The City of Economic Success: Somerville makes efforts to solve housing crisis

Somerville sees another busy shopping day at multi-use development, Assembly Square.
Somerville sees another busy shopping day at multi-use development, Assembly Square. (John Kraft)


By John Kraft

Somerville, once a hub of organized crime, has seen massive economic growth in the last few decades.  Along with it has come multi-use housing developments after developments.  However, the city continues to see rising prices and a competitive market for renters.

The city is now recognized as a hub for new families and young professionals entering the workforce, but the process of obtaining even an apartment is a hectic one.

“The options come and go so fast it’s hard to keep up with,” said Brittany Spengler, a Somerville tenant currently looking for a new apartment.

A North Virginia native, Spengler moved to Somerville in 2020.  She plans on staying in the city for now, but is struggling between finding either a new apartment or a new roommate to share the rent.

Traveling is another story though, according to Spengler, who opts to drive to work instead of using public transportation.  “Even driving out of Somerville is annoying,” she said, citing the long commute times.

Somerville, though, struggles with the growing population, and despite recent multi-use developments across the city, is still looking for solutions to overcrowding and a limited affordable unit stock.

“We are a city that was sort of a victim of its own successes,” said Ellen Shachter, the director of the Office of Housing Stability in Somerville.

“We’ve had a boom of development interest in Somerville. So the really positive part of that is that it creates tax dollars for programs,” she said.  “It brings resources into the city. But unfortunately, at the same time, it causes a lot of demand for housing, which ultimately makes prices go up and causes gentrification.”

Somerville created its Office of Housing Stability in 2019 out of a need to solve their housing crisis and prevent displacement.  Somerville is one of a few Massachusetts cities with this office, with Boston being the first to implement one.

According to Shachter, the office has a dual focus on helping residents with housing instability and pushing for policy in local government.

“The office opened to sort of provide services and to really think about what policy opportunities there are to at least tide displacement,” she said.

And when it comes to affordable housing, Somerville is navigating through a changing landscape.

“The only option is really what we call purpose built affordable housing,” said Shachter.  “And that means affordable housing that is in some way subsidized: that has rent caps or housing that comes from new development, where we have inclusionary zoning obligations that require landlords to provide 20% of units being affordable.”

Some issues still remain however.  As Shachter explains it, “Those inclusionary units, which are affordable and rent restricted, are affordable to some and not affordable to everybody.”

There is also the fact that the state and federal levels of government have shifted to a system of tax credits, moving some responsibility for affordable housing into the private sector in lieu of funding more affordable housing.

But tax credits program buildings are only eligible for people that have 60% of area median income or above can afford them.  So that means bringing new affordable housing development to the community works for some, not all,” said Shachter.

And while the city has maintained its 10% minimum affordable housing stock, it isn’t enough to meet the demand.

“We’re seeing whole buildings with people that are sold where people are getting 40% rent increases,” said Shachter. “So there’s a need for new, affordable units because people can no longer stay stabilized in what was naturally affordable housing that is no longer naturally occurring.”

On that front, the Office of Housing Stability can only do so much in terms of damage control.  According to Shachter, the office funds lawyers and aids in organizing tenant leaders to fight back against evictions and other forms of displacement.

But the efforts only go so far, as the new incoming population drives up rent prices.

With more and more families moving to the city, as well as a growing student population, prices have gone up to compensate.

“Somerville is gentrifying and our incomes are increasing and those numbers are going up,” said Shachter.

Shachter said she believes there is still a lot to be done, and at the core of the housing crisis, she believes that increasing different funding sources can go a long way.

“Our most vulnerable populations are being forced into places where there’s no transportation. There’s not the same job opportunities. There’s not the same services and resources,” she said.

And its the most vulnerable that Shachter wants to focus on. “It’s trying to make a market solution for something that is a basic human need,” she said.

“And we have almost unlimited demand for housing in the greater Boston area and just not enough resources. So really, we need to be pushing the concept of housing as a right and a basic human need.”

About John Kraft 4 Articles
My name is John Kraft. I studied Social Thought and Political Economy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and I’m currently finishing my masters in journalism at Emerson College. My reporting interests lie in politics and social issues and I strongly believe in following the money when searching for the truth. I one day hope to get into investigative reporting.