle Sam picks up the bill. And God forbid if you get a raise! Then you'll have to move out of your luxury unit into something of lower quality at market rates. This creates incentive either to hide income, or somehow avoid making more money. Any way you look at it, these kinds of "affordable" housing schemes come at a great cost to society. They are not the answer to society's ills. Look deeper.
Jasmine June 14, 2012 at 09:11 AM
It is wonderful that Somerville has always been the place for underdog and the newcomer - but even more so that it has been this way without government subsidies. Outside projects like these complicate the social relationships in a community that is growing organically. Union Square is plenty diverse, and that diversity exists in harmony. Put racism aside for a moment. A project like this creates a structural *classism.* This project creates 40 luxury units for a randomly chosen set of low income people. Not everyone can enjoy them. The units are out of reach for many working class family -- because they make TOO MUCH money. This sends the wrong message and creates resentment among neighbors. It turns the classic American ideal of 'work hard, get ahead' upside down. I applaud your story Lucky, and I think it is wonderful that you give back to the community. But a project like this creates a new set of problems, while not really addressing the problem it intends to address. As we can already see, this project is divisive, not inclusive. I would rather see public money going towards something everyone can enjoy. In this project, the rich (i.e. the investors getting the tax breaks - JP Morgan, Chase Manhattan and the like) benefit. A lucky few (chosen by lotter) low income residents benefit. Meanwhile the rest of us are left behind.
Jasmine June 14, 2012 at 09:17 AM
This is not about St. Polycarp, this is about Union Square. This particular building is too large for Union Square, and its design is out of character with the rest of the square. There are not enough parking spaces, and it will create a tremendous amount of traffic and congestion in the already crowded Washington Street corridor. This is not about attractiveness, it is about how the project fits into the existing community. And as designed, this project simply doesn't fit.
Jasmine June 14, 2012 at 09:23 AM
Union Square is already zoned for 15% affordable units in any new development that is built. That wasn't good enough for SCC, which worked to kill the private development at 380 Somerville Ave. http://unionsquaremain.org/2011/04/protest-at-city-hall-on-redevelopment-plans-for-union-square/ Who should determine the future growth of a neighborhood? Its residents, or a corporation that stands to gain by building more and more 'affordable' housing at taxpayer expense?
Lives Here June 14, 2012 at 11:43 AM
SCC objected to the displacement of the tenants in connection with the five-story luxury condo development next to Market Basket. Notably, none of those claiming that this development is too big ever protested or picketed that project.
Ron Newman June 14, 2012 at 03:57 PM
If we want to reduce traffic and increase use of public transit, it is best to build housing with fewer or no parking spaces. Plenty of big brick apartment buildings in my neighborhood (Davis Square) have no parking.
Lucky June 14, 2012 at 04:02 PM
Jasmine, we can't put racism aside. Greater Boston has done that for too long and now we see high racial segregation in housing an a real opportunity divide for children. We must have open and honest discussions about race and racism in our families, in our neighborhoods, and in our larger communities. Also, "the classic American ideal of work hard, get ahead" is a total myth. It may have been a bit true years ago but my hard work is just a fraction of my success -- I have no doubt that luck and race privilege were much, much greater factors. And, unlike those of inherited wealth, my future is less, less certain. Like most folks, my prosperity is new, meaning I still have student loans, high health care costs, and little retirement. Matt, some of the 1% does live in Somerville. And, we are lucky to have them (and their wealth, some of which supports local philanthropic causes).
Ron Newman June 14, 2012 at 04:02 PM
I live in a 50 unit apartment building near Davis Square. Is that a 'human warehouse' just because it's four stories tall and made of brick? (Built in 1929, by the way)
Matt C June 14, 2012 at 04:27 PM
Lucky - if the ideal of work hard, get ahead is a myth then we should all just give up trying to make our lives better. I do not live in a world where the only way your life gets better is by hand outs. If that is the world view of the majority of people it is truly a sad day in this great country.

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