Podcast • January 18, 2018

Gimme Shelter

In cities across the country, working and middle-class Americans are struggling to keep their homes, pay their rent, and fight off eviction and foreclosure. Somerville, Massachusetts has an acute case of a national dilemma—call it ...

In cities across the country, working and middle-class Americans are struggling to keep their homes, pay their rent, and fight off eviction and foreclosure. Somerville, Massachusetts has an acute case of a national dilemma—call it a case study in gentrification; Boston’s Brooklyn or the Oakland of Massachusetts. For a century and more, Somerville was a working-class neighborhood bordering Cambridge. The city is still populated with a dense mix of blue-collar workers and recent immigrants, all living in together in  red-brick and clapboard three-decker housing. It also provided many affordable, off-campus rooms and apartments to Tufts, Harvard, and MIT students as well as artists, writers, and radicals. Today, it’s dealing with the aftershocks of a boom in biotech and the knowledge economy that’s now rippling out from post-rent-control Cambridge. That bloom of wealth and demand is pushing premium jobs and rocketing rents into neighboring Somerville, a place where suddenly everybody wants to live and a lot of proud residents can no longer afford. The Zillow real-estate listings tell the story well: A worker’s house with a postage-stamp garden on Fremont Ave, for example—sold for $65-thousand in 1995, now valued at $750,000, a 1000 percent gain over two decades, not untypical. Many residents now are worried about further increases in rent as a result of the MBTA’s Green Line extension as well as a new, massive development plan proposed by the developer US2. The plan will include “1.38 million square feet of office, lab, retail, hotel, and arts space; and approximately 950 residences,” according to Curbed.

But Somerville residents haven’t just been passive players in these changes. Today, they are ready to fight back against displacement and gentrification.  Voters last fall elected a super-majority of progressives and skeptics to the Board of Aldermen, poised now for a vigorous re-think of the development questions. The focus is on Union Square where a big new transit station will center a cluster of lab and office space under a 23-story tower for  high-end housing. We got the tour this week with Laurie Goldman, an urban policy professor who teaches at Tufts University, works with the Somerville Community Corporation, and also lives in Union Square. Laurie and other community organizers have pushed the city to increase inclusionary zoning and linkage fees as well as to establish an elected Neighborhood Council, which can negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement with developers in Union Square.

Pictured with Laurie above is Ganesh Uprety, an immigrant from Nepal who moved his family to Somerville in the summer of 2015. He pays $2000 per month in rent for a 2-bedroom apartment and told us the expense leaves little for savings. To combat skyrocketing costs in his neighborhood, Uprety has attended meetings with Union United, a coalition of Union Square residents. We also spoke with several other local residents affiliated with Union United, including Mary “Sugar” White, Ben Echevarría and Bill Cavellini for this week’s show.

The Mayor of Somerville, Joseph A. Curtatone, joins us over the phone from Buffalo to give his perspective. He’s in his eighth two-year term as mayor and he’s still only 51 years old.  J.T. Scott also gave us the Alderman’s angle from his CrossFit gym in Union Square. “The opportunity for us here is to restore a middle-class renaissance,” Scott said. He was elected to represent Ward 2 this past November, alongside a small army of progressive folks who now hold a supermajority on Somerville’s representative board.

Steve Meacham is an organizer in the grassroots activist network for housing justice in Greater Boston, known as City Life/Vida Urbana. Before fighting against evictions across our city, Meacham was a union welder and labor organizer at the Quincy shipyards south of Boston.

Richard Florida is the influential urbanist who named the “creative class” for what it is in his book The Rise of the Creative Class. And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure and Everyday Life. Later told the tale of what this group would do to our cities in The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle ClassHis call to action:

“We’ve got to hit the reset and say this urban revitalization –which many of us wished for; we hoped our cities would come back from the depths of despair– it has created a very privileged group of people. Our municipalities are gonna have to buck up, and I think they’re gonna have to put pressure on these big tech companies that are raking in the money.”

Lastly, we consulted the writer Richard Sennett. He’s authored The Fall of Public Man back in 1992 and doesn’t lose that worldly touch in his latest Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City. Sennett grew up in public housing in Chicago and lives now on the edge of  the Dickensian “Saffron Hill” diamond market in London.  He’s lived in Shanghai, Berlin and Boston, too.  We asked him this week to reflect on the displacement danger in Somerville:

“There’s nothing natural about a place like Somerville suddenly flipping and expelling most of its longtime residents. There’s nothing in the way people want to live, or the way they make money, that has to happen. It only happens when we say, ‘the market rules.’ It’s a great drama all over the world. Now, you may think that I sound like Bernie Sanders –who’s exactly my age– and you’re right.”