Development without Displacement in Union Square

Image taken from Union United's Facebook page

The Welcome Project had the chance to sit down with Van Hardy, member of Union United, to learn more about the community benefits agreement (CBA) and the issues the organization faces regarding development in Union Square and surrounding areas. Union United is working to channel development, in anticipation of the extension of the green line, in ways that prevent displacement and provide mechanisms for people to stay in their communities. Union United goes by the motto “development without displacement.” However, gentrification and displacement is already happening and community-led organizations like Union United have not had much say in the decision process thus far.

These changes have affected Union United itself as many people on working committees end up having to move while those who still live in the area no longer have the time to contribute to the organization. For many living in the area, at least fifty percent of their income is going towards paying rent and many are forced to take on two jobs leaving little time for civic engagement. Hardy discusses how this has affected Union United as an organization made up of a majority of older, white and college educated people who have the time and technical language to engage in Union United and government policy. This language can sometimes exclude immigrants who often speak English as a second-language but whose perspectives are crucial in the development of Union Square. Interpreters have been used in the past to engage immigrant voices in Union United’s organizing, but with continuous displacement these voices are becoming more rare in the organization. As a member of Union United, The Welcome Project, has ensured that immigrant voices continue to be a part of Union United, and the overall process.         

While discussing the work of Union United, Van described how developers often commit harm to the community, and it is the community’s job to make sure they compensate for this before committing the harm. Union United has mitigated harms so far by advocating for a community center that would include health care, intergenerational programs, and arts and cultural programs. Guaranteed open/public spaces, local jobs and protection from luxury apartments are some other issues that are all crucial parts of a CBA.  

In addressing the current state of negotiation Van mentioned how the mayor tasked a Civic Advisory Committee (appointed by the mayor) with the job of choosing a developer and drafting a CBA. Since the CAC has chosen a developer, Hardy suggests that Union United and community voices must be right there to negotiate their terms in this exchange. As Van puts it, “gentrification creates value and Union United wants to create a value latching, value capturing plan that takes the income stream and ties a percentage of that to go back into the community; you succeed, we succeed.” Union United has made it very clear that if developers and the CAC are willing to collaborate in this way, they will support the development. But if there is no room for negotiation, Union United will not stand in support of this kind of development that necessitates displacement, a process that is rapidly changing the community.

So far, negotiation has proven very difficult and Hardy describes how if you do not watch closely, the developers add plans to develop large luxury hotels, 1,300 new residential units, and  twenty-story buildings without the consent of the community. Not only do these plans undermine efforts of Union United to negotiate common interests, but they also threaten the diversity and uniqueness that makes Union Square and the surrounding areas a community and a home to many people. On April 13th, Union United met with the mayor to discuss developing a CBA with US2 (the developers) after which they are continuing to demand that the community be able to choose its own representatives to negotiate a CBA.  

This frustrating process of negotiation runs parallel to continued displacements that directly affect the Welcome Project community. More often we are hearing stories of students who were not able to continue with their classes because they were forced to move out of their homes and move from Somerville. The Welcome Project’s role in conjunction with Union United is to ensure that immigrant voices are being heard and that the city is using these stories to create anti-displacement action. The Welcome Project also recruits ESOL graduates to work with Union United. When asked about how displacement affects the immigrant community of Somerville, Ben Echevarria, Interim Executive Director of the Welcome Project, states that “one of the big things Somerville cherishes is its diversity. People that move here, because we are such a diverse community, try to integrate and hear the voices of everyone. With displacement we start to lose this diversity and if we lose the diversity we have lost the fabric of our community, our community identity, the soul of the city.”