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Not in my backyard? Affordable housing proposal ignites debate in Union Square, part II

Posted by Alex Pearlman  April 27, 2012 09:39 AM

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union square sign.pngBy Max Chalkin

If you missed part I of this story, you can find it here.

Community group Union Square Rising has come out against the Somerville Community Corporation’s plan to build an affordable housing development at the site of the old Boys & Girls Club building in Union Square. The group claims that they oppose the project due to some of the plan's specific elements; however, several of their arguments seem to be more general and against affordable housing as an institution.

On the other hand, the SCC, the private, non-profit group that's spearheading the development, makes a clear, convincing case for the need for affordable housing in Somerville.

“[Affordable housing] ensures that some of the housing stock is available to people on the low to moderate range of the income spectrum,” said Danny LeBlanc, the SCC’s CEO. “It really depends on what you value, but I think there’s a lot of benefit to having a wide range of people and ethnicities in any community, as opposed to a more homogeneous community. And I think that includes economically -- to have people from all over the spectrum.”

Such projects also improve the physical aspects of their location. “More often than not, affordable housing takes the place of a property that is ‘tired’ or in fairly rough shape,” LeBlanc said, as is the case for the 1950s-era Boys & Girls Club building that the SCC plans to tear down.

Union Square Rising suggests that the SCC should develop in Davis Square instead of Union Square -- and LeBlanc agrees. “I would love to see more affordable housing in Davis Square,” he said. “However, given the nature of that real estate market and what opportunities exist there right now, I just don’t know how to do it….The physical and economic dynamics in Davis Square make it really, really hard to do.”

It may likely be too late for affordable housing in Davis Square. Ever since the Red Line arrived in 1984, the area has been rapidly developing and gentrifying. The whole process occurred so rapidly, in fact, that the SCC was caught on its heels. Consequently, Davis Square developed with little affordable housing, and many lower-income residents were pushed out. Now, property values in that area have risen past the point at which it makes sense for the SCC to develop there.

In the next few years, the Green Line is slated to come to Union Square, and, if you believe the experts, a similar explosion in development is likely to take place. The SCC doesn’t want to miss the boat again. “Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us,” LeBlanc said.

Furthermore, LeBlanc challenges USR’s assertion that they are "all for" affordable housing in Davis Square.

“Union Square Rising points to Davis Square and kind of throws the gauntlet and says, ‘We should do more in Davis Square,’ but, in fact, I would challenge whether they have any seriousness or interest in seeing that happen," LeBlanc said. "I don’t think they do. I think they just don’t want it [in Union Square].

“Fundamentally, [USR’s] view is, at a minimum, that they don’t think there should be any more affordable housing in the broad Union Square area,” said LeBlanc. “But I think, in general, they are opposed to affordable housing. In my experience, there’s not much difference between saying, ‘Not in Union Square’ and saying, ‘Not in my backyard.’”

Legitimately, USR complains that because Union Square is their community, they should have a hand in the development; not quite as legitimate, however, is their claim that the development process hasn't been transparent. The SCC has already held three community meetings concerning the Washington Street development, and LeBlanc spoke at length about three avenues of recourse the average Somerville resident has if he's concerned about the project.

First, LeBlanc said, residents can work with the SCC. “We work hard to gain trust with people, and gaining trust involves dialogue and give-and-take,” he said. “We are a community-based developer, really willing to sit down and talk with people to see if we can come to a compromise or a meeting of the minds.”

If residents aren’t fond of the idea of dealing with a corporation, they can also talk to their Alderman. “Aldermen will tend to weigh in, and they will weigh in based on what they hear from their constituents,” LeBlanc said. “So, while they don’t officially make the decision, they are elected officials, and their voices are heard pretty loudly when they speak up.”

And finally, LeBlanc said, “any public decision can be challenged legally if people decide that it’s an improper decision or that they just don’t like it.”

LeBlanc stressed that Somerville is the SCC’s home, too, which means that they’re always around and trying to do the best they can for their community.

“We’re not going to go very far, and you’ll always be able to find us. And we hope that, over time, that builds some amount of rapport and trust with people,” LeBlanc said. “And then, obviously, we have to be true to our word, too, and we have to show some give and some compromise, which is something we take very seriously. If we hear enough concern about one or more particular things, we’re going to do the best we can, within the economic limitations of actually doing the project, to accommodate those concerns.”

The SCC is a private organization with little legal obligation to reach out to the community and accommodate the fears and concerns of residents. However, it appears that it still makes every effort to do so, and that's commendable.

USR leader Zac Zasloff said the contested parcel should be developed into “a park, a green space, or entrepreneurial work labs.” But without a buyer willing to commit to developing the space into one of those things, it’s simply not going to happen.

Moreover, as a private organization, the SCC has every right, if it has the means, to purchase property and develop it as it sees fit. Community housing is as valid a way as any to develop Somerville.

Now that USR has demonstrated an impressive ability to galvanize neighbors in opposition to the proposed development, it's time for the group to leverage its numbers and negotiate with the SCC. If the group objects to the specifics of the project, they should engage the SCC directly on the public stage, rather than using media to fight a proxy communications war. The SCC seems genuinely invested in the community, and USR should take advantage of this uncommon willingness to discuss and compromise.

If, however, USR is against affordable housing no matter what, they should simply admit they don’t want poor people in the neighborhood. At least then, even if the fight intensifies, it will be clear to the public what this debate is really about.

Where do you stand on the debate about affordable housing?

About Max -- Max Chalkin is a recent graduate of Tufts University and is currently working in biotech marketing. His interests include entrepreneurship, technology, politics, food, and nightlife. He is an avid photographer, cook, and scuba diver.

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