Green Line Gentrification: The Risk of Housing Displacement in Medford and Somerville

This past December, the first departure from the new Medford/Tufts MBTA station generated much excitement, with students and community members crowding the inaugural 4:45 a.m. train. Among those present were US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Governor Charlie Baker, Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, and Tufts President Tony Monaco. The departure was widely celebrated on Twitter and on local Boston radio coverage, but some Somerville and Medford community members, including some from Tufts, are worried about being priced out of housing as a result of the opening. While some were praising the extension, demonstrators from the Community Action Agency of Somerville attended the unveiling of the new station with posters and banners protesting rent increases near Green Line stations

At the same time, easier access to the city of Boston through the Green Line Corridor will make Somerville more attractive to potential renters and businesses. According to a 2014 prediction by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the resulting increase in housing demand in the area will allow landlords to increase rent by as high as 67 percent in certain areas of Somerville, with an average rent increase of between 16–25 percent in areas within walking distance to the T stations. Urban Studies Professor Justin Hollander explained, “The owners in the area are able to benefit from the increased mobility and an appreciation in the value of their property… Renters benefit in the short term from increased amenity, but also may be pushed out from the increased rent.”

This phenomenon has created pressure on low- and moderate-income renters in the city, with several evictions already underway. Somerville is a city with high housing turnover, and with rent increases bringing in a newer, wealthier population to the city and pricing lower-income renters out, the face of the city could quickly change, potentially reducing cultural diversity. Hollander noted the areas around the T station will likely not have the income diversity of other areas in Somerville, and income also carries a correlation with racial diversity. According to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, “While displacement is largely driven by income disparities, the fact that higher-income households are disproportionately White and lower-income households are disproportionately non-White means that displacement risk also carries implications for the racial diversity of the GLX walksheds and the community as a whole.”

The new transportation corridor will also affect Tufts students and faculty who live in the area, especially low-income students and staff members. One student who lives near two Green Line stations, Claire Puranananda, said their landlord has been increasing rent for the past two years in anticipation of the new stations. They said he also plans to keep increasing the rent until he reaches an increase of almost 17 percent of Puranananda’s original rent price. Puranananda said, “If he’d raised [the rent] initially [to the full increased price]… [the former tenants] would have found a different place to live.” But with new students renting every year, it’s less likely that people will object to the yearly rent increases. “[He’s] ensuring that people will be willing to pay,” they said. In other words, increasing the rent in small increments right now disguises the ultimate burden of the full rent increase in the future—the brunt of which they say will be felt by Tufts students in future classes. As Tufts does not guarantee on-campus housing for upperclassmen, many students will be forced to contend with these higher rent prices upon moving off-campus in junior year.

 Puranananda predicts some students, especially low-income students, will have to choose between housing close to campus and housing that is affordable. They claim these choices may result in increased stress if students’ commutes to campus become longer, or if they receive insufficient aid to make their monthly rent payments. Responding to the issue of increased rent pressure on students, Tufts Executive Director of Media Relations Patrick Collins wrote in a statement to the Observer, “Room and Board components of the Cost of Attendance and the Expected Family Contribution are calculated the same way” for on- and off-campus students, “meaning the financial aid award is the same regardless of whether a student lives on- or off-campus.” It remains to be seen if the room and board allowance portion of financial aid for off-campus students will increase relative to rent increases. 

Students who move away from T stations in pursuit of lower rent will also be less able to capitalize on the newly unveiled access to Boston. This is the irony of improved transportation: The gentrification that follows it may exclude the users it was built to assist. For Puranananda, who is sandwiched between two stations, the GLX presents a much more convenient path into Boston than the mile walk to Davis, but they wonder if the increased rent is worth the convenience for the infrequent luxury of day trips. “It’s nice to not have to walk to Davis… but I don’t go that much so I don’t know if paying the difference in rent is worth that,” Puranananda said.

SMFA-Tufts Dual Degree student Ava Sakamoto emphasized the trade-offs of the opening. “The new Green Line extension has definitely made the commute to SMFA easier—instead of being late to class by a whole hour, you can shave that down by 30–40 minutes.” The increased convenience of their commute comes with the increased burden of finding affordable housing, however. Sakamoto said because “some of my friends who live off-campus are facing rent increases,” they “decided to live on campus instead of search[ing] for an apartment.”

The MAPC anticipated increased gentrification and housing displacement in the Somerville area as a result of improved transportation. As early as 2014, they emphasized the need for 6,000 to 9,000 housing units in Somerville by roughly 2030, including an “adequate supply for moderate- and low-income households” to address the risk of housing displacement. Hollander echoed the sentiments of this report, explaining that “flooding the market” with new housing units could reduce GLX-related rent increases over a sustained period. 

Ultimately, many of the Green Line Extension’s critics are responding to the resulting gentrification and looking to preserve affordable housing for low- and moderate-income residents. According to Urban Studies Professor Laurie Goldman, who is also an affordable housing organizer, preserving affordable housing can be done by “mobiliz[ing] to create new institutions that influence [the] market and capture value.” In other words, community members must come together and put pressure on public and private institutions, either through community agreements or public ordinances, and encourage them to “produce more affordable housing… jobs… and other amenities.” 

In response to gentrification in Union Square—another location of a new Green Line station—Goldman and other Somerville residents formed a coalition to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement, a contract that allows developers to use city land in return for resources and money paid back to the community. In this way, she said, residents can protect the aspects of the community important to them and use money from the new infrastructure to fight displacement.Other organizers near Tufts’ campus are calling for rent control as another way to prevent displacement and keep housing affordable. Nicole Eigbrett of the Community Action Agency of Somerville spoke about reversing the Massachusetts rent control ban in an interview with GBH: “We’re really fighting to lift that ban on rent control that was passed in 1994 so cities and towns can have their own options for rent stabilization.” Some other anti-displacement measures published by Policy Link and the Chicago Rehab Network include just cause eviction controls, which prevent discriminatory evictions, and inclusionary zoning, which requires a certain percentage of new housing units to be reserved for low- and moderate-income tenants. Now, facing transportation-based gentrification, the Tufts and Somerville communities must decide if any of these avenues can protect their residents against the threat of displacement.