Union Square Affordable Housing Project Debate Continues


Situated at a prominent entrance to Union Square, the once active Boys & Girls Club building now sits empty. But even in its current state, it’s still affecting the community.

Across Union Square, in shop windows and storefronts, signs have cropped up voicing opinions on what is currently the site’s most likely fate: affordable housing developed under the Somerville Community Corporation.

The plan is still a contentious issue for some in Union Square, with Union Square Rising and the SCC arguing opposing views over a project that they both believe will play a key role in Union Square’s future.

Zac Zasloff and Michael Nystrom, both members of Union Square Rising, said they thought there were better options for the 181 Washington St. site.

“Our question is: ‘Is this the best that Somerville can do?’” Nystrom said.

An SCC-hosted meeting on June 6 at the Argenziano School will present some of the concepts for traffic and parking, which opponents of the plan have hotly debated, but Union Square Rising says the project has larger problems and better alternatives.

Prime Planning

The SCC has proposed a building with 40 units of affordable housing, eight of which would be Section Eight. Most of the units would range up to $56,000 for a family of four, according to SCC CEO Danny LeBlanc.

“Our position is that Somerville housing prices haven’t dipped, and in fact, rental prices are going up,” said Mary Regan, an SCC community organizer. “Somerville is a city where 60 percent of people are tenants.”

Regan said that, with pricing the way it is, even moderate-income people are having trouble finding housing.

According to a 2009 housing trends report report, 39 percent of people who move out of Somerville are moving because of the inability to pay their rent.

“It’s important that whatever changes include people that are here already,” Regan said.

Union Square Rising said they’d like to see a development that would benefit more than just a specific demographic. Creating a common space like a park or garden would bring the community together, Zasloff said.

“That’s a perfect location, where the city could have obtained that building for a very low price, and created a grandiose green space,” said Zasloff. “I mean, imagine driving into Union Square with rolling waterfalls and, you know, greenery and benches.”

But Zasloff and Nystrom also said that developing the site in a business aspect was also an attractive option, and Nystrom compared Union Square’s possibilities to changes in Kendall Square, with new restaurants opening up that he said were a result of the biotech industry.

Zasloff said the SCC had the tendency to rent to convenience stores, and that Union Square Rising wasn’t interested in creating an “epicenter for snicker bars and Gatorade.”

Instead, Nystrom said he’d really like to see a retailer like a bakery that could draw people into the area.

“Why have offices on the first floor?” said Nystrom. “I mean, that doesn’t generate business — what’s wrong with where they are?”

A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing?

Both Zasloff and Nystrom voiced concern that the SCC was eager to demonize Union Square Rising by making the issue about ideologies. Zasloff said that many businesses run by first and second-generation immigrants supported Union Square Rising’s efforts to see a different development on the site.

“This isn’t about a class warfare of rich elitists trying to keep poor people out of Union Square,” said Zasloff. “None of us would have bought homes in Union Square if we were against diversity or opposed to people of other walks of life.”

Nystrom said Union Square Rising’s main interest in the project is to decrease the density of the development and make sure it would benefit Union Square “as the Boys and Girls Club — it was serving the entire community.”

Union Square Rising has gathered over 200 signatures and counting, said Zasloff, and that he believed that represented the voice of the community speaking out against the plan.

They also noted that having the offices of the SCC on the first floor wasted valuable retail space, and that having a building devoted entirely to affordable housing might mean people who lived there would face a stigma.

Zasloff said that a better plan for affordable housing in Somerville would be to just stick to inclusionary housing, which is a city zoning ordinance that every development over eight units in size should include 12.5 percent affordable housing.

“It grows in scalability with development,” Zasloff added.

According to Dana LeWinter, director of housing for the City, Somerville has 69 units of deed-restricted affordable housing through the city’s inclusionary housing program. The total number of affordable housing units in Somerville was 3,118,according to a 2009 Trends in Somerville report.

Zasloff also said that it was time for other parts of Somerville to take on the affordable housing issue.

“At what point do we accept that Union Square has done its part with affordable housing?” he said.

Where It Gets Tricky

While only Boston and Cambridge have larger raw numbers of affordable housing, Somerville is well behind as a proportion of units, having 9.6 percent affordable housing while Cambridge scored 16.1 and Boston almost 20 percent, according to the Trends in Somerville: Housing Technical Report of Sept. 2009.

East Somerville has most of these units, but also has the largest rent burden in Somerville. In many areas of East Somerville, more than 50 percent of families pay more than 30 percent of their income into rent, and it is also where overcrowding is most common.

The areas with the highest percentage of affordable housing per number of units are Clarendon Hill, Ten Hills and the Inner Belt. In terms of public and private affordable housing buildings, Union Square has a lower raw total of units than Clarendon Hill.

The Business Side

Jerry Amaral, a bartender at PA’s Lounge in Union Square, said he didn’t have a problem with affordable housing as a whole, just the density and the future traffic problems that could come with a new affordable housing project.

“Parking is going to be a disaster,” Amaral said. “It’s crazy to have a 40 unit building right there in that area with no parking.”

He said he thought the building would be fine if it were about half as big, but that in its current form, he couldn’t support it. Amaral also said that he wasn’t sure how it would benefit the businesses of the area.

However, Mimi Graney, executive director of Union Square Main Streets, said that she thought the first floor retail space would be a boon.

“This particular proposal we like because we can keep an active first floor,” Graney said.

She said that despite the fact that the SCC was planning on using the first floor retail space as their offices the plan itself was a strong one for retail as a whole, and the SCC wouldn’t be there forever. She said what went above the retail space wasn’t necessarily the most important part of the plan for Union Square.

“Businesses come and go, and uses come and go, but the structure of the building is a thing that’s something that’s going to last the next hundred years,” she said. “Our interest really is: How can we get some quality construction that’s going to foster our long term vision for having an active business district?”

The June 6 meeting will cover traffic, parking and preliminary design options. It will be held at the Argenziano School at 6:30 p.m.

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15 Responses to “Union Square Affordable Housing Project Debate Continues”

  1. The Bull says:

    Overall, this is a good article. It is nice to see that the concerns of Union Square residence are finally getting a voice in this project that will so deeply affect our community.

    However, there are a few things that should be emphasized:

    1) This project will be open to low income residents across the state – from Lynn to Lawrence to Lexington – as long as residents income is low enough. There is no guarantee that the units will go to existing Somerville residents. In fact, with Section 8, anyone from across the country is eligible to live here. Question for the SCC: How does importing low income residents into Union Square help our community?

    2) No one is against affordable housing for working families. But what SCC fails to mention are the ex-prisoners, recovering drug addicts, chronically unemployed, and mental patients with nowhere else to go. The selection basis for tenants is by LOTTERY. This doesn’t work in favor of Somerville residents.

    3) The author is factually incorrect on how affordable housing is distributed through the city. Clarendon Hills is elderly affordable, in the towers. There is NO affordable housing in Ten Hills (where the mayor lives).

    4) Comparing Somerville’s affordable housing situation to Boston and Cambridge is unfair. Those are MUCH richer communities. Somerville is one of the poorest cities in the state. What this city needs to do is raise its tax base by attracting more business, not hand out free housing to everyone in the state and country.

    5) What Mimi Graney says makes absolutely no sense. She contradicts hersefl: “This particular proposal we like because we can keep an active first floor.” But it will not be an active first floor. It will be office space for SCC, and she knows that when she says that SCC won’t be there forever. Huh?

    I could go on, but this is the bottom line: Union Square is plenty affordable, and plenty diverse. If SCC is interested in “diversity” as they claim, they should build this project in an area that is not diverse, such as Davis Square.

    The real issue here is greed. SCC stands to make a ton of money from this project. They’ve gotten away from their community roots. The operative word in their name is no longer ‘community’ – it has been eclipsed by CORPORATION.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Why wouldn’t Somerville aim to build luxury condominiums like Medord has been doing instead of building MORE affordable housing units? The city is attracting the wrong people and I predict that if they continue down this route, in 10 years, the city will be a complete dump.

  3. Oldgrrrl says:

    Why does the author compare Somerville to Boston and Cambridge? Boston and Cambridge are much wealthier cities and can afford their largesse. Somerville has the potential to play in the same league as Boston and Cambridge, but it’s got a long way to go.

    Just because most of us want Somerville to continue on its upward trajectory doesn’t mean, we want to exclude people of limited means. Upward mobility and affordability aren’t mutually exclusive despite the cries of impending doom from the professional self-styled “community” development corporations.

    If market-rate developments were being built in Union Squre today, 15% of those units would be affordable. But NOTHING is being built in Union Square! If a large low-income development becomes the marquee development in Union Square, what can we reasonably expect to follow?

  4. Youthful Union says:

    The Bull made great points!

    I am in support of Union Square Rising 100%

  5. Ron Newman says:

    If people who live in Union Square don’t have to spend as much money on rent and mortgages, they’ll have more money to spend in Union Square businesses instead. That can only be good for the square.

    My only concern about the proposal is that office space should be upstairs, not at street level. All street-fronting footage should be retail.

  6. Mimi Graney says:

    I’d like to clarify my quote in the article for The Bull and others who might be confused. Union Square Main Streets supports designing the building at 181 Washington Street so that it has commercial uses — not residential — on the first floor, with business friendly elements such as higher ceilings, loading areas, lots of big windows and a welcoming entrance. The SCC offices are not the kind of active use we’d ideally like to see, but it is a community oriented organization that would be more pedestrian friendly than many other first floor businesses we see today in Union Square. Fact is, it’s unlikely, with the current market conditions, that SCC could rent the space to a retail business. One key challenge for Union Square, and for that block in particular, is that there’s not enough foot traffic to support most retail uses. Restaurants and the specialty food markets are “destination” businesses and as in other communities are the typical forerunners for retailers with clothing, shoes, furniture, gift items, etc. USMS and others have been working to increase foot traffic but we’re not yet able to support the small scale, independent businesses that many would like to see here. Union Sq commercial rents are roughly one-half to one-third of Davis Square. With the expense of construction I’d be surprised if SCC could offer the space to compete with the depressed rents of the neighborhood. Our goal is that the building be constructed with an eye to the future so that, when the market shifts, retailers are viable tenants for this location.

  7. The Bull says:


    Thank you for your clarification.

    It still does not make sense to many Union Square residents that such a large structure go into this already very crowded, congested area on Washington Street. The building is completely out of scale and out of style for the location. Look at a picture of it:


    It will dominate the entire landscape. Look at how tiny the people look in that rendering! Nothing about this building makes sense. If the market cannot support it, it should not be built. It is another government boondoggle and a money pit. Furthermore, it is not of human scale, and as a result is destined to be a failure. Union Square does not need this white elephant in our neighborhood.

    To your point: “With the expense of construction I’d be surprised if SCC could offer the space to compete with the depressed rents of the neighborhood.” Do we really expect taxpayers to construct something so expensive that even you admit is not needed?

    Why not something that will benefit the entire community? Somerville does not have enough green spaces. How about a park?

    Somerville needs to attract more businesses to raise its tax base. How about an entrepreneur center that teaches people skills to start and run their own businesses, rather than just giving them housing?

    As I said above, low income individuals have myriad problems that are not solved merely by giving them housing. And concentrating them all in one place is dangerous. The “housing project” model is a failure and was proven so in the sixties. The only reason SCC is returning to this failed model is because of the substantial financial gains they stand to reap from this project. But these gains come at the expense of taxpayers and Union Square residents.

    Union Square already has a 15% requirement (the author of this article got it wrong by saying only 12.5%), and in some places it is as high as 17.5% requirement for inclusionary housing in new developments. This is something SCC fought for. And yet, SCC protested, and eventually killed the 30 unit market rate development at 380 Somerville Ave that would have included many affordable units.

    What is going on here? SCC is not being a very good neighbor. They’re not listening to neighborhood concerns. Union Square is at a fragile tipping point. We don’t want SCC to be the sole developer in Union Square, and we want more than just affordable housing developments in the Square. We really need a balanced approach.

    This development is wrong for Union Square.

  8. Lady S says:

    I am very upset about the way SCC and the city are treating the residents. The immediate residents’ voices were surpressed. How could SCC way they care about the community when they don’t want to listen to the neighbors who live there?

    I though that the essense of demoracy is that all people can participate in the decision-making process. Apparently, SCC and the city do not want the Union Square residents’ participation in the decision-making process.

    Do we have a say?

  9. The Bull says:

    Breaking news! SCC supporter calls protesters at last night’s meeting “Racist Pigs”


    SCC organizer calls Alderman Tom Taylor a liar!

    SCC’s arrogance grows by the day. They think they can do anything they want without listening to the community. They’re growing too big for their britches and need to be reigned in.

  10. Dumbo says:

    Have you folks never seen a development process in Somerville? Be glad it’s the SCC and not some vicious developer from the suburbs who plants a monstrosity and leaves. SCC does not need to do these meetings. Since their project is within the city’s zoning they could just file plans and skirt the entire public process – to their credit, they are trying to work with the community.
    These crazy Union Square folks are living in some fantasy world, demonizing a decent community organization and coming up with inane arguments just because they are elitists against affordable housing. For shame.
    Even if these are “affordable,” they are pretty pricey. I know very few who can afford to buy them so it won’t be full of winos and druggies you know!

  11. The Bull says:

    True to his name, Dumbo is uninformed.

    First – SCC does have to do these meetings, since they’re using PUBLIC funds to build this project. Since it is taxpayer money they are using, you bet they need to be accountable to the taxpayers. If they want to behave like a private developer, then they need to use their own money, not ours.

    Second – Why do uninformed SCC supporters always default to calling those of us who seek transparency and a voice in our own community’s development ‘elitist?’ Is it elitist to want to see the best for your own neighborhood? At the meeting the other night, Union Square residents were once again called racists. Can SCC please lighten up on the rhetoric and address the facts?

    Third – These units are not for sale! Not even Danny LeBlanc, with his six figure salary, could buy one. And this is part of the problem. Rental units do not help build community. And because of the byzantine funding structure, which includes federal funding for Section 8 units, there very well may be recovering drug addicts and alcoholics living in these units.

    But clearly, if you didn’t know that these were only rental units – it shows just how uninformed you are about this project.

    I encourage you to do more research, and participate in the democratic process that makes America so great. Don’t just swallow SCC’s line about being a ‘decent community organization.’ They very well may have been at one time, but they’re morphing into something that is much more like a the vicious private developer that we all abhor.

  12. Ron Newman says:

    In what way do rental units ‘not build community’? (I’ve rented in Somerville since 1984, and in a big brick Davis Square apartment building since 1992.)

  13. Dumbo says:

    I have rented in Somerville for years too, hold a white collar job, two degrees, and I still could not afford to live in these rental units. If u want luxury condos just move to Boston or Cambridge. Leave us alone, we don’t want you obnoxious newbies here.

  14. B says:

    Let’s get facts straight. 32 of these units are for families with incomes ranging up to $56,000 for a family of four. 8 units are for tenants using Section 8 vouchers. This is a development for predominantly moderate and middle-class people, then, with ceilings more than two times the poverty level for a family of four and roughly similar to the median income for a family in Somerville. In other words, this is a development predominantly for the income level that already populates many Somerville neighborhoods to great positive effect. With eight low-income units, this is mixed-income housing, exactly what the opponents pretend to desire. If opponents don’t want families earning middle-class salaries renting homes near their condos, that seems very snobby. Despite an anti-renter bias that is apparent in this debate as well as nationally, renters have long worked to make Somerville and other neighborhoods great places. We care as much about our community as any home owner does. If opponents are opposed to a mere eight (eight!) low-income units added to a quickly gentrifying neighborhood, that just seems very mean.

  15. [...] Union Square Rising continue to be at odds over the SCC’s proposed 40-unit affordable housing project, and a June 6 meeting held by SCC apparently only added to the [...]

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