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In Somerville, Green Line Extension means higher rents

With area rents skyrocketing in Union Square, Jordan Voelker, here with her two sons, Henrik, 5 and Roland, 2, said she knows she and her husband she may soon have to move out.

Clennon L. King

With area rents skyrocketing in Union Square, Jordan Voelker, here with her two sons, Henrik, 5 and Roland, 2, said she knows she and her husband she may soon have to move out.

Jordan Voelker is due any day now, and knows she’s caught between a rock and a hard place.

The pregnant wife and soon-to-be mother of three needs bigger digs than the one-bedroom apartment her family currently calls home in Somerville’s Union Square.

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And while Voelker, 33, and her husband, Jason Potz, 35, want to stay in the neighborhood, she knows that a new Union Square MBTA stop slated to open in 2017 has already priced her out of the housing market.

“We can’t afford to move to a two-bedroom with the rents the way they are,” said the classically trained musician. “And we can never buy around here at this point.”

The monthly rents are only expected to go up even further. A two-bedroom apartment near Union Square with a current market rate of $2,000, for instance, could see an increase of $265 with the Green Line station opening in 2017, according to recent projections by area planners.

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The housing dilemma faced by Voelker, and many others like her, was the focus of one of the city’s community workshops to discuss strategies to keep Somerville diverse, affordable, and vibrant.

“There are areas where we really think there could be potential for rent increases, significant rent increases on certain spots along the Green Line,” Dana LeWinter, Somerville’s housing director, said to a gathering of more than 100 residents earlier this month at the Argenziano School.

‘We can’t afford to move to a two-bedroom with the rents the way they are.’

Jordan Voelker, who will likely have to move out of Union Square to find a bigger place for her growing family 
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LeWinter pointed to neighborhoods surrounding future stops on the Green Line Extension, including Inner Belt/Brick Bottom at Washington Street and Gilman Square near City Hall and Union Square.

Officials in the city of some 77,000 residents also predict rent increases along the new T route at Lowell Street near Magoun Square and Ball Square at Broadway, which are scheduled to open in 2019.

Somerville is a city of renters. About 67 percent of households do not own their properties, and 44 percent of them are “cost burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their gross household income on housing, according to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

It’s about to get worse.

In February, the planning council released a report called “The Dimensions of Displacement: Baseline Data for Managing Neighborhood Change in Somerville’s Green Line Corridor.” Among the key findings, the report states that over the next 15 years, monthly rents near new T stops could increase more than 25 percent and as much as 67 percent, making them too expensive for low- and moderate-income renters.

In addition, many of the 272 subsidized apartments currently in the T extension corridor could be converted to market rate when their affordability restrictions expire before 2020, according to the report.

Eli Flores 42, lives four blocks from where the Gilman Square T stop will open.

The line cook, who commutes daily from Somerville to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said if his rent goes up, he may have to move out.

“I don’t make as much as I used to,” he said. “Rent goes up; raises don’t go anywhere. It stays about the same. So, I might have to go elsewhere, further out where it’s cheaper and it’s affordable.”

History is the best teacher on ways to keep working-class residents like Flores, said Danny LeBlanc, chief executive officer of the Somerville Community Corporation, whose mission is to create and preserve diversity and housing affordability.

“When the Red Line came in the mid ’80s to Davis Square over a 20-year period, we saw a dramatic amount of displacement, increases in rent, and purchase prices in homes,” LeBlanc said.

“I guess what I would say is ‘Fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,’ ” he said, adding the community must prepare viable strategies to maintain economic and housing diversity.

Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone was not present at the recent forum, but he said in an interview that the risk of losing residents is real and that 435,000 places to live must be built in the region by 2040 if cities like Somerville are to preserve their diversity and affordability.

“If we don’t start tackling this, there’s a smaller supply, there’s a higher demand,” he said. “Everyone can do the math. It’s going to price people out. [The development of new housing stock] is the number one thing we can do as a region, and plan right away.”

Despite that visionary outlook, Trinidad native Marcus Cabralis, 31, who lives with his wife, Lydia, 26, near McGrath Highway and Broadway, was realistic about his ability to buy a home in the city.

“We’re looking for a house right now,” he said after the forum. “But the problem is we’re looking for a house outside of Somerville, because of the increase in prices. But my wife loves it here. So, we’d love to stay here if we can.”

Unlike area tenants, few homeowners living around the planned T stops appear to be complaining.

According to the latest statistics realized by The Warren Group, which tracks real estate trends in Massachusetts, the median price for a single-family home in Somerville has climbed to $490,000 this year, compared with $337,000 in the first two months of 2013.

As another sign of an upscale market, median condo prices have risen from $375,000 to $450,000.

Laurence Duffy, 54, got ahead of the curve by buying a single-family home at the end of Nashua Street, a stone’s throw from where the Lowell Street T stop will be situated.

In the eight years since he closed on his home, a high-end, 180-unit apartment development known as Maxwell’s Green opened outside his living room window.

Tenants can pay more than $4,000 a month for a three-bedroom town house there.

Duffy acknowledged that what some call the gentrification of his neighborhood comes at a price.

“It has a negative impact on fixed-income elderly residents who’ve been around for a very long, long time,” he said.

Carina Grenham, 36, who owns a two-story condo, echoed Duffy’s sentiments as she pushed her son, Enda, in a playground swing.

“I mean, I feel bad for the renters, because I do think [rents] are going to go up a lot,” she said. “And it’s already pretty high.”

Medical assistant Stacy Ormond, 32, lives two blocks from where a bowling alley and auto repair garage will be razed to make way for a Ball Square T stop. She expects the $1,200 a month she pays in rent to nearly double once the first Green Line subway pulls into the new stop.

“It could be another $1,000 with the convenience,” she said. “It’s already high with [Tufts, the area restaurants] and everything else right down the street.”

Despite rising rents, leaving is out of the question for many Green Line Extension corridor tenants.

Hasaan Mason, 27, of the Winter Hill neighborhood, was walking to pick up his daughter from school one recent afternoon. The unemployed grocery store worker said that even though the cost of keeping a roof over his family’s head may go up, he can’t imagine relocating, given his reliance on public transit.

“You know, a lot of people don’t [have] cars, and it’s hard to get around,” he said. “So even though the rent will go up, I think it would be useful still.”

That argument resonated with Danni Ventre, 28, who pays $1,600 for her one-bedroom apartment in Union Square.

“I mean it’s what you pay for,” said Ventre, who cycles to and from a school in Cambridge where she’s a teacher in training. “If a T stop continues increasing the great things that are happening in our community, then I’m OK paying a few hundred dollars more.”

Shannon Robbins, 25, said she moved to Union Square from Cambridge to cut costs. She rents a room there to be within walking distance of her job at a Dunkin’ Donuts, and doesn’t feel a new T stop affects her, at least for now.

“I don’t need to get on the train,” she said. “But if my rent went up because of the train, yeah, I’d be upset.”

Clennon L. King can be reached at clennon@ augustinemonica.com.
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