SOMERVILLE — For years, many in Somerville have been watching their city gentrify around them. Homes selling for increasingly out-of-reach prices. Fancier cars parking on their block. Longtime neighbors disappearing.
Now the long-awaited extension of the Green Line is set to open, and the changes are coming faster, the vise squeezing lower-income residents growing tighter. The blue-collar workers, immigrants, retirees, and middle-class families who contribute to this dense city’s vibrant culture are seeing their apartment buildings sold and landlords raising the rent. With the citywide eviction moratorium that protected residents during the pandemic expiring at the end of April, concerns about displacement are rising.
The neighborhood around Union Square has seen some of the largest rent increases in all of Greater Boston over the past six months, according to real estate site Zillow. It’s where Julia Machada, 54, lives with her 15-year-old son and two sisters near the Target store. Her rent is scheduled to jump $600 a month in June, to nearly $3,000, even though the building wasn’t sold and no renovations are planned.
“They told me the Green Line’s coming and we have to increase the rent,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter. “The rent never forgives.”
The new Green Line service — its first spur to Union Square opens Monday — is quickening the transformation of this city of 81,000, where two-thirds of residents rent. Apartments within walking distance of the stations are becoming hot property. And despite efforts by the city and community groups to help residents cope with housing costs, many worry that by the time the train is fully operational later this year, the working-class residents who could benefit from it most — riding the T to jobs or families — might be gone for good.
“The emergency lights are flashing red,” said Ben Ewen-Campen, a city councilor whose district includes Union Square. “We’re seeing it really reaching a crisis point.”
The Community Action Agency of Somerville has been tracking a “small army” of developers snapping up two-families and three-deckers along the new Green Line, said Nicole Eigbrett, the anti-poverty agency’s director of community organizing. They’re converting this working-class housing to condos or higher-end apartments, forcing longtime low- to moderate-income tenants “already hanging on by their fingernails” into even more desperate situations, Eigbrett said.
Vanessa Vela’s family has lived on Walnut Street since 2009, in a first-floor apartment near the new Gilman Square station. The 39-year-old keeps the gold-winged academic trophies she earned at Charlestown High School, shortly after arriving from El Salvador as a teenager, on a high window sill. A framed photo of her late grandfather rests on the mantel. Vela’s brother got a break on rent in exchange for fixing up the place, and the monthly payments have remained far below market value.
But in September, the six-unit building was sold. Vela and the other tenants, including another immigrant family who has lived there for 37 years, were told they had to leave. The new owner offered to help pay for moving costs, but rescinded the eviction after they fought back with the help of CAAS. Vela’s rent has not yet been raised, but two recently renovated units in the building were listed for $,3000-$3,350 a month, far more than Vela can afford.
Vela, 39, works as a veterinary technician at a cat clinic in Arlington and lives with her teenage son and her mother, who was hospitalized with COVID-19 in the fall of 2020. Her mother, who only recently went back to work at a factory in Everett, doesn’t want to leave the area. Nor does her son, an honors student at Somerville High School, just up the hill.
“Everybody wants to be a millionaire in a minute,” said Vela. “I am just tired of working for others to get rich. I’m not going to be stressed out working two and three jobs and leave my son alone, just because [the owner’s] pockets are never filled.”
Vela keeps tabs on the growing wealth of her new landlord, Lior Rozhansky a 2015 Brandeis University graduate. His Instagram page lists a 61-unit real estate portfolio valued at $21 million, and he offers tips on investing in multi-family rental properties on his YouTube channel. Rozhansky declined to comment.
People’s homes aren’t the only thing in jeopardy. Jobs are being pushed out too. Machada, whose rent is rising $600 a month, works at the commercial laundry Royal Hospitality Services, a 15-minute walk away in the heart of a massive development area. It’s slated to relocate in five years, and Machada, an immigrant like many of the 300 workers at the union shop, is concerned about where it will end up. She’s also worried how she’s going to afford her place, especially after one of her sisters moves out.
So far, rents around the six new Green Line stations have not soared to the levels initially predicted, in part due to COVID, which dented Somerville’s rental market in 2020. In fact, advertised rental prices in those neighborhoods have been all over the place, rising in some places and dropping in others, adjusted for inflation, between 2013 and 2021, according to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Citywide, however, the rent for a two-bedroom apartment has risen 15 percent.
It may be that it’s too soon for a Green Line bump to factor into rents, said Tim Reardon, director of data services at MAPC, which in a 2014 report about the Somerville extension projected that rents near some new stations could increase wildly, anywhere from 25 to 70 percent. Somerville has also built a lot of housing, he notes — the number of homes in Somerville grew faster than the population between 2010 and 2020 — which has likely helped keep rents down.
Still, prices have ticked up in recent months, according to Zillow, with the “typical” rent in Union Square — the average of midrange listings — rising 4.9 percent between September and February to $2,669, a much bigger increase than in the same period right before the pandemic.
Bill Cavellini has lived on Oak Street for 17 years, a block and a half from the new Union Square station and an apartment tower going up next door. The retired cab driver and homeless case manager got involved with a coalition called Union United in 2016, and helped form the Union Square Neighborhood Council, to help vulnerable residents from getting priced out and keep community networks from “disintegrating.”
“The old timers are moving out,” said Cavellini, 78, who with his wife rents the first floor of a property owned by his family. “Some of them by choice, some of them not by choice.”
When people leave a place where they’ve had roots for generations, Cavellini said, “there’s a vacuum that’s left, and it’s not always easily filled.”
Ann E. Camara, cochair of the Union Square Neighborhood Council, has lived in an area known as Duck Village for 45 years, in the two-family house her Portuguese grandfather bought for $4,000 in 1930. Camara, a former nurse, raised her sons there and ran a day care business in the home for 30 years. Her sister lives upstairs. And she’s horrified that a two-family house around the corner is selling for $1.6 million.
“Only the rich can come here now,” she said. “Who else can buy that?”
As a massive, multi-block redevelopment of Union Square moved through city approvals in recent years, the Union Square groups pushed for “development without displacement.” They negotiated deals that require 20 percent of residential projects to be set aside at affordable rents and higher contributions to the affordable housing trust fund and a new job-training program.
The city is using “every tool possible to work against displacement,” said Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, noting that the housing crisis goes far beyond Somerville. It has opened an Office of Housing Stability, instituted a program to buy homes on the market and provide subsidies to keep rents affordable, and created an ordinance requiring developers to wait at least a year before converting apartments into condos.
But programs aimed at helping tenants — including the condo conversion ordinance and its provisions limiting rent increases — are also driving more longtime property owners to sell, said Steve Bremis, who’s been in the real estate business in Somerville for 41 years and is suing the city over the ordinance.
“They don’t like the climate,” he said. “People who have had properties for 30 years are getting out.”
When buildings change hands, rents usually go up, and even a small hike can have a big effect on people already strapped for cash. About 38 percent of renters in Somerville pay nearly one third or more of their monthly income for housing costs; 15 percentpay more than half, according to the most recent Census data. In the city’s Green Line service areas, just under one third of the population is made up of people of color, and around the same share live in low-income households, according to the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Even those who qualify for assistance are struggling. Union United member Afruza Akther has had to move three times in the past seven years, most recently to Winter Hill, driven out when her building sold or landlords raised the rent beyond what her Section 8 voucher could pay. She also lost her job at a Subway franchise in Union Square after the owners closed it to convert it into another business. But Akther, also a former Union Square Neighborhood Council board member, is determined to stay in Somerville, close to her husband’s family, at least until her 16-year-old daughter finishes high school.
Akther and her husband are currently working two days a week at Bow Market in Union Square preparing Bengali food from their native Bangladesh while trying to get their own catering business off the ground. But Akther is always worried about the next rent increase. “All this pressure is piling on me,” she said. “There’s no break.”
But others see opportunity.
In December, South Boston-based developer G. A. Donovan Management Consulting Corp. spent nearly $11.5 million to buy six two-family homes and an artists’ studio space on one three-block stretch of Washington Street just outside Union Square. Candice Cole has lived in one of the buildings for four years, paying “nice affordable rent,” currently $2,765 a month. But she’s been told that in June it will jump to $4,000; so she and her three roommates are all moving out. (G.A. Donovan did not reply to a request for comment).
Cole, who makes around $40,000 a year doing telephone customer service, is worried not only about where she’s going to go, but about the other “longtime regular folks” in the neighborhood. There’s the older man next door who talks to his cats, and the guy across the street who walks around in his bathrobe — people, she said, “who belong here.”
“Regular folks who have regular jobs can’t compete with these management companies,” she said. “Where are we all supposed to go?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated why the Union Square Subway franchise closed. The story has been updated.