T Transformations: How the T Has Shaped and Will Shape West Somerville

davis squarePhoto by Eric Kilby on Flickr.

Imagine your commute cut in half, your negative impact on the environment lessened and your favorite restaurant opening a location right by your home. Imagine more businesses vying for space in the already vibrant Somerville. Imagine not having to transfer trains or take the bus so often.

This is the Somerville of the Green Line Extension (GLX), a project that will connect much of Somerville more easily to Downtown Boston. New businesses will enter, commutes will shrink and homeowners’ property values will escalate. But the flip side of these benefits is the housing crisis that Somerville—and particularly West Somerville, the most expensive part of the city in which to live—is already seeing. The most densely populated city in New England is about to become even more appealing, and rents are about to rise.

West Somerville is particularly disposed to this gentrification because of its proximity to the Davis Square T station and the presence of Tufts University, which floods nearby neighborhoods with students who tend to live in large groups with makeshift bedrooms and serve as money-makers for often-absentee landlords. The still-echoing effects of the Davis Square T station, which transformed Somerville in the 1980s, combined with Tufts students living off-campus, has positioned West Somerville’s housing market to be significantly impacted by the GLX.

West Somerville: Then and Now

Somerville was a vastly different city before the Davis Square Red Line station opened in 1984. It was colloquially and derisively known as “Slummerville” and was known as the car theft capital of the country. Thirty-two years later, Somerville has seen people swarm to live within its borders. It’s home to thriving local and chain businesses. And it’s facing another transportation transformation.

Ward 6 Alderman Lance Davis, whose ward includes some of the neighborhoods closest to the future College Avenue T stop, attributes West Somerville’s ascent and high property prices to the Davis Square station.

“The opening of that station was a big part of what changed Somerville and led to it becoming the place it is today, which is a much higher profile and a place that is becoming known almost around the world,” Davis said.

Somerville resident Dawn Carney’s home of 17 years sits on a street just beyond the hubbub of Powderhouse Circle and Tufts’s borders. Since she and her husband bought their house, she has seen some longtime residents leave the neighborhood while several students have entered. While she’s looking forward to having the College Avenue station a stone’s throw from her house and hopes that the GLX will be completed by the time her children are in high school, she worries about how the ever-increasing home values will affect renters and those trying to move into the city.

“I certainly worry about the implications of the Green Line coming,” Carney said. “From our children’s school I know there have been three or four families that have had to leave. For any families who are renting it’s really become unsustainable.”

Always a Few Years Away

The GLX has become a bit of a fable for Somerville residents who have been taunted by its supposedly imminent arrival for years. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” quipped Kim LaFoy, co-owner of Loyal Supply Co. in Union Square.

The project has been waylaid by financial issues, but while officials say that they haven’t rule out its cancelation, there are reasons to believe that it will come to fruition. According to the Somerville Journal, Massachusetts agreed to the extension to help minimize the pollution caused by travelers on I-93 under pressure from the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), and the state will likely face a lawsuit if the extension isn’t completed. The project has also received $1 billion in federal funding.

Current discussions are revolving around how to reduce the cost of the project, which could mean downsizes such as building open-air rather than enclosed stations. On May 5, Somerville and Cambridge officials offered a total of $75 million (pending an approval vote from the two city councils) to help fuel the project ahead of the its financial proposal on May 9.

glx

A 2014 rendering of the Union Square Green Line stop. Proposed cuts could mean that it will be a much more scaled-back, open air station.

The GLX proposes to create two branches with six new stations from a relocated Lechmere stop that will bring its patrons into the heart of Boston. Five of these stations are in Somerville, with one of the terminating stops located just over the border into Medford by Tufts University on College Avenue.

Jason Johnson, deputy press secretary for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), explained that the GLX would address transportation inequities, greenhouse gas emissions and long commutes, noting that it is projected to reduce vehicle travel by over 25,000 miles every day. While the GLX would bring direct access to downtown Boston to many new people, however, housing costs will escalate accordingly.

But due to Somerville’s rapidly growing popularity, residents are hardly strangers to rising rent prices. According to a statement by Somerville Alderman at Large Jack Connolly in the Boston Globe, single-family home prices went up by 29 percent from 2014 to 2015.

“Somerville’s already unaffordable for working families,” Carney said. “We certainly couldn’t afford to buy this house now, which is terrible.”

The Elephant in the Room

When Laurie Leibowitz attended Tufts to study child development during the 1980s, no one went to Davis Square. Instead, students tended to patronize Harvard Square, home of the nearest T station, where they would be able to shop, eat out and go into downtown Boston. Now a parent of a Tufts alumnus and a current junior, she sees having a built-up area nearby with restaurants, shops, banks and a T stop as extremely attractive to prospective students.

“Davis Square being like it is now is much more appealing,” Leibowitz said. “For people thinking about Tufts, I think it’s a huge selling point.”

Due to many factors, including the ease with which students can get to Boston via the Davis Square T station, interest in Tufts has grown dramatically. There was about at 15 percent increase in applications the first year that the Davis Square station was open, and applications have grown wildly since.

“When we ask students on the application to tell us why they are applying to Tufts, our location and access to Boston are often mentioned as influencing factors,” admissions counselor Briana Bouchard said on behalf of Tufts Admissions.

While Tufts’s acceptance rate has consequently plummeted over the years, the undergraduate student body has also grown. Tufts has increased its undergraduate enrollment by 696 students since 1985 but has not kept pace with its housing, meaning that today there are 391 more students living in the neighborhoods surrounding Tufts than there were 30 years ago (not accounting for students studying abroad).

This influx of students into West Somerville has caused significant problems, according to Ward 5 Alderman Mark Niedergang, whose ward includes some of the neighborhoods bordering Tufts.

“Tufts is a big issue in the city,” he said, noting many students’ “bad behavior” and pattern of driving up rents.

Students’ typically different sleep schedules and tendency to congregate in large groups can be a point of tension for neighbors who go to bed and wake up earlier or who have young children. But many also note the upsides to having students on their streets.

“It has to be intergenerational, that’s what makes it a vibrant community,” Carney said, despite acknowledging that there have been noise problems on her road. Leibowitz noted that when she was a student at Tufts she had a good relationship with her neighbors and even babysat for them.

But students have created salient problems in terms of driving up rents in the neighborhoods surrounding Tufts, which is on track to exacerbate residents’ displacement when the Green Line is extended to College Avenue. This issue stems from having many students living in a single unit who each pay a fraction of the rent, rather than a family who would typically only have one or two incomes.

Last year Somerville passed the Ordinance Regulating University Accountability, which required Tufts to turn over a list of students’ addresses to Somerville. This was explicitly designed in the interest of student safety but also allows Somerville to enforce its rule prohibiting more than four unrelated people from living together and thus, in part, to keep rents from continuing to skyrocket.

While the ordinance is intended to curb gentrification, issues remain. If fewer students can fit in a unit, then they take up more houses, which may push out non-students who are unable to pay as much to their landlords as students are. Many students have also found ways around the University Accountability Ordinance.

“I know that it’s violated widely,” Niedergang said of the rule.

Additionally, some landlords who used to rent to five or more people have not dropped their rates accordingly. (When this reporter was looking for an apartment, a potential landlord explained that he was raising per person rates by about $200 to help compensate for the loss of a fifth tenant.) These issues don’t only affect students, but also young adults in Somerville who are still living with roommates.

“We can’t have these absentee landlords looking just to make money,” Carney said of students living off campus.

When the Green Line is extended to the Tufts area, these dynamics will only be exacerbated as housing becomes increasingly more desirable—and expensive. Niedergang explained that Tufts students living off campus have already contributed to making West Somerville the most expensive place to live in the city.

“The city’s been trying to get Tufts to build more dorms for years, and basically Tufts has refused,” Niedergang said. “They don’t want to build dorms and therefore there’s a lot of pressure on rental and housing prices in West Somerville. I tell Tufts administrators all the time that they should build new housing when I run into them, and the mayor has also had very frank conversations with [Tufts] president [Anthony] Monaco. I’ve been told by administrators that it’s not one of the priorities.”

Tufts has launched a Residential Strategies Working Group to look into future options for developing on-campus housing, according to Executive Director of Public Relations Kim Thurler. The working group will submit a report to Monaco in the coming weeks.

“The student housing issue has definitely become a priority for the university,” Tufts Director of Community Relations Barbara Rubel said in an email. “We cannot do everything at once, however, and have been focused on creating much needed academic facilities. For example, Tufts had not had a new lab facility in more than 30 years.”

“It is a problem for the Somerville residents, and I don’t blame them,” Leibowitz said of students driving up rents. “I think [the relationship between Somerville and Tufts] can be tense, especially now with the gentrification and with the T, and I think it will impact it a lot. I think you probably will see more of that happening and more resentment.”

Next Steps for Somerville

Mayor Joseph Curtatone announced plans in 2014 for a Sustainable Neighborhoods Working Group in order to address gentrification and the need for affordable housing in Somerville. Niedergang co-chaired the 26-member task force, which has made several recommendations to create more affordable housing, including a one percent surcharge on real estate, which would create up to $6 million annually for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Niedergang is unsure, however, that these initiatives will pass.

Thirty-five percent of all new housing in Somerville will need to be affordable housing in order to help curb the gentrification that will stem from the GLX, according to Niedergang. He explained that there are plans to build at least 6,000 housing units by 2030 as part of SomerVision, the 20-year strategic plan for the city. He believes that the best place to build these units would be in the eastern part of the city and the Assembly Square area, but given Somerville’s dense population, many don’t believe there’s enough room to build housing of this scale.

Niedergang is currently pushing a citizens’ petition that would require 20 percent of the units in all new housing containing at least six units to be affordable. This would be an increase over the current requirement, which stipulates that 12.5 percent of units in buildings of at least eight units be affordable. Affordable housing means that the housing costs must be within the means of people earning less than 80 percent of the area’s median income, or about $70,000 for a family of four.

He notes, however, that the proposed inclusionary zoning rule “is not nearly enough.” This citizens’ petition comes in the midst of a citywide zoning overhaul, which plans to address everything from parking standards to developing artistic and creative spaces. Most of the proposed changes regarding housing pertain to creating affordable housing. But as the overhaul did not pass and must be revamped, Niedergang believes that this petition must pass on its own.

“Lots of people are saying this shouldn’t be considered in isolation. My own opinion is we can’t wait. It could take years for [the zoning overhaul],” Niedergang said.

Alderman at Large Jack Connolly is one of the people who sees the danger in passing this measure without putting it in the context of the massive zoning changes to come.

“Such an increase will be a disincentive for developers to work in Somerville, especially in light of additional expenses and taxes developers face here,” Connolly wrote in the Boston Globe.

Somerville homeowner Jen Palacio, who attended an April 13 public hearing designed to educate Somerville residents about the GLX and the proposed increase in inclusionary zoning and to show support for both, is unsure how she feels about the citizens’ petition.

“It makes a weird balance in the condo association,” she said, noting the social implications of having people with different incomes in the same building. “I’m not sure it’s necessarily enough. You still have to have things that integrate the community.”

Niedergang says that the public meetings showing support from the GLX have been well attended. All 15 people I spoke with at the April 13 meeting, however, were homeowners. Niedergang explained that he has seen great support from renters as well, but concerns remain.

“I know what it’s like to rent in Somerville,” Palacio said. “I’m an artist, and I’m worried artist buildings will get sold. It’s about how to keep things equitable and how to make sure we’re not pushing out the character of Somerville and the people who’ve made it great.”

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