Union Square Group Pickets Affordable Housing Meeting

One man called protesters "racist pigs" as the debate over a Union Square affordable housing development continues.

Union Square Rising, a group that opposes a proposed 40-unit affordable housing development in Union Square, picketed a community meeting about the project Wednesday night.

One person attending the meeting called the protesters "racist pigs" as he walked into the school cafeteria where it was taking place.

Inside the school, about 100 people participated in a comparatively uneventful presentation about the project's design features.


Members of Union Square Rising stood in the tot lot of the , where the meeting took place, holding signs that read, "We will not be silenced," "We live here" and "Build something for EVERYONE in Somerville."

The group says it hasn't been given the opportunity at community meetings to voice their opposition to the project, which would be built by at 181 Washington St., the site of the former Boys & Girls Club.

"The developer's presentations do not allow the residents to be heard," said Zac Zasloff, a member of Union Square Rising, which objects to the size of the project and the fact it would be comprised entirely of affordable units.

They said they were boycotting Wednesday's meeting because they had been promised time to speak, but that promise had been reneged.

After four community meetings about the project, "We still don't have a voice," Zasloff said.

Meanwhile, Danny LeBlanc, CEO of Somerville Community Corporation, said city officials are planning a forum in which Union Square Rising and others can voice concerns. No date is set for that forum.

It is about affordable housing

Some Union Square Rising members object to the size of the proposed development, which would be five stories tall.

"One of the main problems is the scale. It's just too big, it's too massive," said Michael Nystrom.

Others openly object to the concentration of affordable housing it would bring to the neighborhood.

"We're concerned that if there's 40 or 45 units of affordable housing, it will chill market rate housing" in Union Square, said Lynn Laur, a Prospect Hill resident who was picketing the meeting and said there's a "stigma" to affordable housing.

Members of the group have said they would prefer a mixed-income project, not one that is 100 percent affordable.

Zasloff feels the site would be better suited for a park or some other use, "anything other than housing," he said.

Strong words from one man

Going into Wednesday's meeting, this proposal had already caused in the community.

At the Argenziano School, as members of Union Square Rising spoke to Somerville Patch, one man walked by and said, "Where are your white hoods?"

When asked about that comment, the man, Joe Beckmann, said of Union Square Rising members, "They're racist pigs."

He said he's not affiliated with Somerville Community Corporation and described himself as "a landlord in Union Square who wants more units at $1200 a month."

The encounter ended in a seemingly civil conversation between Beckman and some members of Union Square Rising about affordable housing and tax credits.

Design changes and reaction

In response to some neighborhood concerns, LeBlanc said Somerville Community Corporation has brought the proposed height of the project down by five feet. He also said designers have moved big machinery, such as air conditioning units, off the roof and into the building.

There remains a fundamental disagreement about the merits of the project, he acknowledged.

"I think their fundamental objection to the matter is to the affordable housing aspect of the project," he said about Union Square Rising's protest. "We obviously believe that a lot [of affordable housing] is needed. They don't."

"I think there's a knee-jerk reaction that affordable housing will lower property values," but studies have shown they don't, LeBlanc said, adding, "It matters more what the building looks like and feels like."

LeBlanc also said, "I would also disagree that they"—Union Square Rising—"haven't been heard. Because they've been heard a lot."

Asked about the "racist pigs" comment, LeBlanc said, "I don't want to see that happen. I don't want to be demonized and I don't want Union Square Rising to be demonized."

More on the Boys & Girls Club affordable housing proposal

Matt C June 08, 2012 at 04:46 AM
Lynn you are 100% right! Thank you for so eloquently stating the position of many of us. Find a place you can afford and by investing in your property and participating in your community make it the place you want to! Just like we are trying to having made that investment.
Matt C June 08, 2012 at 05:07 AM
I think there is something to be said about the fragility of Union Sq. It is at a transition point and what happens there over the next few years is going to determine its future path. Somerville Rising has a view of what they want union sq. to be - a vibrant diverse community. They are not saying they do not want to see any affordable housing options, rather their issue is primarily with density of affordable housing. Had it been 20-25% affordable I do not think you would have seen the uproar. But 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. Everyone who lives in Somerville has a voice on what they want Somerville to be. They are not know-nothings they are people who are concerned about their community and are willing to speak up about it.
Kate June 08, 2012 at 03:26 PM
@Matt, how about just the density of housing, period? The design they showed is a monstrosity; its a 5-story apartment building with a design that looks like nothing more than the late 70s vision of what "modern" looked like. Cut the number of units in half (or more), drop two stories off the building, and for god's sake design it in keeping with the rest of the neighborhood! 2-3 story brick rowhouses with bow windows, clapboard with Mansard roofing, Victorian design elements around the outside -- SOMETHING to make it look like a part of Union Square, and not a housing project! I want to know if the architect would be content to walk out his front door every morning and look at that as his view, because I get angry just thinking about it. They kept referencing the St Polycarp development so I looked it up and realized that its the incredibly ugly, out-of-place, throwback housing complex behind Davis. God help us if they want to put another one of those here, its atrocious. And to Joe, since S'ville is already the most densely populated city in the NE, why do you think adding *more* clustered housing is a good idea? 40 units in the same footprint as me and the neighbors to either side of me, only with 5x the number of people, and this seems like a net gain you?
Matt C June 08, 2012 at 05:52 PM
Kate, I agree with you that it is not a "nice" or fitting the neighborhood - where I do not agree is around density. If your concern is look and fit I would suggest an Architectural Commission that describes the permissible styles in the neighborhoods, I am all for that. My personal belief is the best way to grow Somerville through smart growth in density through zoning. This means larger and taller buildings in some targeted neighborhoods. In this approach as new zoning rolls in developers would buy out existing land owners and build larger higher density properties on those lots and the city should promote this. These new properties should be 40b compliant, accommodate lower-income elderly, promote growth of the arts etc. and the rest at market rates ensuring the inclusive neighborhood growth. Additionally by increasing the housing stock we can lower the cost of housing (supply and demand).
Kate June 08, 2012 at 06:01 PM
@Matt, my question to you is "Why?" Why pack *more* people into the already most-densely-populated city in the Northeast? What possible purpose does that serve? There are other areas that could certainly use the revitalization that a population of working adults could bring (West Medford, especially since they put a commuter-rail stop there). Take two stories off that plan, create a design that fits with the character of this area (did the architect bother walking into Union Square itself, or up and down any of the side streets, or was he looking only at 28 and the Valvoline shop?) and a lot of the aggro will go away. They still need to solve for the parking and traffic problem, though, since the methodology they used is ridiculous. Of course there are parking spaces at 7pm, the residents are all still working or at the gym. Come back at 10pm and let me know where you find 31 extra spots...
Matt C June 08, 2012 at 06:35 PM
I guess the difference is I do not see density as a bad thing. I moved to Somerville 8 years ago know what it was, has been and where it was trending in terms of growth. For me increased density is a good thing, more people equals more demand for goods and services which drive economic growth. Also increased density is more efficient in terms of use of infrastructure. If you look at what the sierra club says urban densities drive down the # of miles driven as well by a factor of 4 over suburban density. I want to see Somerville grow I prefer to see it grow smart around our business districts and transportation hubs. I don't disagree with you on the parking and look feel, they should be accommodated.
Ron Newman June 08, 2012 at 07:03 PM
Why would adding affordable housing to Union Square "drive away businesses and development" ? If residents don't have to spend as much money on mortgages and rent, they'll have more left over to spend at local businesses.
Ron Newman June 08, 2012 at 07:11 PM
I'm not sure what 'incredibly ugly, out-of-place, throwback housing complex behind Davis' you are referring to, but St. Polycarp is nowhere near Davis Square. It is around Mystic Ave. at Temple Street.
Joe Beckmann June 09, 2012 at 01:13 PM
Joseph, Most of your questions are good. So good, in fact, that many are answered in the sheets SCC handed out last week, and are in the guidelines of various state and federal websites with which they must comply. My problem with Somerville Rising (SR) is that many are so eager to complain without first doing some homework. I really do have nothing to do with SCC, and they no doubt complain about my linking SR with the KKK, yet I've - on occasion - resided in CDC owned housing (in Cambridge), led tenant fights against CDC's, won those fights, and shifted to Somerville because, largely, of the diversity of which SR complains. In the course of those transitions, my house has appreciated 500% over 15 years, and it doesn't need to appreciate much more to secure a permanent retirement asset. That's hardly "radical," yet it does underscore why that diversity is in such danger, and why many of us are concerned with a naive - and often misinformed - contest. Affordable housing is not Section 8, since it's target is higher and more economically mobile. If you'd read SCC's invitation for new tenants for St. Polycarp, on some of the lists this weeks you'd know the income criteria as well as the residency and diversity goals. Rental housing is often, transitionally, more expensive than condos. And the city is actively seeking employers - read the Mayor's budget published this week. Somerville once had 30% more people, and still has 3 extra schools. We can gain density.
Jasmine June 09, 2012 at 07:58 PM
Joe Beckmann, Did you ever stop to think that calling peaceful protestors 'racist pigs' in fact makes you the racist? At any rate, there is no place for this our community. America is about the democratic process, not name calling and mud slinging, and I urge SCC to denounce this type of behavior among its supporters. This doesn't build community but in fact drives a wedge into an already divided community over this project. The point of community meetings is to inform the community. None of these questions, most importantly: How will it be financed, who is qualified to live there and for how long - have been answered at these meetings. You say we should read the literature for St. Polycarp? That is not the same development. I'm sorry, but 'go visit St. Polycarp and read some tear sheets' is not an acceptable substitute for community meetings. I did not know that so many city employees are on the waiting list for affordable housing. This is worth investigation as well, and goes back to Victor's comment above that SCC is a like quasi city organization - all the power without the accountability or the transparency. So if I understand this correctly, the city pays such low wages that employees have to live in affordable housing projects -- funded by the city and managed by SCC. Meanwhile Danny LeBlanc is pulling down six figures. I wonder who the real mayor of the city is - Joe Curtatone, or Danny LeBlanc?
Joe Beckmann June 10, 2012 at 01:21 AM
Another one who needs to do more homework. 1. SCC has already "denounced this type of behavior" - Danny said it at the last meeting if you'd bothered to listen. And that doesn't change my opinion that stubborn ignorance and the KKK have much in common. 2. St. Polycarp is funded by the same formulas that would fund the new project, so you'd see what qualifications are in practice, rather than in theory. And, if you joined the SCC board - or even went to their meetings - you could probably add some criteria that don't affect funding streams. 3. City employees - and other people employed in Somerville - qualify not because of very low salaries, but because of reasonable salaries for their first five to ten years of employment. $50K ain't so low. Local housing is most useful to them - and to us - since many are "on call" - whether with the police or children or family services. SCC is certainly not a quasi-city organization. You probably mean the Housing Authority and they serve much lower income people who may also work for the city - or anyplace else but at low starting wages. If you really think that is a better option, keep making a stink and you'll probably face a Housing Authority development instead of the SCC. I've already suggested that to SCC but they prefer to put up with your junk. 4. If you'd bother checking the link in my last note you'd know how much Danny LeBlanc makes, and it's not six figures. Read a little and you won't sound so stupid.
cindy June 10, 2012 at 11:43 AM
what? the beautiful people do not want to live around poor people? that cant be, they are so for equality for all...alright enough of that. I grew up in Cambridge. have tons of pride in my city. My parents were immigrants who came here LEGALLY. they invested in the community just like the beautiful ppl. rents started to rise in cambridge in the ealry 2000's I eventually got priced out. Was sick of paying high rent and could not afford to buy a 500K single family home (at that price it's still crappy in cambridge ;) ). This comes as no surprise to me. Somerville has been trying for the past few years to be up there with cambridge but it will never happen because cambridge has harvard and mit. What these stuck up people dont realize or maybe their parents didnt teach them that everyone serves a purpose in the community. these people too have a purpose. Cambridge a few years back had such a low kindergarten enrollment;not enough kids for the little league team. the community they cater to now D.I.N.K.S. (dual income no kids). nothing wrong with not having children right away in life we are all free to do as we want. These people also use the community hospitals much more. Not the young college kid that kid goes to the harvard university student clinic. As for the size of the building that's nothing North Cambridge has 3 high rise projects I believe 14-16 floors. I dont remember the exact height but they have the best view in the city and at an affordable rate.
Matt C June 10, 2012 at 09:20 PM
Cindy, we (people participating in the discussion) are working to build, and invest in our community. The result has been Somerville becoming more attractive and more people wanting to live here. I think many people are proud about the change they see in the city. Clean squares, low crime, thriving local businesses and vibrant neighborhoods. The other result is that Somerville has become more expensive to live in. The clear majority of people participating in the discussion are not anti-affordable housing rather they see the approach as a bad fit for their community. Had the proposal been for mixed income and a more matching architectural style I'm sure the development would have been welcomed. Like you, I am first generation in the us I bought a house 2 blocks from the apartment my father and his brothers shared when they move to the states 40 years ago. it was my family that taught me the value of hard work and investing in your home and community I've done that as have my neighbors and both me and my community had reaped rewards of our hard work. I encourage you to find a community you can afford and do the same. I'm sorry you were "sick of paying high rent" No one has a right to live any where. Not in Somerville, or any where else as some people seem to imply
Joe Beckmann June 11, 2012 at 01:40 AM
Matt C. You're wrong that "no one has a right to live any where." Certainly, anyone who wants to live any where has a right to pay for it, or find a someone else to pay for it. What is quite correct, is that no one has a "right" to keep any one out. Fifteen years ago, when we first began to seriously consider the transport bubble we now face, then Mayor (now Congressman) Capuano appointed an Affordable Housing Task Force. We spent most of a year looking at options to maintain the diversity we now have - and had just begun to acknowledge then. We looked at zoning, some Housing Authority (both Section 8 and developments as well as shared ownership of units in condominium buildings), some SCC owned, some SCC operated, and some SCC developed and jointly owned with others (as either condos or rentals, with affordable mixed use), and some with set-asides for age, disabling conditions, or income diversity. In other words, there was a wide range of options then (and now). Our concern was to maintain diversity. That means diversity by neighborhood, not diversity by building. Affordable developments have their own diversity - studios will house different families than one, two or three bedrooms, along with different incomes. Eventually we framed a "sales tax" on units to sustain this diversity even with the bubble we now face. Capuano left and his successors ignored the study. But that study is what you're talking about. Read it before you tell people they can't be here.
Matt C June 11, 2012 at 03:31 PM
The results of a study prepared by a task force a decade and a half ago do not equate to a right. To be clear, I have never once stated that someone should be restricted from living some place, As you said, anyone should have the opportunity to live where they can pay to live, in other words anyone has the right to participate in a housing market this does not mean you have a right to live someplace. I am all for enabling a diverse community my issue with the current development is the implementation. As I have said several times I am a supporter of mixed income development that is tailored to a neighborhood. Please include a link to the study you are referring to...
Joe Beckmann June 11, 2012 at 10:43 PM
The Affordable Housing Task Force report is from 12/31/1998, and no longer on any website - although I've got an electronic copy if you want me to email it to you. You're in deep water talking about people's "right to live" in different neighborhoods - "segregation" is just as illegal as it was in 1960. Certainly the market has a role but it's always subject to policy and other conditions. Your presumption that "the market" determines everything is absurd. "The market" is not what is driving Green Line development, for example. It is the environmental impact of the Big Dig - subway extension is a commitment by contract with the power of a court order, and "the market" has nothing to do with it whatsoever. The $1.1 billion Green Line construction is - by far - the largest public investment which will directly effect changes in housing, housing prices, and housing policy. And that is not "market driven," but, rather, derived by conditions. Our Task Force saw that pending impact, eventually settling on several key suggestions, including an urban version of the "real estate transfer tax" that currently buys open space on Cape Cod with, in effect, a sales tax on real estate transactions on the Cape. The model we suggested adapted a similar plan in Charleston, South Carolina, where they maintained the historical space by similar purchases. A "mixed income" neighborhood can easily include affordable developments along with others, just like 26 units at Maxwell's Green do.
Matt C June 12, 2012 at 12:06 AM
Joe, I really wish you would stop inferring that I mean that someone cannot live in any given neighborhood. We both said that anyone can live anywhere they can afford to live. The green line extension was about equity and impact of transportation on the city of Somerville, but the impact on the city and neighborhood is driven by the market (and peoples perception of what it is to live next to mass transit tracks) today people thing that living next to mass transit is a good thing, 80 years ago it was a negative. I am a fan of developments like Maxwells Green which is 3 blocks from my house. it is oriented around transit, it has a high density, mix affordable and market housing, it targets young professionals, it provides enough parking for its residents...and I hope will spur growth in the very under developed Magoon Sq. I'm not saying that maxwells is perfect, but it is, in my opinion, far better then what is proposed in Union Sq. And as I have said before - if the Union Sq. development was more similar to Maxwells Green where 24 of the 184 units are affordable.
Brian June 17, 2012 at 01:27 PM
Jasmine, you'd benefit from learning a bit about the development of affordable housing c. 2012. This "profit" you speak of is a standard part of nearly any affordable housing development in the United States in an era when there is very little public subsidization of such development. That "profit" is not profit because it doesn't go to shareholders but to fund subsequent development and operating costs. This is not unique to the organization in question here. I'm really saddened to be reading about Somervillians opposed to 40ish units of housing for families making up to about fifty thousand dollars, and comparing a five-story building to midcentury so-called "projects." Any stigma around affordable housing is not some inherent quality but forms because of really myopic protests like this one. This kind of thing makes it impossible to built affordable housing anywhere. If people in Somerville protest what amounts to moderate income affordable housing, imagine how difficult it is to construct *real* affordable housing in pretty much any community nationwide.
Brian June 17, 2012 at 01:35 PM
How else would affordable housing get funded in an increasingly expensive market but through subsidy? And if SCC's goal was to make lots of money, as you say, why wouldn't they just develop market rate housing? There is more money to be made in that, I assure you. Affordable housing is not a very lucrative form of development. Those subsidies go to fuel costs, electricity, maintenance, operations, repair, etc.
Brian June 17, 2012 at 01:43 PM
Do you actually think that incomes up to 50k constitute low-income? If so, then it is hard to read any of these comments as anything but snobbery. And if "third sector" CBOs do not build affordable housing, who will?
Joe Beckmann June 17, 2012 at 02:55 PM
Matt C., I think its charming that you find a $40,000,000 subway at the gate of Maxwell's Green so nice. It will be good for you to tip your hat to your betters, residing at a development built by the same company who will be the manager of the project you're now attacking. I think you're going to lose, incidentally, since they are just as interested in managing an affordable project on Washington Street as they are in managing other SCC properties, and in leveraging that management for the much wealthier Maxwell's Green you find so attractive. My bet is that they may well bid on and later develop a similar project closer to the Union Square station, since that is the pattern they find so attractive where you live. And, when the rest of those "market rate" developments get built, they - and Winn & Company - will want to count those 40 or so "affordable" ones against their ratio of new units elsewhere on the Square.
Matt C June 17, 2012 at 11:42 PM
Joe, you have no means to know who "my betters" are, though I can certainly say they are not going to be people depend on personal attacks in what is a civil debate. So set the record straight, I have never attacked you or anyone here personally, I have never attacked SCC as an organization or affordable housing, my complaint is about the specific development in Union Sq. and the anachronistic approach of building large subsidized housing developments in an area where they could otherwise not afford to live. I and i bet a majority of people would rather see the next 40, 50 or 500 units of affordable housing spread across numerous new developments across the city rather than in large blocks.
Ilovetheville June 18, 2012 at 12:30 PM
Brian, Not so... What the SCC does has zero risk compared to building market rate housing. By obtaining subsidies there is absolutely no risk that units could possibly sit vacant. Getting a guaranteed 10 percent developer fee from this 15 million government subsidized project is not a bad living from a so called "non-profit". SCC is a wolf in sheeps clothing!
Brian June 18, 2012 at 05:00 PM
That 10% development fee is not a profit though, it is a development fee. It pays salaries, operating costs, administrative costs. It doesn't go to investors or shareholders; it is not allocated as part of a revenue sharing plan to employees. That is a standard fee in any affordable housing development in the US. You can call it a profit if you want, but it is definitionally not a profit--any social service organization in this country gets an overhead fee of some sort for the service it renders. Look at the economics of CDCs anywhere in the country and you will find the same arrangement. You can object to salaries of the non-profit's employees, but that is a purely subjective call. I don't have a problem with non-profit directors earning in the high five or low six figures. That doesn't bother me. You'd do well to learn a bit about affordable housing finance. "Government subsidized" is a term that neglects two important facts: the LIHTC was a Reagan-era device developed to skirt the federal role in affordable housing provision. It is funded by investors. You can argue that the tax break provided to those investors is a government subsidy, but I will remind you that taxpayers subsidize all housing in the US. The most expensive federal housing programs are the mortgage tax deduction and the insurance that the government provides on your home mortgage. Given that homeowners get assistance for their housing, I have no problem with help for people who need affordable housing.
Ilovetheville June 18, 2012 at 06:57 PM
Brian, I will call it profit because that's exactly what it is... At least if there are shareholders involved there is some oversight and accountability. Non-profits can just roll it back into their oversized salaries and call it "non-profit accounting" and no one should question it... Danny's words, not mine.
jennifer D. July 12, 2012 at 11:45 AM
I bought a condo in Union Sq. Somerville in the 90's when I was in my mid 20's. I worked 3 jobs for 6 months to save for a down payment. I didn't go out with my friends at all during that time. I had a dream to be a home owner, and I worked hard to get what I wanted. No hand outs. No help. Just hard work. That is how it should be done.
Joe Beckmann July 12, 2012 at 02:42 PM
Would that everybody could have as much fun as you did. I bought a whole house around then, for 1/5 of what it's now worth. We all make decisions that have longer impact. If you'd looked around for affordable options you could have done it easier.
Matt C July 12, 2012 at 03:41 PM
Joe, I think you may be missing the point of Jennifers comment. What she did was to show amazing commitment to living her dream - something I admire and appreciate. I understand her point to be "I did it on my own and if someone is willing to work hard they can do it too" Home ownership is something that many people aspire to - it is not a given or a right. Living in any given neighborhood is nor a right - rather the right is that any individual can participate in the market. Would everyone work as hard and be willing to sacrifice as much, not only would they be able to achieve more as individuals, but also, in my opinion the world would be a better place.
Joe Beckmann July 12, 2012 at 04:30 PM
Matt, You're wrong in several different ways. First, "a market" is socially defined and not some objective reality. Whether the "market" is Somerville housing or municipal bonds, streetcars or cars in streets, are all variables subject to culture, subject to law, as well as subject to economic decisions. Pretending that the housing market, particularly in what was once the most densely populated community in the nation (now, after losing 30% of our population, only in New England) is something "given" or foreordained by external forces only is absurd. Dense markets define distinctive points of access, and those definitions are not driven only by cost. I bought my house at the bottom of the last cycle in the 1990's (probably when she bought her condo), and got a bargain. That's not market; that's smart. Second, we do have rights to live anywhere. Pretending that it is just economics ignores heritage, families, traditions, as well as politics. Maria Curtatone at the top of Prospect Hill didn't just buy her house out from under an elderly housing group, she used intelligence and contacts. As do most of us to get as much as we can wherever we want to be. And those rights are not purely financial, nor deliberate patronage. They are complex, and people seeking affordable living in Somerville are wise to recognize that complexity and negotiate it. That may not be the world in which you live, but it's the world where everybody else lives.
Matt C July 12, 2012 at 05:34 PM
Joe, Housing is a market as the market operates within the boundaries of law and is not subject to economic decisions, but rather drives them. And No, you do not have the right to live anywhere - you have the right to be able to participate in the market to buy or rent property anywhere - well unless there are artificial restrictions that block access to that market because of an individuals race, ethnicity, religion or level of income. It is and should continue to be just economics that do ignore an individuals heritage, family background, tradition, country of origin or political leaning. Creating artificial barriers about who can and cannot live in a place IS wrong. It is the change that new people, individuals and groups bring when they move into an area that keeps our cities and towns dynamic through the blending of their own thoughts and worldviews with those already living in their neighborhoods.


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