The Case for a Community Benefits Agreement: Recap on the November 10th hearing

On Thursday, November 10th, 2016 members of The Welcome Project, Union United, and other community members presented the need for a Community Benefit Agreements (CBA) to the City of Somerville Board of Alderman. Union Square is going through a process of rapid redevelopment as it prepares for the MBTA Green Line extension into Somerville. In a packed community room, about twenty community members stepped up to speak over the course of two and a half hours about the reasons why a CBA is important for the City of Somerville and the developer, US2, to recognize before approving zoning for the redevelopment of Union Square.

The meeting was moderated by William A. White Jr., the President of the Board of Aldermen and there were about 150 people in attendance. CBAs are part of a widespread movement towards more equitable community involvement in planning processes. CBAs are the medium through which community input becomes part of the discussion with developers and influence how community needs are integrated into the final product. The following images differentiate conventional planning practices from planning processes with a CBA:

                                 Source: Pollack, Bluestone, and Billingham, 2010

CBAs are enforced in a number of ways: through reporting requirements from the developer on progress, community oversight, remedial action to fix problems, and contract enforcement. Elements critical for success include grassroots community organizing, clear and measurable roles and responsibilities for all parties, legally binding agreements, and community monitoring of the CBA. CBAs need to outline specific items such as what kinds of jobs are needed, who gets hired, how many units are affordable and what the affordable units look like. As voiced by a community member at the hearing, the city can promise things, but the CBA makes sure that these promises are fulfilled.

At the hearing, we heard from a Brazilian local business owner who
has experienced rent doubling over the last year, a Subway worker who has been displaced out of Union Square due to rising rents, a Somerville High School teenager part of our LIPS program, a pastor, a firefighter, and many more. Kenia Arbaiza, LIPS student, expressed how “the majority of people who are displaced as a result of lucrative project developments are immigrants, minorities and working class citizens. Many of whom, with the recent results of the presidential election have been left feeling alienated and apprehensive. Despite this, our community in Somerville reassures us of our safety and that we still matter. We cannot imagine being able to build a life anywhere else.”

Executive Director of TWP, Ben Echevarria, similarly stated the crucial role a CBA would have in protecting the Somerville immigrant community and furthering immigrants rights. Echeverria stated that “Somerville is a sanctuary city and we know this, and more than ever do we need things like a CBA to make sure that people who are here can stay here. Those who are being displaced are those who cannot afford to be here and those are the people who want to be here the most because there are some protections for them.”

The possibility of a CBA is still being discussed among various stakeholders. However, the large turnout at the hearing and the determined voices of members of our community showed the power and support that exists within the Somerville community, a power that would fuel the orchestration of the CBA itself. A CBA is necessary, as Echevarria explains, “if developers are going to come in and reap the benefits of the work that we have all done to make Somerville such a great place.”

For more reporting on the November 10th hearing, watch this video by Somerville Neighborhood Network (SNN).

Written by Lydia Collins and Asha Nidumolu