The rise of development projects in Somerville—from condos in Assembly Square to new mixed-use spaces in Union Square—has left many feeling as if they are watching a new city get built in time lapse. Rapid gentrification in the diverse city has pushed out some of the most vulnerable members of the community, all while causing others to fear that they will also be pressured to leave as rents continue to jump.
The recently unveiled Somerville Community Land Trust (SCLT) offers a solution for some of the anxiety that homeowners and renters alike may be feeling. In May, the city formed a working group to assess whether a community land trust (CLT) would help assuage the affordable housing shortage. We checked in on the progress thus far.
What is a community land trust?
As defined by the SCLT, a CLT is a “neutral and sustainable model of affordable housing and community development.” Community members, CLT lease holders, and representatives for local community interests will form a board that acquires land and keeps it permanently affordable. By remaining an independent, nonprofit organization, a CLT works to give its community autonomy as it tries to accommodate the city’s housing needs.
CLTs primarily keep housing affordable by excluding land from the private market—if a resident buys a home on community-owned land, that resident will own the home, but the CLT will give them a 99-year ground lease to keep the property affordable. Those leasing CLT land will not be subject to fluctuating market prices and are much more likely to be able to continue to afford living in the area, as the prices will not inflate along with the value of the location.
In addition to the economic benefits, CLTs are also designed to create a sense of community amongst neighbors, as everybody involved has a say in making sure their city avoids displacing low-income residents in future development booms.
The SCLT is not alone in Greater Boston—there are CLTs in Chinatown and Roxbury, among other communities. The Dudley Neighbors, Inc., was started by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in the 1980s and has successfully helped convert abandoned property into 225 affordable homes, community gardening spaces, and a playground.
Why a CLT?
With the proposed MBTA Green Line extension into Union Square and the overhaul of the area, as well as an increase in the number of luxury condos, residents have been feeling the squeeze on their wallets as prices inflate with the value of their land.
David Gibbs, a Somerville resident since 1992 and a SCLT volunteer who has seen the city undergo many changes in the last 26 years, said, “When my wife and I moved to Somerville it was a super diverse town with a lot of old Somerville folks and a tremendously growing immigrant population. Those populations are still here, but in addition you’ve got a college-educated, typically white and affluent crowd moving in as well.”
According to the most recent Housing Needs Assessment (HNA) done in 2015, Somerville has 3,341 affordable units. However, many of the available units could be market rate rental units, which are not affordable to low-income residents.
Cherai Mills, a Somerville resident and community organizer for the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants, is volunteering with SCLT to help Somerville residents escape the unaffordable housing prices she has seen as a trend throughout Greater Boston.
“Most of the housing deemed affordable, isn’t affordable,” Mills said. “You might be able to slap that word onto housing units, but that doesn’t mean that people in the lowest income brackets can gain entry.”
In its research, the HNA found only 140 living spaces that are affordable for those making 50% of the Area Median Income (AMI), which is currently $41,400. For a one-bedroom apartment, the maximum affordable rent that can be charged is $923 a month, and $1,108 a month for a two bedroom. For a couple making minimum wage, rent could be more than half their salary per month.
In a city where the median household income is $84,772, but the poverty rate is 12.4% according to the most recent US Census numbers, there are bound to be discrepancies in housing availability that meets everyone’s needs.
“As the younger, more well-to-do crowd has moved in, that has made it more difficult for the old Somerville and immigrant populations to remain,” Gibbs said. “Our poverty rate is technically dropping, and that’s because there are two ways to eliminate poverty in a city, and one of them is to drive all the poor people out.”
The issues of actual affordability for families and individuals in the low-income bracket, coupled with development, has been a serious handicap for the community. The 2017 Greater Boston Housing Report Card reported that the price for a single-family home in Somerville rose 62% since 2005. Housing units are not only going up in price but are also being replaced by condos—222 rental units were converted to luxury housing in 2018 alone, according to the annual report from the condominium review board.
“There are people leaving notes under our door asking if we would consider selling,” said Keira Horowitz, a SCLT volunteer who can usually be seen with an iced coffee pushing her son in a yellow stroller through her Spring Hill neighborhood. Horowitz is concerned about the future of the community and added, “It’s not just us. So many people in the area are experiencing the same thing.
“I bought a house here in 2015 and I got really lucky. How are people supposed to move here with these kinds of prices now?”
With the support of the city and the administration of Somerville Mayor Joe Curatone, the SCLT official kicked off with a party at the JFK Elementary School on June 12. A group of about 25 volunteers who have diligently worked on the project since last year laid out their progress so far and explained where they want to take things.
The land trust’s recent incorporation of a nonprofit with 501c3 status means the group can begin doing community outreach and searching for ways to acquire land. The organization is looking for sources of funding from the local government, as well as federal Housing and Urban Development dollars, plus donations from private donors and contributions from nonprofits and affordable housing developers.
Once there is a working budget, SCLT can look at purchasing land on the private market, acquiring public lands, or, if it’s lucky, having land donated to the cause. The acquisition process could take a few years, but SCLT members made clear that they are looking to get low-to-moderate-income families the help they need first before expanding to give all residents an opportunity to live on community land.
At the JFK School event, volunteers were enthusiastic about fundraising, building coalitions with other local nonprofits, and getting out their message.
“No one tells you your house can be market rate within the next two years, and that means you have to leave,” Mills said. “It’s really hard to see people fight to have to stay in their homes, and this is a sustainable way to keep housing affordable for low-income families.”
“The most important thing about a community land trust is not the trust, or the land, it’s the community members,” Gibbs said. “You can’t be a part of a land trust without being in connect[ion] to other folks, and this way we lose some of the anonymity of the city and care more for each other.”