Somerville’s Development Challenges: Gentrification

On February 14, 2014, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

shelton_webBy William C. Shelton

 (The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and  do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)

Last week I went to a Board of Aldermen hearing. It concerned breathtaking increases in many taxpayers’ property assessments. One after another, ‘Villens on fixed incomes and independent small business owners expressed realistic fears that they would be unable to remain in their city.

That morning I had read a New York Times business-section story headlined, “The Middle Class is Steadily Eroding. Just Ask the Business World.” While right-wing propagandists dispute America’s growing economic inequality, “in corporate America there really is no debate at all. The post-recession reality is that the customer base for businesses that appeal to the middle class is shrinking as the top tier pulls even further away.”

Preparing this column, I found these prophetic lines, written 14 years ago by author and journalist Rebecca Solnit: “Gentrification is just the fin above the water. Below is the rest of the shark: a new American economy in which most of us will be poorer, a few will be far richer, and everything will be faster, more homogenous and more controlled or controllable.”

The hollowing out of the American middle class that I documented in a series on inequality is well apace in Somerville. As the people who made our city so attractive to outsiders are priced out of their homes, the fabric of community unravels.

As the Cub Scout den mother, neighborhood peacemaker, church deacon, little league coach, community-focused artist, school volunteer, and local merchant who gave credit to trusted neighbors are displaced, we are all diminished. And yes, these are all real, specific ‘Villens. As we are increasingly surrounded by strangers, we are lonelier and less secure.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that populations affected by displacement “are at increased risk for the negative consequences of gentrification. Studies indicate that vulnerable populations typically have shorter life expectancy; higher cancer rates; more birth defects; greater infant mortality; and higher incidence of asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”

Mindy Fullilove, M.D., describes this in her book Root Shock. “Root shock, at the level of the local community, ruptures bonds, dispersing people to all directions of the compass. … The elegance of the neighborhood—each person in his social and geographical slot—is destroyed, and even if the neighborhood is rebuilt exactly as it was, it won’t work. The restored geography is not enough to repair the many injuries…”

In a narrow sense, Somerville is still an immigrant city. Two or more newly arrived families share a two-bedroom apartment while they work multiple jobs. But to rent their own apartment, they go to Everett, Revere, or Malden, just as immigrants who have been here for decades increasingly must, thereby diminishing Somerville’s vaunted diversity.

As with other gentrifying communities, Somerville’s average income and housing costs are increasing, while its average family size is decreasing. The Census reports that between 2000 and 2010 the number of school-aged children living in Somerville dropped by 30%. In 2010, only 76% of the city’s residents had lived in their housing unit for more than one year, while only 30% had lived in theirs for more than ten years.

The number of kids in the city is now beginning to creep back up as more parents put down roots. Their participation in community life is welcome. But too many newcomers dismiss concerns about gentrification’s hidden injuries, as if market transactions are inviolate, while enduring human relationships are expendable.

It’s getting late, but we need to decide what we want to be as a community. If we allow current trends to continue, the authenticity, diversity and cultural wealth that makes Somerville so special will disappear, leaving a homogenous, transient bedroom suburb and playground for high earners.

When I consider some of city government’s actions, I have to wonder whether gentrification is a policy, either conscious or de facto.  Whenever the mayor and his staff have the opportunity, they chant “Somerville is a great place to live, work, play and raise a family.” But that begs the question, “For whom?”

Bill de Blasio, New York’s populist new mayor, used those exact words in his inauguration speech, but the context was different. He was pledging a series of initiatives to support working families “so that New Yorkers see our city not as the exclusive domain of the One Percent, but a place where everyday people can afford to live, work, and raise a family.”

When I hear Somerville officials use that phrase, I wonder, to whom are they marketing the city? If building permits, condo conversions, and out-of-reach housing costs are any indication, they are selling Somerville to childless, affluent newcomers.

At some of the many festivals and street events that the city sponsors, I recognize no one from old Somerville. I wonder about those events’ intended purpose.

In the solicitation that the city issued to attract a Union Square master developer partner, I find these words:  “Somerville has the second highest proportion of residents between the ages of 25 and 34 in the United States.” I have to wonder if that’s complaining…or bragging. If that is the sales pitch, what is the product being sold? And to whom?

My doubts aren’t merely rhetorical. I sincerely don’t know whether gentrification is a conscious objective, or the unintended consequence of well meaning but flawed policies.

Twenty years ago, then alderman Helen Corrigan told me she was concerned that “02144 is becoming too much like 02138.” In terms of affordability and demographics, the transformation is now complete. But important differences remain. Cambridge’s residential property rate is only two-thirds that of Somerville’s. And there are two jobs for every Cambridge worker, but two Somerville workers for every job.

The latter suggests half of what we need to slow down gentrification. Working-class families must have sufficiently high income, or sufficiently moderate housing expenses, if they are to remain here.

If nonretail commercial development continues as hoped for in Assembly and Union Squares, it will bring jobs with a variety of entry points and opportunities for career development. The city recently announced a welcome initiative to link ‘Villens with those new jobs.

We need to go well beyond this modest program, ensuring that Somerville workers of all ages can obtain the training and retraining needed to qualify for emerging industry jobs. While linkage and training programs will cost some money, I can suggest a number of unnecessary budget items whose elimination would free up the cash.

The expenses half of the equation is housing affordability. If we want to get serious about it, we will need to permanently remove some portion of Somerville’s housing stock from the inflationary cycle without recreating public housing failures. How we do this is the subject of the next column in this series.


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