Does New Mass Transit Always Have to Mean Rapidly Rising Rents?

U.S. cities big and small are struggling to welcome transit development while preserving affordable housing.

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Flickr user Chris Devers

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—On Saturday nights, Davis Square bustles with the young and fashionable. They're seeing an independent film at the restored movie palace or taking in a comedy show down the street. They're slurping ramen at a Japanese restaurant, sipping a beer at a sidewalk table, or people-watching on the busy central plaza. Tucked into a corner of Somerville, a city of 77,000 just northwest of Boston, Davis Square is a prototype vision of urbanism — dense, transit-oriented, walkable, and a real estate agent's dream. A typical one-bedroom apartment rents for as much as $2,000, and single-family homes now sell for upwards of $1 million.

Van Hardy lived here in the mid-1980s. When he looks back on the last three decades, he's amazed at how things have changed. "Davis Square was kind of a depressed area, a lot of crime," the 64-year-old says. The neighborhood began to transform after metro Boston's light rail and subway system — known as the "T" — extended into Somerville in 1984. The new Davis Station offered an easy commute to Harvard, MIT, or downtown Boston via the T's Red Line. "As soon as the Red Line came in, there were more college kids, young professionals," Hardy recalls. And as the neighborhood grew more desirable, Hardy's rent went up, forcing him and many of his neighbors to move across town.

Now, Hardy is worried he might have to move again. Over the next eight years, Somerville will get six more rail stations, as a long-anticipated extension of the T's Green Line is finally built through the heart of town and a new station opens on the Orange Line. While working-class residents are looking forward to the convenience of having transit within walking distance, many also remember what happened after the Red Line came to Davis Square. "There's just this instability, not knowing when the rent is going to go up," Hardy says.

Hardy's fears are well-grounded. In February, a report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency that serves metropolitan Boston, warned that rent for apartments near the new Green Line stations could rise by as much as 67 percent, and that condo conversions could accelerate starting even before the new T stops open. Developers are already using the Green Line extension in their sales pitches, and renters who live near planned stations report that their landlords have begun to raise the rent — in some cases by 100 percent or more.

Anxiety over new transit projects in established neighborhoods is nothing new, although historically it was more often felt in wealthy areas, where people worried about rising crime and falling property values. Today gentrification is the more likely scenario, with dense urban living becoming desirable again. A 2010 study out of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University looked at demographic shifts in neighborhoods across the country after new light rail or subway stations opened. Compared to the rest of their metro areas, 60 percent of the neighborhoods saw an increase in the proportion of households making more than $100,000, and 74 percent saw rents rising faster. Ironically, as incomes rose in these transit-centric neighborhoods, car ownership also became more common.

The researchers traced the same pattern in cities as different as Seattle, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Houston, and it will likely be replicated along many of the 737 miles of transit currently under construction across the United States and Canada. In Somerville, the trend could affect thousands of low- and moderate-income residents, forcing those who need transit the most to relocate to car-dependent suburbs. That worries not just renters, but anyone who cares about sustaining a diverse city and building efficient mobility networks.

"Opposing new transit is like cutting off your nose to spite your face," says Danny LeBlanc, chief executive of the Somerville Community Corporation, known as the SCC, a nonprofit that is leading the effort to find solutions to the looming housing crisis. "But the fear among longtime residents is that they and their kids just won't be able to afford to enjoy it."

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Somerville was, for much of its history, home to working-class Italian and Irish families — a densely populated city of low-rise apartment buildings, subdivided Victorians, and the fading vestiges of light industry. When mid-20th century white flight sent those who could afford it scurrying to the suburbs, immigrants from South Asia, Brazil, Central America, and the Caribbean replaced them. That diversity is a point of pride for city leaders, and it may be why Somerville, unlike many cities in similar circumstances, is working to anticipate and mitigate the impact on housing costs.

Current plans call for six new MBTA stations in Somerville (above, along dotted green lines), with nearby rents rising 67 percent by some estimates. (MAPC)

"The positives of investing in public transit far outweigh the negatives," says Mayor Joseph Curtatone, a son of Italian immigrants who grew up in the city's Prospect Hill neighborhood. "But the one thing we don't want to do as we prosper is lose our soul."

How to strike that balance is still up for debate. Curtatone's administration has published redevelopment plans for areas around the new transit stops that would increase density and encourage construction. These have proven controversial, in part because they could involve invoking eminent domain. But Curtatone is adamant about the need to alleviate pressure on the city's limited housing stock by simply building more. The goal is at least 6,000 new units by 2030, including 1,200 designated as permanently affordable. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, meanwhile, says Somerville may actually need as many as 9,000 more units (a third of them for low-income households). City officials say their number is open to revision.

"The plan's dynamic," says Curtatone. "There's one clear solution: We need more housing stock."

More housing may not be enough, however, if the current trend toward luxury construction continues. At present, all new projects are required to set aside at least 12.5 percent of units as affordable. Some in town argue that share should be higher, but regardless of the figure, those units are distributed to low-income families through a lottery, leaving the middle class to compete on the open market. To help that population, city officials and the SCC are discussing ideas to stabilize prices for existing homes, money for which could come from the affordable housing trust funded by the city's recently increased linkage fee, a $5.15-per-square-foot charge collected from large commercial developers.

"We've never been one to shy away from a good idea," says George Proakis, Somerville's planning director. Still, he notes, affordability is just one of the city's priorities. "We're trying to focus on a balance between allowing development to occur while also making sure that people who live here can afford to stay."

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As city officials work to strike a balance between growth and sustainability, some residents are already beginning to see their neighborhoods change. Felix Lugo immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic 18 years ago. For most of that time, he has lived in a neat Victorian apartment building in Somerville's Union Square, which will be one of the first neighborhoods to welcome a new T stop, as early as 2017.

"The speculators are running through this neighborhood," says Lugo in Spanish, through a translator. "My perception is the middle class here is going to be gone. It's going to be all wealthy people. Bourgeoisie." Looking out his fourth-floor living room window, he points to a building on the corner that was recently converted to luxury lofts. A convenience store called "Lovely Spot" sits vacant, Lugo says, since the owners were unable to keep up when the landlord doubled their rent. A friend who ran a beauty salon closed up shop for the same reason. Even the church around the corner is gone, he says. "They doubled the rent! On a church!"

Rents along the green line extension into Somerville could go up as much as $580 a month at some stops. (MAPC)

Lugo, a member of the Somerville Community Corporation, has been working to organize his neighbors and take their concerns to the city, which he says has done a poor job communicating with residents and business-owners about redevelopment.

"On the one hand, I would like to believe that the city or the authorities want to keep the residents and businesses here," Lugo says. "But I have doubts, for a simple reason: They haven't been talking to us."

City officials say they have been doing their best to listen. City Hall joined with the SCC to host a series of well-attended workshops earlier this year, at which residents were encouraged to air their concerns and propose solutions. At one recent meeting, held in an elementary school cafeteria, residents' proposals ranged from rent control — a long shot — to a requirement that new developments include family-sized housing at below-market rates.

"The market rate is for people who are making more money," says Martine Dreux, a 30-year-old Haitian immigrant who has been searching in vain for an affordable apartment big enough for her and her daughter. "You can't spend your whole check on rent and then starve."

At one of the workshops, Dana LeWinter, the city's housing director, told the assembled residents that their opinions would help set the agenda for City Hall, and she encouraged them to stay engaged.

"It's a matter of all hands on deck for this," LeWinter says later, in an interview at the City Hall annex. While the city is open to creative ideas, "often people will look to city government and say, 'You guys have to solve this.' If there were an easy solution to displacement, I think someone would have found it. And I think we're well poised just because we're having this conversation."

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However Somerville's affordability conversation plays out, it is one that dozens of U.S. cities developing or expanding their transit systems must soon have. Washington, D.C., is bringing back a streetcar network in an effort to revitalize depressed neighborhoods, but the project has become a symbol of gentrification and a magnet for controversy in a city that recently lost its black majority as the white population grew by nearly a third. Meanwhile, Los Angeles is building or extending several Metro rail lines that residents spent years fighting for, but landlords in Leimert Park — long known as a hub of African-American culture — have reportedly canceled leases and sold buildings to speculators in advance of a subway station slated to open by 2019.

So far, only a handful of cities have tackled the problem directly, in most cases by snatching up land or housing before market-rate developers get to it. Charlotte and Denver set aside money to buy property around new stations in order to keep it affordable. Atlanta has an affordable housing trust fund for land around its BeltLine project, with 120 units created so far. In the San Francisco Bay Area, government agencies and private foundations set up a $50 million fund in 2011 to provide financing for affordable housing and certain retail and service projects close to transit — although so far the investment has centered around existing stations.

A Hubway bikeshare stand just outside the T station at Davis Square in Somerville. (Amy Crawford)

In Somerville, Alderman Maryann Heuston, who grew up here in the 1950s and '60s, sees gentrification as a global trend — a reversal of the suburban migration that destroyed her childhood neighborhood. "I lost a lot of friends," she remembers. "When I was growing up, people couldn't get out of here fast enough." By the late 1970s, Heuston says, Somerville's commercial areas were "desolate" and its residential neighborhoods relegated to those who could not afford to leave. For years, the neighborhood around the Davis Square T-station was the only part of the city that seemed to thrive.

Sometimes lost amid today's controversy is the fact that Somerville — so often overshadowed by its larger, wealthier neighbors, Boston and Cambridge — fought for decades to bring the Green Line into town. Now that construction is finally about to begin, there is a sense among some that, just as an old injustice could soon be righted, another might be about to take its place.

"We're at a delicate point," says Heuston. "We want to be able to take advantage of all that this new world has to offer. But we need to make sure that the people who stuck it out are able to stay."

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Author

  • Amy Crawford has written for Boston magazine, the Boston Globe, Slate, and Smithsonian. She lives outside Boston.