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By State Representative Erika Uyterhoeven
Displacement is an issue our district knows all too well. Unchecked rent increases, luxury developments and the commodification and financialisation of housing have led to rising rents which are forcing Somervillans to be relocated and forcing potential new landlords to look elsewhere.
This is a problem so close to home. For example, on Summer and Laurel Street, there is an open case to prevent many tenants from being moved, many of whom have lived in their homes for more than 10 years. After a recent sale of the property, the new owner is increasing rents by nearly 30%, up $400 per month. To make matters worse, white residents received lower rent increases than tenants of color. This is just one example of the many tenants in Somerville and the Commonwealth who are constantly being unfairly displaced and forced to move.
And this problem is not new. In the spring of 2020, amid the initial COVID-19 pandemic emergency lockdown, several tenants at 19 Central Street in Spring Hill received a heartbreaking notice that their rent would be increased by up to 30% or a rent increase of $550 from $1950 per month to $2500 per month. Although the tenants organized a tenant association and attempted to negotiate with property managers for a fair and reasonable rent increase during the pandemic, they forcefully refused. Instead, property managers encouraged tenants to find a roommate or move out nearly a year before vaccines became available when social distancing was the only way to stay safe. Several units were moved, mainly parents and students. Behind the property management company was – you guessed it – a billionaire and proud owner of a $26 million superyacht from Michigan. It should be noted that 19 Central Street, a 30-unit building, was sold for half the price of the $13.275 million superyacht.
These predatory landlords are among the super-rich who are doing well because they can capitalize on vulnerable residents through an unregulated housing market. The ubiquitous business model is simple; force tenants to make a choice: stay and pay $550 more in rent or move out, which costs 1 month’s rent in brokerage fees, first and last month’s rent and a security deposit. For a bedroom that can easily cost $6,000 cash up front. What if you didn’t have $6,000 in your bank account during the pandemic? Bad luck, we’ll find a new tenant to pay your initial rent until next year, when the same $550 increase will be applied again upon signing the 2nd year lease.
The threat of displacement not only deeply harms individuals, but also hurts our community. Our city is a vibrant place with dozens of restaurants, local businesses, artists and musicians, and a warm sense of place. But that sense of belonging and community is becoming increasingly inaccessible due to the rampant insecurity tenants face in an era of rising rents.
Fighting displacement: local resources
There are several tools in our kit to tackle the housing crisis in Somerville. When constituents contact me about relocation, I immediately refer them to the Somerville Community Action Agency (CAAS) and the City of Somerville Housing Security Office.
CAAS has been an indispensable resource in our community, working to eliminate the root causes of economic injustice in Somerville. Since its inception in 1981, CAAS has expanded opportunities for Somerville residents in the areas of education, employment, health, neighborhood community and housing. They are the federally designated anti-poverty agency serving our community and provide excellent support, resources and community organizing for tenants facing housing insecurity. I am proud to have worked with Senator Pat Jehlen to secure funding for CAAS from both the state ARPA funds, as well as additional funding from the State House budget.
I’m also proud to support and go door-to-door with the Greater Boston Tenants Union, who have worked hard to organize tenants, including the LaCourt Tenants Union and the Alpha Tenants Union. Through the organization, they have brought tangible gains to other tenants facing horrific conditions. You can volunteer for GBTU here.
Fighting displacement: political tools
But we need to go further to stabilize our community and make housing a right, not a commodity or an investment vehicle. One of the many tools we should implement is rent stabilization or rent control (these are both terms for a set of policies with a slightly different branding), which would prevent absurd rent hikes and would provide more stability to tenants from year to year.
With each of these policies Somerville puts in place, great effort has always been made to protect the residents who help build our vibrant community. We are united against the corporate real estate lobbyists in the State House who are only interested in investing and enjoying our basic human rights to housing. They have consistently tried to block any policy that hits their bottom line, whether it’s inclusive zoning with more affordable housing or net-zero building codes for building sustainable housing. We just can’t satisfy them anymore.
Beyond that, however, we also need to level the playing field for tenants. This means ensuring the right to a lawyer and adequate legal protections for anyone facing eviction. We also need to increase the supply and focus the development of housing — especially affordable housing — near public transportation. As the GLX project brings the Green Line through the district, we should ensure that those who need transit access the most have affordable housing options nearby. Finally, we must adopt a housing-first model to end homelessness in Massachusetts.
And for those looking to permanently reside in Somerville, we need to implement the necessary policies to level the playing field for first-time home buyers to settle in our community. Too often we hear of potential new homeowners looking to other cities for housing because it’s impossible to compete with unconditional cash offers from corporate real estate developers and investors. This is one of the many reasons I enthusiastically advocate the Somerville Transfer Fee and Tenant Purchase Opportunity (or TOPA).
Ultimately, we must treat housing as a human right, not as a vehicle for financial investment. Without stable housing, people cannot begin to meet any other of their basic needs, including health care, education, or employment. Our community can thrive when people’s basic needs are met.