Comments on the Union Square Neighborhood Plan

I recently sent this letter to the City of Somerville’s planning department, and wanted to share it. (you should send in your thoughts too, before Dec 31st 2015:

Hello, I’m writing with comments on the city’s Union Square Neighborhood Plan, and to share my concern with the city’s priorities stated within it. I am a co-founder of locally based environmental non-profit Public Lab, a co-founder of the Pirateship co-working space, a board member of Parts and Crafts kids’ makerspace, and a member of Union United, but today I am writing personally, as a resident of Union Square.

Somerville is in the midst of a major housing crisis. As the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s “Dimensions of Displacement” report makes very clear, 3,600 lower-income households in Somerville’s GLX corridor already struggle to make rent, and an additional 7-800 will likely become rent-burdened as a result of the extension. In addition, 272 of Somerville’s affordable housing units will expire before 2020, mostly in the GLX corridor.

This means that over the next four years, approximately 4,500 households will be at risk of displacement — and that’s not even all of Somerville! Many of these are families, and because of local demographics, rent pressures disproportionately affect residents of color.

In the context of this crisis, SomerVision and the USNP’s goal to “make Somerville an even more exceptional place to live, work, play, and raise a family” seems not to acknowledge the challenges faced by (especially non-white) residents in the area. The plan paints a lovely picture of what Union Square could be — but we must decide if that future is one that will be shared by those residents who have worked so hard to make Union Square a special place.

We’ve been told by the city more than once that we must choose between community “benefits” from a limited amount of funds. But this is not a crisis of bike lanes or park benches; it’s a crisis of displacement. I live in an apartment which was formerly — for twenty years — the home of a local family. I’m sure many people feel the same guilt as I do in participating in displacement, but as renters we have little power to change the economics of the situation. As voters, and as participants in the planning of Union Square’s future, we do have that power. We have an opportunity to slow and even reverse this process.

We have this opportunity in part because, luckily, Union Square’s redevelopment will generate a lot of money. US2’s part in the development has been widely referred to as a billion dollar project. We must ensure that this wealth is not created at the expense of Somerville’s most vulnerable community members.

In short, the plan’s proposed ~500 new affordable housing units are simply not enough. Will we simply tell the other 4,000 households (see above) that there’s nothing we can do? I don’t believe we have to choose between a vibrant, beautiful, and tax-revenue-generating new Union Square, and one which can address the challenge of displacement. And I don’t believe we as a community wish to see so many residents and families pushed out in order to renew Union Square the wrong way. There’s enough space; there’s enough money: let’s act.

Many of the topics addressed in the Neighborhood Plan are important to me, and I am pleased to see the City paying attention to things like support for small local businesses, creative spaces, and other “nice-to-haves.” But these pale in comparison to the urgency of affordability for so many people in Union Square today.

Thank you for your consideration, Jeffrey Warren

Union Square, Somerville resident


I just came across this article arguing that affordable housing can profitable, and that it’s really a moral choice. A good read, and it links to an “Inclusionary Housing Calculator”: