Is There a Class Divide in Somerville?

A proposed affordable-housing development in Union Square has sparked a debate about gentrification and the future of a neighborhood.

A lot of people had comments about the proposed in Union Square.

The conversation turned to deeper issues: gentrification, neighborhood transformation and the relative merits of subsidized housing, among other things.

A number of commenters were direct with their opinions:

Leslie Gildart wrote, "All you wealthy gentrified folks looking to keep out the working class: Why didn't you step up and buy the building yourselves?"

Joyce Junior commented, "[M]ost people in opposition to this project aren't from Somerville … [they] are a bunch of yuppies that moved into the neighborhood, and now the people around them are suddenly intolerable to live with."

The comments swung in the other direction, too. Matt C said, "Why do folks constantly deny the fact that Somerville is changing or declare that change is bad. Somerville is no longer a community of blue collar workers and day laborers … People who pay more want it to look like what they paid for it ... so say goodbye to the chain-link fences and Virgin Mary statues."

"I appreciate your logical argument," Joyce Junior responded, "but when you tell us to 'say goodbye to the chain-link fences and Virgin Mary statues,' it sounds incredibly condescending. I'm sure you meant nothing by it, most yuppies never recognize their own arrogance."

To which Matt C wrote back: "My condescending comment was meant to describe that people not from the city often see Somerville as a sea of triple-deckers surrounded by chain-link fences with a Virgin in the bathtub sitting on the paved 'lawn,' and that picture of Somerville is changing." He later added, "I like the change I have seen in the community and want to see more of it, fault me as you will."

Erica Schwarz, talking about the larger debate surrounding the proposed project, summed things up as she sees it by saying, "This is, in part, about the future of the city as a whole and who we want it to be and what we want it to look like."

Is the city divided?

It's not a new debate, but in a city that's changed as rapidly as Somerville has over the past 20 or 30 years, it's one that flares up from time to time.

We're interested in what you think. Is there too much gentrification in Somerville, or is "gentrification" another word for positive change? Does an affordable housing project like the one proposed help or hurt Union Square?

Editor's note: We edited comments slightly for length and to fix minor errors.

Emily Cann March 15, 2012 at 09:51 PM
SHO - there are actual (independent and MA and nationally oriented) statistics that show repeatedly that this is not the case. I understand your logic, but it is not proven, and in fact the opposite seems to be true based on lengthy studies (and the research was not comprised of economists).
Emily Cann March 15, 2012 at 09:55 PM
My community is defined by those I interact with every day in my town. People I sit next to on subway, people I buy my groceries from, my neighbors, whether I like them or not. The people who effect me in my town. And there are various sub-community types too - church, dodgeball teams, bar and restaurant community. (and these are just examples, I dont participate in some of these examples, the point is, there can be endless examples). Contributing members of society are essentially my community at a 10,000 view. And there are those who do not or cannot contribute, but they still have a part in the residential community I live in. what is your community comprised of?
Somerville Home Owner March 15, 2012 at 10:03 PM
There is an issue with such studies. First, studies are generally biased towards a desired outcome. It is clear what types of institutions would fund a study that comes out pro-affordable housing. It isn't as clear (to me at least) who would fund a study that comes out against affordable housing. With that said.. it is fair to say that my theory is unproven. By I find it more logical than the counter argument.
Jim Cann March 15, 2012 at 11:14 PM
Isn't this a free country? Do we exclude people because of their income? I thought segregation was a thing of the past? Do you honesty belive your property value will go into the toilet?
Somerville Home Owner March 16, 2012 at 01:22 AM
Jim: I didn't say anything about my property value going Into the toilet. I would like my city to be inclusive of all people but I don't think affordable housing is the right way or the fair way. But to answer your question about segregation and excluding people based on income. It would be nice if it was a thing of the past but unfortunately it is not. Why do you think we have illegal immigrants? They were too poor to qualify for legal migration or visa. Many people in Somerville complaining about them too. Is it ok to exclude them based on income? I know the response to that will be that that's a different issue because they broke laws. My point is that those laws are based on income and skills. They discriminate too. Many people come here legally from those same countries but they were able to because they had more money.
Jim Cann March 16, 2012 at 01:44 AM
What is the fair and right way? Not in my back yard?
Emily Cann March 16, 2012 at 02:42 AM
Logic is just theory until it is tried and tested, whether it sounds reasonable or not. I encourage you to do research on both sides of the argument and see where fact may come into play, whatever the outcome might be - pro or against your logic. I do not think we can or should run on logic alone. And I would highly doubt that this or any construction, business, or other plan does not do a feasibility study before investing in the project, but that may not be true. I have nothing to back my statement, but it seams logical to me :) And I too wonder what is the right way? I alsO wonder if you believe in merit based academic scholarship awarded to people that meet certain requirements? This will basically be a merit base housing scholarship.
Scott March 16, 2012 at 03:21 AM
The recent changes in Somerville are good for everyone currently living here. We will have easier, closer access to new services, with increased commercial properties our taxes will go down, our property values will increase and as more options show up within walking distance, people won’t feel the need to drive as much, so concerns about traffic will become less important. The feeling of “neighborhood” will only improve as more people spend less time in their cars, walk on the sidewalks and get to know one another face to face. I feel pretty fortunate to be in a city with this kind of vision and don’t get why anyone would be against this kind of change.
Somerville Home Owner March 16, 2012 at 12:48 PM
Jim: for me it's not about being in my back yard. If it was I wouldn't have moved to Somerville. For much of my childhood, my family lived near poverty line. I have family that still do. Emily: I will do my research. I do believe that construction plans are backed by feasibility studies but I highly doubt that the businesses that stand to profit care about our community or our discussion on fairness. I do believe in merit scholarships because it's a way of attracting the best and brightest. How does that relate to affordable housing qualifications? What is the merit criteria? To me affordable housing is more similar to need based scholarships, which I also agree with because the student generally has to pass merit criteria of being accepted to the school first. Maybe I am missing something but what is the merit criteria of affordable housing?
Somerville Home Owner March 16, 2012 at 12:55 PM
Jim & Emily: What is the right way? I don't have all the answers but I think a fairer way to achieve diversity is to have more density, more diversity in residential units, and let things run at market rate. By diversity in residential units, I mean single families, multi-families, mid size and large size condo and apartment units. The variety and density should let market forces control who lives where. Those with more money will likely get the single families. Those with less will likely get apartments in large buildings. But everyone gets to live in close knit community. And if you want a single family at cheaper prices, I'm sorry but you have to live somewhere else. Similar to if I want beach front property, I might have to buy in south Carolina because I definitely can't afford it in La Jolla.
Emily Cann March 16, 2012 at 01:06 PM
My final thoughts. I am all for prosperity and growth in a local community, and have been very fortunate to live in Somerville while on the upswing. However, just as it is gernerally accepted as wise to diversify your investment portfolio, services, and products, I think it is just as important to diversify a city or town's housing options. I think it stimulates more growth. I have not seen any evidence that it brings down home value, though I am open to the notion with some fact supporting information. I would think that if this was truly a concern, that people would be researching it vehemently to find out the true pros and cons rather than relying on opinion and suspect, no matter what the logic is behind it. Find out if it is hurtful or beneficial. Do research. I do not think it is likely that you will find a truly homogenous town in terms of housing options, but it might be! I also do not believe that stiffling the working class, primarily the service industry (trades, food and beverage, educators, etc.) will stimulate economic and societal growth in a town or city. I appreciate all the comments for and against, and again encourage fact finding before making decisions on logic or opinions. and I am probably a Blue C. Yuppie. I'm happy to stand on the divide. but likely wont be able to live in Somerville for very much longer!
Emily Cann March 16, 2012 at 01:08 PM
I dont think it is 'fair' to evict tenants so that a building can be demolished for higher priced housing, when there is no other housing in that city or town to go to. So that someone who has worked hard to achieve there residence is now forced into economic depression, only deepening a cultural and economic divide. I am very happy that the plans for this particular building are choosing to re-use a space, rather than driving up production costs, congestion, and wasting materials and fuel sources in new construction. And I think it's ironic that Union Square has been such a proponent for the independent business, cultural diversity, and promoting ethnic food, and the arts, and green construction (the building proposed is to be constructed to LEED specifications) to want to score out those who make these things a possibility. If traffic and congestion and aesthetic is your concern, those are things to talk out reasonably with the city and SCC and contractors. con't
617 March 16, 2012 at 01:12 PM
Diversity of food for the wealthy white folk!
Matt C March 16, 2012 at 02:49 PM
Well, I am a bit late to this conversation and I think a number of great points are brought up. The end game is that not everyone is wealthy. Some folks will be able to afford to live in Somerville in 5 or 10 years, others a will not. On one side of the conversation we are saying that it is not fair to price people out of their homes, the other is saying that housing is like any commodity and it's price changes due to demand and that often causes the buyers to change, (e.g. It is fair because it is natural market forces at work). The conversation about the development in union sq. was less about the affect of affordable housing and more about how a community comes together to identify what kind of place it wants to be in the future and what steps it will take to get there. Some of us like the change that's occurred in the city over the last 30 years, others do not and many have not been here long enough to understand the transformation. There are a few possible outcomes, but that outcome well be dreaminess by people who vote and participate in community discourse. If you don't like the change, vote your reps out or run yourself. If you do like it, support them. I want to see a cleaner, safer, more prosperous Somerville. I want Magoon sq to be like Union sq in 5 years, I want the T running by my house. I don't want "to kick out the poor and working class", but it it's likely that unless Somerville increases is density they will be priced out.
kevin thomas crowley March 16, 2012 at 03:00 PM
i guess the first sentence on the yuppie issue is where you declare your status as a somervillian: i am a native of this fair city. who made the money from the amazing rise in property values? we( but not i) did. i know many, many people who sold the their houses or their parents houses at a tremendous profit, while sniggling at anyone who would pay such an exorbident price for the property. the buyers who were considered "fools" then are now thought of as"elitest." i wish i had had a house to sell to these suckers. i'd be on my knees thanking them for the gobs of money they gave me. the word "yuppie" is a stupid, prejudicial word. my parents( from the old country ) wanted me to get the education they did not have the opportunity to get. so i got it. they were not alone. every working class family i grew up with had the same desire for their children. now many of these these same working class children, with degree in hand,moved into other cities where suddenly they became the yuppies of their new town. so, while you considered your sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, cousins and and friends "successful",others, in their new towns, saw them as interlopers trying out new ideas seemingly without the knowledge and respect for the history of their town. the yuppies are your sons and daughters! i cherish the memories of the somerville i grew up in and i really like dynamic somerville of today. well, that's my two cents.
Matt C March 16, 2012 at 05:25 PM
well said
Somerville Home Owner March 16, 2012 at 05:35 PM
Great perspective. With some slight differences, both my wife and I fit the scenario described about children of immigrants living in working class communities becoming yuppies in a new town.
Matt C March 16, 2012 at 05:50 PM
Yes there is a divide today and no there will be a divide tomorrow, communities will always have difference is wealth and background, I find your argument to be baseless as these trends are cyclical - today there may be a swing towards urban living, and tomorrow it may swing back towards suburban. Relative differences in wealth will always exist... 10 years ago, today and 10 years in the future there will be wealthier and poorer neighborhoods in Somerville.
Matt C March 16, 2012 at 05:58 PM
You are right if the number of units remains static. - If you add housing then it should it would alleviate the current market pressure (increase supply = decreased prices when demand is flat) - If you add housing that is not part of the "normal" market, it should not affect the general market prices. ((flat supply = flat prices when demand is flat) - If you transition housing from market prices to non-market then prices increase (decrease supply = increased prices when demand is flat)
Matt C March 16, 2012 at 06:08 PM
Emily, who is guaranteeing housing? when did being able to live where you want become a right? Maybe that is not an elitist concept, but it certainly screams entitled.
Matt C March 16, 2012 at 06:10 PM
Jim, help me understand what the story of your friend vs you means? You have been able to "afford" to live in somerville, your fiend was not. I agree that the reduction in rental units in somerville has an increased the cost of renting - but that shouldn't surprise anyone.
Matt C March 16, 2012 at 06:14 PM
Jim, I am excluded from owning a Ferrari.... because i can't afford one, this is not segregation. No one is saying that my neighbor owning one would negatively affect me, we are saying that its not the end of the world if you cannot afford a "luxury" whether it is living in Back Bay, Weston or yes, Somerville.
Matt C March 16, 2012 at 06:17 PM
Emily, SHO's main point was that the only want to maintain current prices or lower them is to increase the supply of housing. That means changing the laws in the city to allow for denser development.
Matan BenYishay March 16, 2012 at 09:00 PM
It isn't just that the idea of affordable housing increasing market prices is completely unsupported by empirical data. The logic behind this idea is also based on violating a number of key assumptions necessary for the simple supply-and-demand dynamic to work. The idea of supply and demand leading to a pure market equilibrium is based on a number of assumptions. One of the most basic assumptions is that the market being studied is for one commodity. The price is set by determining how many consumers are willing to purchase the commodity at a given price (demand) and how many producers are willing to sell it at that price (demand). This can also be based on how many units an average consumer is willing to buy and how many units an average producer is willing to sell. For this process to work, the market price at equilibrium must be the price *everyone* pays. Or, there must be perfect movement between places where high prices are charged to places where low prices are charged, which leads to prices equalizing.
Matan BenYishay March 16, 2012 at 09:03 PM
Another assumption underlying market equilibrium is that the market itself is well-defined and more or less static. But this assumption is not true either when it comes to the housing market. The housing market works on multiple levels at multiple times. Increasing the supply of luxury condos will draw demand from a wide range of locations--local, regional, and perhaps even national. Increasing the supply of affordable apartments will draw demand from a much narrower range. Since those who can afford luxury condos by definition have more resources, relocation is significantly easier for them. Moving to a new place involves transportation costs, moving expenses, and credit. There are many other aspects of the anti-affordable housing arguments that are completely off-base. I just wanted to address this "theory" because it's been tossed around so much, despite the complete lack of proof and the bogus assumptions behind it.
Somerville Home Owner March 16, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Matan: I think we understand that the economics behind the housing market isn't as simple as we've argued in our examples. Clearly, there are many factors that play a part in the housing prices and market. If it were straight-forward, we would have better ideas of how to fix the housing slump in today's economy. To your argument about those that can afford luxury items have more resources: this is a good point. But my argument compared 2 scenarios that, for the sake of comparison, kept demand the same. You seem to argue that if we introduce more luxury residential units, people may come from other places to fill those units thereby not alleviating high prices. In other words, demand may fill the supply. That /could/ happen, but generally just because you build it doesn't mean they will come. In other words, just because you build more luxury units doesn't mean people will flock to them. At any given moment, there is a certain level of demand to live in a region due to many factors. One of the big factors, like in the case of Somerville, is proximity to employment centers (e.g., Boston & Cambridge). There will not be more jobs at these employment centers just because a luxury condo building is built. Yes, it is likely that people that already work in Boston/Cambridge but live somewhere else might decide to live in Somerville if more luxury units are available. But that would happen ONLY if the price decreases. Otherwise, why wouldn't they live in Somerville now?
Leslie Gildart March 17, 2012 at 12:44 PM
Somerville's cultural and economic diversity are the main driving factors that make it such a great place to live. The food. The diverse peoples. The arts. The teachers. All of these aspects of the community are augmented by making sure there is affordable housing available to the people who provide them. If the wage and housing "markets" truly functioned as efficient and correct arbiters of pricing, workers would be earning enough at their jobs to be able to afford to live within the same community, but it doesn't, it hasn't and it never will. And even that begs the question of whether it is right to shrug off the effects of letting the haves decide the prices of those commodities that are also basic necessities of life, while also allowing them to decide the wages of the people who need them. So far, Somerville has been a community that actively mitigates those forces, with living wage requirements for new businesses and with a commitment to making sure that there is at least some affordable housing added in addition to all of the luxury condo projects. Those efforts contribute greatly to making Somerville a healthy and desirable place to live and to conduct business and a great place to raise a family. Somerville's "official" policies promote kindness and compassion and support families, knowing that doing so makes the community better, happier, more prosperous for everyone. I hope the community is strong enough to continue to stand up for those values.
Jeff Miller March 17, 2012 at 02:30 PM
Homes and homeownership - this is stuff that cuts close to the bone for all walks of life. Of course there's a divide – but that doesn't mean we have to behave in a divided way. Addressing the complexities of a multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-income neighborhood should be embraced as the lucky challenge it is. My problem with this whole issue is that the ideas seem so OLD...hasn't this dead horse been beaten over and over again? I don't know all of the people involved, but I'm willing to recognize the actual day to day efforts and contributions that people are making to address the needs of our evolving neighborhood. All the same we need to watch out for the same old community sand traps. If an issue divides a neighborhood so strongly, chances are there simply hasn't been enough thought put into a long-term vision.
cindy June 10, 2012 at 11:47 AM
amen!!! got priced out of Cambridge moved to medford in '09. Medford was a big shock to me at first but its helped me learn the meaning of FAMILY which I had lost living in Cambridge once all the families got priced out all i saw was young single people.
cindy June 15, 2012 at 12:25 AM
and yet we keep voting for liberals who say they are for the poor. sure their for the poor as long as they are not living next to them. somerville is going thru what cambridge went thru starting early 2000's. I should of bought my home in east somerville instead of medford few years back. because e.somerville is a dump now but in a few years it will look just like E.cambridge does today.


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