More than 100 Somerville community members attended a public hearing on Thursday, November 10, 2016, before the City’s Board of Aldermen to discuss the urgent need for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) as part of the Union Square redevelopment. Union United, comprised of 17 member business, religious and nonprofit groups and staffed by SCC organizers, had pressed for the meeting.
The group wanted to ensure that the voices of residents and businesses are heard. Many are concerned that the redevelopment will drive them out by increasing property values. They want to ensure that they and other current residents and businesses will be able to enjoy – and contribute to – the increased vibrancy of a redeveloped Union Square.
What Is a CBA?
A Community Benefits Agreement is a binding contract between a community group and a developer in which the developer agrees to provide benefits like living wages, increased open space, and affordable housing that address the needs of the community. Successful CBAs are in place in cities around the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Denver, Pittsburgh and New York City.
Why Do We Need a CBA?
The redevelopment of Union Square, a vibrant and diverse neighborhood expected to be the site of the first Green Line Extension station, was announced in late 2013. Shortly afterwards, the Union United coalition formed to address the potential for displacement and the lack of meaningful community input. Coalition members have attended numerous City and consultant-led planning processes over the last three years, hoping to see issues like affordable housing, open space and participatory planning addressed in a community benefits agreement.
Last month, a group of community members appointed to participate in a public benefits process voted to pursue formation of a representative, independent neighborhood council that could negotiate CBAs. But the City has insisted that negotiations will take place solely between the Somerville Redevelopment Authority and the developer.
Union United members requested the public hearing in October, gathering over 250 signatures from Somerville residents supportive of a CBA. Community members are asking the Board of Aldermen not to approve a new zoning overlay district for Union Square until US2 and the City of Somerville commit to a real community benefits agreement.
Strong Community Engagement
The hearing featured a presentation by John Goldstein, founder of Coalitions, Campaigns, and Community Benefits, a national network of local coalitions organizing for community benefits. Goldstein directed the Partnership for Working Families’ national community benefits program and is widely recognized as one of the nation’s most experienced community benefits leaders. He spoke about the need for strong community engagement in the negotiation, monitoring and enforcement of the CBA.
A Diverse, Vibrant Somerville
Residents spoke about the wave of rent increases that is pushing out low-income families. Niranjan Khanal, who lives across the street from one of the development parcels, said, “I have been living here for more than 10 years and have developed a feeling that I belong to this city of Somerville. Last month, my landlord told me that he is raising my rent more than 50%. I will have to look for a new place to live and maybe I will have to leave Somerville. Therefore, I want to be a part of this process by being involved in activities that are focused on achieving the goal of development without displacement.”
Ed Halloran, president of the Somerville Municipal Employees Association, spoke about the need for good jobs and the negative impact that privatization has had in nearby developments like Assembly Row. “The SMEA is advocating for this CBA because we believe that good paying jobs, not only in Union Square but throughout the city, is the only way residents can stay in the city and minimize its rising cost of living,” he said.
Union United is a coalition of stakeholders – residents, small businesses, religious organizations, labor unions and community organizations – working to ensure that the Union Square redevelopment process results in tangible benefits and not displacement for the Union Square community.