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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.

Picketing

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

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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