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Affordable Housing Proposal in Union Square Causes Conflict

Supporters say the city needs more affordable housing. Opponents say the project is too dense and there's too much affordable housing in the area.

A dispute is growing between the , which is planning to redevelop the old Boys & Girls Club building in Union Square into 40 units of affordable housing, and neighbors who feel the project is wrong for the area.

At a neighborhood meeting held Monday night, supporters and opponents of the development packed city hall to hear a presentation about the project and voice their opinions.

A number of commenters talked about gentrification in the area, and by the end of the meeting there was a palpable sense of resentment coming from both sides of the room.

The project

The Somerville Community Corporation, an affordable housing organization, completed the purchase on the old Boys & Girls Club building at 181 Washington Street, in Union Square, in February, according Danny LeBlanc, CEO of Somerville Community Corporation.

The organization plans to construct a new building with 40 units of affordable housing. Of those, 8 units would be for Section 8 housing, where tenants receive government assistance for paying rent. The other units in the building would be reserved for tenants with an income of 60 percent the area's median income. For a family of four, that works out to be about $56,000 a year, said LeBlanc. A two-bedroom apartment in the building would cost about $1200 a month, and most of the units would be two-bedroom apartments, with a few one- and three-bedroom apartments.

The architecture firm DiMella Shaffer is designing the building. Frank Valdes, a senior associate at DiMella Shaffer, presented the current design Monday night and said the goal of the design was to create something "relevant" and "contemporary" that would fit in with the Union Square of the future. The neighborhood recently underwent a rezoning process in anticipation of the Green Line extension and an expected increase in development.

For and against

The aldermen's chambers in City Hall, where Monday night's meeting was held, was divided physically down the middle, more or less, with supporters of the project siting on the left and opponents siting on the right.

By and large, supporters of the development, many wearing blue Somerville Community Corporation T-shirts, talked about the need for more public housing in the city and region.

"There's a need for more affordable housing in the city of Somerville and the whole Boston area. And if not here, where?" said one man.

Katie Gradowski, from , supported the project as a way of staving off over gentrification, lamenting, "I have been part of gentrifying just about every neighborhood I've lived in."

Several neighbors, however, spoke forcefully against the project. One man said, "I think this is a bad choice for Somerville and I think this is a bad [choice] for Union Square." He added it would be "an absolute nightmare" for traffic.

"Sticking 40 units in a condensed area like that, it's insane," said , who recently ran for a seat on the Somerville Board of Aldermen.

"Clearly Union Square bears a huge brunt of those [affordable] properties. Davis [Square] doesn't at all," said Larry Kaplan, a neighbor. "If this is such a great proposal, let's do it in Davis," he said.

Some veiled accusations

At times, feelings of resentment flared up. One supporter, speaking about the sorts of people who would live in the affordable housing units—people who work in local stores, for instance—said, "Are they not good enough to live with us? I don't get it."

A neighbor against the project complained that supporters received "the loudest cheer" when they suggested opponents were prejudiced against low-income residents, which, he implied, isn't fair.

Zachary Zasloff, an opponent, said, "I vehemently oppose developments that are not market rate mixed," adding that Union Square does take the "brunt" of affordable housing.

Later, Elisha Baskin, a supporter, asked, "Who is bearing whose burden?"

One woman, talking about low-income residents of affordable housing, suggested subsidized housing didn't help them and brought up the old proverb about giving a man a fish versus teaching a man how to fish.

"We're not fish," shouted someone from the other side of the room. "They're working people!" shouted another.

Opposition

Neighbors against the project have organized a group called "Union Square Rising." It's website says, "More subsidized housing is the WRONG move for Union Square."

According to Zasloff, the group collected 200 signatures from neighbors, including signatures from 20 businesses, opposing the project. "To rally your neighborhood and get 200 signatures … is a telling sign" he said.

Erica Schwarz March 15, 2012 at 12:15 AM
Oh no! Well, I am very sorry. I think I recall you saying your name at the hearing and I really thought you were the same person I met at that ward 3 meeting. My apologies.
Ron Newman March 15, 2012 at 12:34 AM
I do hope that whatever is built here has active commercial and retail uses on its entire first floor, since it is at the edge of a business district.
Jim McGinnis March 15, 2012 at 01:19 AM
CCD-55 zoning requires non-residential use for the ground floor (except in the rear). SCC has stated that their offices will occupy part of the ground floor -- is this an active commercial use?
joyce junior March 15, 2012 at 03:14 AM
Jim McGinnis: my identiy is not concealed. You can Google me and learn all you like. You can also Google "affordable housing lowerss property values" and see what that says. I searched you and find that you do good work on the Green Line Extension. So you must know how the Green Line will increase the rent as well as density in Union Square. So you either don't care about affordabilty or you don't care about density. I'm banking on affordability. And please can the "right wing hate" BS. Joyce Junior is on the side of the people, of all people threatened by the landed gentry, regardless of race. It is you that is full of hate, your hate is just veiled in NIMBYism.
E. Somerville March 15, 2012 at 03:46 PM
I do not support this project. If the issue is keeping “Somerville” affordable why does SCC only care about affordable housing in or around East Somerville? I live here. I have owned a home here for the past 15 years. I grew up in East Somerville. I love my neighbors and neighborhood. Our neighborhood developed over the years organically. Nothing was force in under the guise of “it’s a good thing”. God forbid you having a dissenting opinion. Then the calls of elitist or even more ridiculous, racist start to fly. I have 2 children a wife that just recently returned to the work force after being laid off last year. We are far from well off and even further from what most would call “yuppies”. I am also tired of hearing that this is a case of NIMBY. That clearly shows that a majority of the commenters do not live here. Most of the East Somerville residents that I know love any new development. This area of the city has been largely overlooked and ignored for years. So when we see something happening we get truly excited. One other thing, one of the comments I was reading earlier alluded to the fact that SCC owns this property and can do whatever they want with it. I have trouble with that. Does any of the SCC funds come from government sources? Are there any tax dollars used or tax breaks given for their developments? If the answer is yes to any of the above questions than we (the people that are funding it) have some rights to have a say in the use of it.
Ron Newman March 15, 2012 at 04:25 PM
This is proposed for Union Square, not East Somerville. I'd be happy to support it in West Somerville if it were proposed there. How would it harm your neighborhood?
michael nionakis March 15, 2012 at 04:28 PM
Do not call me a waana be hack.
E. Somerville March 15, 2012 at 04:31 PM
I said in and around East Somerville. But I see you are just interested in splitting hairs as normal. I never mentioned that it would harm my neighborhood. I simply stated that this should not be shoe horned in. But since you asked, how does it help?
Ron Newman March 15, 2012 at 04:44 PM
By making it possible for people to stay in Somerville who would otherwise be forced to leave it due to rising rents and home prices.
Somerville Home Owner March 15, 2012 at 09:00 PM
Ron: How does this project help avoid people from being forced out due to rising rents and home prices? If you set aside 40 units for a certain group of people, *somebody* is being forced out. So either you (1) let them go at market rate, and those that can afford them can stay, or (2) you set aside for people at a certain income threshold and only 40 of those can stay. In either case, there are lots of people being forced out. In (1), those that can't afford market rates are forced out. In (2), those that are above income threshold and can't afford market rates are forced out. In (2), MANY people that are within income threshold still are forced out because there are a limited number. Also... Why was rent control eliminated in the 90s? Isn't affordable housing similar to rent control?
Ron Newman March 15, 2012 at 09:25 PM
This proposal ADDS 40 units of housing where there are now zero units. So it's not going to force anyone out at all.
Somerville Home Owner March 15, 2012 at 09:50 PM
Yes, Ron.. it adds 40 affordable units. But what if the proposal was for 40 market rate units? That's my point. Affordable housing is not inclusive for everyone.
Jeff Miller March 17, 2012 at 01:21 PM
I'm not against affordable housing. However, as a self-employed person with a lot of big ideas and an investment in my neighborhood, I'd be way way way more excited to see something innovative happen in that space. We could really use a modern small business shared/coworking office space with some class - something like Workbar in Boston. A facility that could be use by local entrepreneurs and shared with local schools - a place to work, conduct training classes and seminars...in short, a place where the next gen can do something NEW to change things. The old boy real estate games haven't exactly fulfilled on any of their promises, have they? The whole division of opinion on this issue is so old hat - if we want to be "for people" and "for Somerville" we can do that by being more immaginative with our ideas and initiatives. Sad to see such division in a town with SO much potential. We can do better than this.
Warren Dew March 18, 2012 at 06:14 PM
The objection is that some peoples' housing is subsidized while others' is not. If the approach to low income housing was to build units that were small enough that they didn't need to be subsidized, there wouldn't be the same complaints. Seriously, 2BR condominiums in Somerville generally cost $300k-$400k. The guy making $70k a year can't afford them. Why should the guy making $40k a year have special privileges? Fill the building with studio apartments, like the one I lived in when I first graduated college, plus one floor of parking, and you'll see far fewer objections.
Warren Dew March 18, 2012 at 06:22 PM
Parking, is my guess.
Warren Dew March 18, 2012 at 06:28 PM
Slowing down traffic makes people take longer to reach their destination, and is thus a bad thing, even if you call it "calming". Walkability does not help the people taking their cars to the Goodyear Tire place in Union square. Part of the reason "walkability" works in David Square now is exactly because we have plenty of parking now in the structure next to Harvard Vanguard, so even the people who have to drive to reach the area can walk once they get there.
Warren Dew March 18, 2012 at 06:50 PM
More specifically, it adds 40 subsidized units. If we really wanted to make housing more affordable, wouldn't we be using the same space to add 60 smaller units - maybe studios and one bedrooms instead of two and three bedrooms - that could be afforded at market rates?
Warren Dew March 18, 2012 at 06:53 PM
Ron, I've lived in W. Somerville for 20 years and I feel the same way E. Somerville does. Ever think that perhaps some of us long term residents care about the entire city, and not just our own little neighborhoods? I do find it extremely interesting that the long term residents here seem generally opposed to this development. So who is really being "squeezed out" by high rents? Maybe it's not people who have lived here for many years, but rather transient populations such as students who are only staying for a few years anyway and thus don't care about the long term health of the community?
Matan BenYishay March 19, 2012 at 03:21 AM
Somerville does not have a bigger percentage of affordable housing than neighboring communities. There is some market-rate housing left in Somerville that is still affordable, but we already see how that is starting to rapidly change in Somerville--for example, 15 units for low-income people at 387-390 Somerville Ave being permitted for demolition and rebuilding into luxury condos. Somerville's Housing Director has explained multiple times that the amount of *dedicated* affordable housing the City has is 9.6%. Cambridge and Boston had at least 5% higher. Much of the dedicated affordable housing in Somerville is also reserved for seniors and people with disabilities. These people need housing, but so do families and single people (non-senior/non-disabled). Arguing that other communities need to do more does not mean that Somerville's affordable housing is anywhere near sufficient.
Matan BenYishay March 19, 2012 at 03:58 AM
Warren: Why the heck should smaller market-rate units necessarily be any more affordable? Sure, for people who don't have families a studio costs less than a two-bedroom. But many low-income people do have children. Maybe there's some other kind of logic you're using, but if so, you should be clearer about it. And SHO: of course 40 units aren't enough for everyone who needs affordable housing. But building more affordable housing is how you get more affordable housing. This isn't a reason to oppose the project--it's a reason to support it! And affordable housing isn't anything like rent control. Rent control told private landlords that they couldn't raise rents. Here a non-profit is developing housing that would include reduced rents.
Jim McGinnis March 19, 2012 at 01:32 PM
Matan, please check your facts. The latest tally of subsidized housing, called the "Subsidized Housing Inventory" or SHI is at: http://tinyurl.com/8xq7x9x The actual data shows that Somerville has more subsidized housing than 5 out of 6 municipalities. Yes Boston and Cambridge have a higher percentage than Somerville, but you're are being very selective in your data. Here's better comparison data (as of 6/30/2011): Arlington 5.5% Belmont 3.2% Brookline 8.1% Everett 7.8% Medford 6.8% Revere 9.7% Saugus 6.9% Somerville 9.3% Watertown 6.4% Winchester 1.9% Winthrop 7.8%
Leslie Gildart March 19, 2012 at 02:56 PM
This project actually opens up potential units for people who are earning just over the income cut-off and would otherwise be competing with the lower income families for the scarce non-subsidized units available at non-exhorbitant rents now that the rental market is being flooded with people who've lost the homes they used to own. If a landowner chooses to charge less rent for property it owns, why shouldn't it have the freedom to do so? Unless this really is about classism.
Somerville Home Owner March 19, 2012 at 03:26 PM
Leslie: Likewise, if a property owner decides to convert his/her apartment building into condos, why shouldn't they have the freedom to do so?
Jim McGinnis March 19, 2012 at 03:28 PM
The difference between these apartments and normal ones is that they would be financed using public funding. Much of this would be the form of tax credits for banks and other corporations that buy ownership shares, and the rest would be from federal, state and local funds. In a real sense we, meaning the taxpayers, are the landlord, and SCC should be acting on our behalf. It's incumbent on them to honestly represent community sentiment, and the greatest weight ought to be given to those closest to, and likely to be most affected by the project.
Matan BenYishay March 20, 2012 at 12:19 AM
Jim, I agree with you that there should be good community process. My view of community opinion is just different from yours. I have talked to a number of Union Square residents who support the proposal. Other advocates have talked to many more residents and small business-owners in support. As far as the taxpayers being part landlords for this project: as Chris Howard argues in his book "The Hidden Welfare State", the home mortgage interest tax deduction is one of the federal government's largest tax expenditures. Everyone's home is subsidized to some extent, so the taxpayers are part landlords for *everyone's* home.
Jim McGinnis March 20, 2012 at 02:12 AM
Matan, I'm glad you agree that SCC has a higher obligation to respect community input than a privately-funded developer does; but then, why did SCC commit to buying this property before consulting with the community? At that time this property had been on the market for over a year, and there were no competing offers as far as I know. I have to believe what board member Fred Berman said to me after the meeting when I asked about him this, namely that SCC knew the Prospect Hill residents would be opposed to the project and that's why there was no prior outreach. If you don't want to hear opinions that differ from your own, how can you maintain that you are responding to the community? By the way, I can't defend the home mortgage interest deduction, but will note that even the highest income taxpayers get a much smaller percentage of public financing of their homes from that deduction than what this project stands to receive..
Somerville Home Owner March 20, 2012 at 02:38 AM
Matan: I don't think you're comparing apples-to-apples when you bring mortgage interest tax deductions into the picture. Tax deductions don't *really* reduce the cost of ownership. Instead, they artificially inflate the costs of homes, because most people tend to purchase homes based on the monthly mortgage payments they can afford. So if tax deductions effectively reduce the monthly payments on a mortgage, people tend to take out a bigger mortgage. Not all, but most. Sure, it's lost direct tax revenue but the larger mortgages translate into more revenue for the banks... some of it as bank profit and some as additional employees with income, both of which are taxable. In the case of affordable housing, we're hit with a double whammy. (1) We're using tax money to subsidize the cost of home ownership in a *real* way. In other words, you take the market rate price (which include all the effects of mortgage interest deduction), and then you set the affordable housing rate even lower than that. (2) The mortgage interest that the bank collects is lower, because the actual mortgage is lower. So you don't get all the nice indirect increases in tax revenues as you do with mortgage interest deductions. With all this said, I'm just making a point here. I'm actually *not* against using tax revenue to help those less fortunate. I just don't agree with all the programs in place to do that, one of them being affordable housing (as it stands now).
David Aposhian May 04, 2012 at 10:41 PM
Erica, Very well put. And, it is discomfiting to see so many, mostly well intentioned people disagreeing, often so rudely (on Somerville Rising, and a few times at the public meeting), about this set of issues, and about this project.
mplo June 08, 2012 at 05:09 PM
Well said, Erica! Thanks.
Matt C June 08, 2012 at 06:10 PM
@leslie Your argument does not make sense: You don't get to live someplace because you worked your butt off to "get in" and then have to figure out a way to pay for it. Everyone with sufficient credit has access to private/federal loans Anyone can participate in the housing market... except when you you restrict access to certain groups, in employment and education you would call that a quota. It changes the variety of health, engaged, diverse citizens in the community and I would need some examples of how increasing the lower income population very directly stimulates the local economy - last time i checked lower income equates to less disposable income = less discretionary spending in the local economy.

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