By Maile Blume
This budget season, in response to community organizing, Somerville allocated $3 million to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund for flexible rental assistance starting this July. However, community organizers say more needs to be done to address the ongoing housing crisis.
“We need to act like a crisis,” said Catherine Porter, a community organizer with Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS), an organization that works to end poverty in Somerville. “We need more local investment, especially out of the state and federal government,”she said.
Porter said that while the $3 million will keep a lot of families housed, “rental assistance and eviction prevention is really just a Band-Aid. You know, what happens at the next rent increase?”
She added that the housing crisis will only continue and may even worsen until Somerville has deeply affordable housing.
Fighting the housing crisis CAAS works with tenant leaders to organize for changes in their buildings and throughout the city. They also educate residents on their rights as renters, advocate for improved living conditions for residents, and hold monthly renters meetings for residents to support one another and prevent displacement.
“The experience of meeting and working with other CAAS tenants is enriching. Every day I learn a lot. I hear stories that touch my heart,” said Veronica Siqueira Soares, a tenant leader with CAAS. She said of the other tenant leaders, “They are hardworking people who fight bravely to continue living in Somerville even with very high rents and a high rate of evictions. They are fathers and mothers of families who bring their cultures and make Somerville such a unique and special city.”
“The changes I would like to see in Somerville would be stability in the price of rents, which are very high, the security that children who were born here can remain here and have a safe and healthy life, programs that facilitate the purchase of popular properties and rents fairer and that our mayor has more affectionate eyes for the low-income population, as this population drives the city by buying from local businesses and moving the city,” said Soares.
“I would like the Somerville community to know that they are not alone in the fight for affordable housing justice,” she said. “We invite everyone to learn about CAAS and a]end our monthly meetings to let them know their rights as tenants. All together we are stronger!”
Porter said that community organizing around the housing crisis is forcing potential investors to see tenants as people, and creating an environment where investors don’t feel as comfortable displacing residents.
Tenant organizing strengthens the power of the people, and demonstrates, “Your community will fight for you, and fight for you to be here,” she said.
One of the programs that came out of the tenant organizing is the start and expansion of Somerville’s Municipal Voucher Program. In November 30, 2022, the city and the Somerville Affordable Housing Trust Fund each allocated $1.8 million to support the first five years of the program.
“It is really critical because it provides that subsidy that makes housing more affordable,” said Nicole Eigbrett, the director of community organizing at CAAS. “And this program is really unique and attuned to the needs of our Somerville community because it will be more flexible in terms of immigration status and targeted at low-income Somerville residents who have children and who have families.”
Eigbrett added that CAAS is advocating for several housing justice and anti-poverty laws at the state level. She said, “The change in the protections needs to happen at every level.”
One of CAAS’s top advocacy priorities is to lift the ban on rent control. Another is to help produce affordable housing units as quickly as possible through supporting the real estate transfer fee — which reinvests 2% of local property purchases by outside developers into affordable housing in Somerville.
CAAS also supports the Tenants Opportunity to Purchase Act, which would give tenants the option to purchase their buildings first if they go up for sale, as well as eviction sealing, which would prevent eviction records from being used in housing screenings.
“It is unfortunately permanently in a database that predatory landlords and property managers and real estate agents can use as a tool for discrimination and denying things like continued housing, stability, and sometimes in more severe cases, you know, opportunities for jobs,” said Eigbregg on the topic of eviction records.
Addressing the regional impact The lack of affordable housing in Somerville is a regional issue, said Mary Cassesso, the former managing trustee of the Somerville Affordable Housing Trust Fund. “When people get pushed out of the market in Somerville, they start by trying to go to Everett or Malden, and those are now becoming unaffordable,” she said.
Cassesso grew up in Somerville, and following the lead of her maternal grandmother and mother, has been fighting for affordable housing in the city for most of her career. “We were brought up recognizing that you had to fight for good government, good community,” said Cassesso. “You had to be involved. You had to have skin in the game.”
When construction for the I-93 highway was being planned, Cassesso, her family, and her neighbors advocated for a structure that would minimize risk to the community. “We all fought for a depressed structure, that it wouldn’t be an elevated structure, you know, because the rates of cancer and heart disease from the small dust particles have been huge. And we also knew that those kinds of projects always cut through low-income communities where people had so many issues to address that they couldn’t be up there fighting government. But we were, and we were a tight neighborhood, and not only the large family that we were got involved in everything, so did all the neighbors,” she said. Cassesso said that the highway ended up displacing two-thirds of the homes in her neighborhood.
She said that the housing crisis needs to be addressed from many different angles, and that one possible solution could be the city repurposing municipal buildings. “The city of Somerville and all cities can and should look at every single municipal building that they have that’s open, unoccupied, or that could be converted, and it should be for affordable housing exclusively and nothing else,” she said.
Organizing beyond housing The Somerville Community Corporation (SCC), which works to sustain the vibrance, diversity, and tolerance of the Somerville community, according to their website, purchases properties and turns them into affordable housing units as part of their 100 Homes Initiative.
This model comes with challenges, as outside investors and speculators drive up rental prices of local units, said Gonzalo Puigbó, the CEO of SCC. “They basically come in, they gobble these properties, they either convert them to condos, or you know, they displace families from the houses that they live in to sustain a higher rent model,” he said.
“That makes it really hard because, you know, SCC has to go out there and buy these properties at market price, and then we have to rent it out at a much lower price to keep them affordable. So the city of Somerville and SCC have a partnership where they provide us with subsidy money so that we can bring down that cost and keep those properties affordable,” said Puigbó.
Puigbó said that in addition to increasing affordable housing in the city and supporting workforce development efforts through its programs, SCC is moving towards starting conversations in the city around race, as well as building a BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) leadership network.
“You know, Somerville is a very progressive and well-intentioned city, and the population that lives here absolutely supports the efforts that we’re trying to do. But you know, where I struggle myself as a Latino is that there’s a lot of people speaking on our behalf,” he said.
Puigbó said that his vision for the BIPOC leadership network is that it will allow for community organizing to continue beyond SCC. “When I’m gone, or SCC’s gone, or my staff is gone, or the board is gone, they can sustain themselves and learn to organize and fight for their individual rights and freedom,” he said.