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

Posted by Alex Pearlman  April 26, 2012 09:34 AM

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union square sign.pngBy Max Chalkin

The Somerville Community Corporation is in the business of affordable housing; it’s what they’ve been doing for 43 years. Like any private development corporation, the SCC purchases property and renovates or reconstructs it. In their case, the properties primarily house low- to moderately low-income families who might not otherwise be able to afford to live in the community.

The SCC’s latest proposal -- a 40-unit property with commercial space on the ground floor, the development of which is underway at 181 Washington St. in Union Square -- is being met with significantly more opposition than typical SCC projects. What’s curious about this situation isn’t that such opposition exists, but the type of conversation that opposition is spurring, said Danny LeBlanc, SCC’s CEO.

“With [traffic patterns, parking, sight lines, etc.], you always expect some give and take with the community. It’s a dense urban area, so you just expect that,” LeBlanc said. “What’s been different is having some people who are essentially saying, ‘We don’t want it because it’s affordable.’ We’ve not encountered that to any great degree in any projects that we’ve done in the past.”

If you let LeBlanc frame the debate, it’s an ideological one: Should we carve out a place in our community for lower-income families before prices rise to the point that they cannot afford to live in the neighborhood? What does affordable housing do for a community? What does it do to a community?

Union Square Rising, the main voice on the opposing side of the 181 Washington St. development debate, does not ideologically oppose affordable housing, said Zac Zasloff, the group’s leader; it’s the specifics of the project that they don’t like. According to the USR bumper sticker that I found slipped under my front door, “There’s room for everyone..[.]But, let’s be smart about it.”

“We do not feel that 181 Washington St. is the right parcel to be developed in this manner. It’s too valuable for the future growth of Union Square; it’s the gateway into the square, and so it’s one of the first things you see; and it was a public space, so we would like to see it stay public,” said Zasloff, whose home abuts the site. “Turn it into a park, a green space, or a co-op that focuses on entrepreneurial work labs. We would like to see commercial space.”

That message seems to be resonating with Union Square residents and businesses.

“At the last public hearing, we presented the Aldermen [Maryann Heuston and Thomas Taylor] with a petition of over 200 signatures, of which 20 signatures represent Union Square businesses. All 200 signatures are Ward 2 and 3 residents from all backgrounds -- folks who actually live in affordable housing and folks who fall into the economic demographic to be granted an opportunity to live in this project,” Zasloff said. “The SCC likes to purport and present Union Square Rising as a group of elitists or racists -- you know, that we’re trying to create exclusivity. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

However, some of USR’s objections to the project's specifics do not stand up to the facts. For example, prior to being purchased by the SCC, 181 Washington St. was not, in fact, public property; it was home to a local Boys & Girls Club, part of a private, non-profit organization. USR also claims that the SCC’s plan to move its own offices into the ground floor of the building will result in no commercial benefit for Union Square, but LeBlanc said that the SCC’s offices would be set back behind street-facing retail space.

Moreover, many of USR’s arguments are targeted at affordable housing as an institution, not at the specifics of this particular project. Consequently, an unmistakable “not in my backyard” subtext comes across in their communications.

“Union Square already has many more subsidized rentals than other business districts: 460 units here compared to 133 in Davis Square,” reads the first bullet point on USR’s widely distributed flyer.

The flyer also plays up city ordinances that mandate that a certain percentage of units in any new development be dedicated to affordable housing; throughout most of Somerville, that percentage is 12.5 percent, but in Union Square, it’s 15 percent. That mere 2.5 percent difference -- meant to offset the rise in rent that may occur when the Green Line expands service to Union Square -- is, to Zasloff, proof that “we’re already doing more than these other areas of Somerville.”

"There will be an adverse effect on property values,” according to another of the flyer’s bullet points -- but study after study has shown no correlation between affordable housing and property values or crime.

Granted, there are plenty of general arguments -- often employed by conservative opponents -- against affordable housing: Market forces adequately provide ample housing for all income levels, people should only live where they can afford to live, and entitlement programs are excessive, for example.

Perhaps USR shies away from admitting its ideological oppositions to affordable housing because it doesn't want to be associated with conservatism. But by refusing to defend its pro-business, laissez-faire slant, the organization is finding itself in that exact position.

Interested in the SCC’s side of the story? Check back tomorrow for part II.

Do you live in or near Union Square? What do you think of the SCC's development plans?

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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