Afruza Akther didn’t want to get involved in politics when she immigrated to Union Square from Bangladesh in 2004.
And for about a decade, she didn’t—until 2014, when she was almost forced to leave Somerville because her family couldn’t afford the increasing rent of her Putnam Street apartment. Luckily, they were able get a housing subsidy and find a new home in the city, but Akther, 35, decided it was time to take action.
“If it keeps going this way, then we can’t live in the community that we love,” Akther says. She soon became one of the founding members of Union United, a community group dedicated to ensuring that residents aren’t forced out by increased rent costs caused by the Union Square Revitalization and Green Line Extension projects. The group has adopted “development without displacement” as its slogan.
The group members have a long road ahead of them. The city is still in the initial stages of the massive revitalization project, which aims to transform Union Square by redeveloping 15 acres of land. About 60 percent of the project will be commercial space, and the rest will be residential. The entire project is slated to create nearly 1,000 new housing units, 20 percent of which will be affordable, according to US2, the company selected by the city to develop the land. The $1 billion project is also expected to create 5,000 jobs and over $11.3 million annually in new property tax revenue.
US2 is aiming to break ground on the D-2 parcel on the corner of Prospect Street and Somerville Avenue this fall, according to Tom Galligani, Somerville’s director of economic development. The space is currently a vacant lot.
Union United consisted of just a few people at first, Akther says. Members took turns knocking on doors to recruit residents and get their take on what was happening to the community. At the time it was “icy cold,” and they had a tough time getting people to join them.
“People would say, ‘Good, you guys are doing [a] great job keep up the good work,’ and then [they] didn’t show up [at] the meeting,” Akther says. “That hurts.”
But over time, their message began to stick, Akther says. Today the group has roughly 200 to 300 members, and it meets the first Thursday of every month at 29 Elm Street.
Akther was elected to the Union Square Neighborhood Council in the fall, which is responsible for negotiating with US2 on behalf of the residents. She received 377 votes, the most of any member on the 15-member council, according to the Somerville Journal.
In early May, she received the Hazel Hughes award from the Somerville Community Corporation.
One of the reasons Akther has been so successful is that she understands that organizing “begins with building relationships,” says Van Hardy, who was also one of the founding members of Union United.
“What has amazed me about Afruza is her ability to take one relationship and expand it into a network. Knocking on doors, talking to strangers, making a connection that opens more doors—she is one of the best,” Hardy says. “She is not the kind of organizer/leader that jumps to the front of the room to take charge. She listens and learns from others. Encouraging others to speak up in meetings and to take on leadership roles, strengthening the organization as a whole rather than providing a leader to be followed.”
Despite all of Union United’s efforts, Akther says that people have already been priced out of Union Square and have been forced to move.
“A lot of people moved out,” Akther says. “There’s so many families we lost.”
Akther isn’t sure if one day she’ll be forced to leave herself. Despite the uncertainty, Akther said she hopes her work will have a lasting impact on her community.
“Maybe I’m not going to get the benefit from this, maybe I will,” Akther says. “But someone will.”
This story originally appeared in the Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.