Some ideas for preventing gentrification in Union Square

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Some ideas for preventing gentrification in Union Square
By Bridget Breton, Dirce Silva, Ed Halloran, Rand Wilson, Ben Echevarría, Van Hardy, and Karen Narefsky

A Boston Globe op-ed from July 1st claimed that “at heart, Somerville’s Union Square redevelopment is an anti-gentrification plan. The only way to moderate spiking rents is to build more.” Unfortunately, the redevelopment itself is not an anti-gentrification plan. It will take strong community involvement and proactive anti-displacement measures to make it one.

Since the 1980s, Somerville has become both more diverse and more gentrified, with a mix of artists, professionals, immigrants (over 25 percent of the population is foreign-born), and working-class residents. In recent years, the City has worked hard to bolster its economic standing by increasing the commercial tax base and encouraging development. As the op-ed shows, the strategy is paying off and Somerville is finally poised to achieve its economic goals. But at what cost?

“I am part of the immigrant community of Union Square,” says Bridget Breton, who lives with her family on Carlton Street. “We want to live in a safe neighborhood with affordable businesses, parks and open space for our children, and above all rents that are within our reach. We want Union Square to continue being our home. This is a multicultural community of people who work hard every day to bring opportunity to our families.”
Changes in Somerville threaten to displace people like Bridget. Property values and taxes have increased an average of 10 percent per year over the last two decades, and will skyrocket with the arrival of the Green Line. Corresponding rent increases have already begun to displace residents and businesses – in the last six months, at least five businesses have left Union Square. According to a recent report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, 113 apartments in Union Square are at risk of condo conversion, and the rest will see staggering rent increases. Without strong anti-displacement measures, many people will be displaced from Union Square and the rest of the GLX corridor by rising costs.

Since the redevelopment was announced, more than ten community groups, twelve businesses, and 25 residents have formed the Union United Coalition and are drafting a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) based on principles of equity that calls for concrete actions to prevent displacement. We look forward to working with the Union Square Station Associates (US2) development team and other stakeholders so that those most at risk of displacement have access to the opportunities created by the redevelopment. In the words of Dirce Silva, a local business owner, “I’m part of Union United because I want to be informed about what’s going on, support my community, and grow my business. I went through hard times in Union Square during the economic crisis, and I want to be here for the good times too.”

Our proposed CBA will include specific requirements for affordable housing, local businesses, local jobs, workers’ rights, green space, art and culture, public safety, and transparency throughout the redevelopment process. We have looked at CBAs from across the country, and we know they work best when the community and the developer reach an agreement that is enforceable and widely supported. If all community members have a seat at the table, more of them will be able to enjoy the benefits the Green Line will bring.

“We are not opposed to the redevelopment,” says Ed Halloran, president of the Somerville Municipal Employees Association and co-chair of the Somerville Labor Coalition. “The Green Line Extension is something many of us have hoped for. Our concern is: how many businesses, residents, and workers will it affect? How will the city offer affordable housing to those who can no longer sustain the rising costs of living in the city they love? We need the redevelopment to provide good-paying union jobs where workers have fair rights, and partnerships like the one recently created with the City and MBTA that train Somerville residents and give them an opportunity to earn a good-paying wage.”

By building strong relationships with other local groups like Union Square Neighbors, Union Square Main Streets, and the City-appointed Civic Advisory Committee, and by leveraging a CBA with the developer, Union United seeks to ensure a transparent process that gives local stakeholders a voice. The Union Square redevelopment isn’t an anti-gentrification plan yet — but it could be.

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