Love Thy Neighbor?
Around a-year-and-half ago, Judy Pratt* noticed an old tree stump in the front yard of her Powder House Boulevard apartment in Somerville and decided to do something with it. She carved a smiley face into the stump, decorated it with a pattern of small rocks, and placed a poetry box on top.
“We would put poems in there for everyone,” Judy explained. “You could write a poem and take a poem… I even put poems in for the dogs. It was bringing community to us […] Tufts students loved it, little kids from the neighborhood school next door would leave poems too.”
Now tall grass has grown around the stump, it’s barely visible, and the box is gone.
This summer, Judy and her husband, George*, were displaced from their home on Powder House Boulevard after renting the same unit for over 25 years. Last year, their house was sold to a money-hungry landlord, who wanted more for the unit, made them feel unsafe in their own home, and told them he wanted to rent their apartment to young professionals and Tufts students.
The poetry box has now been tossed aside in the garage of Judy’s new home, and she doesn’t know if she will have the heart to put it back out.
The Pratt family moved to Somerville over 30 years ago after Cambridge changed their rent control policies and they could no longer afford to stay in the area. At the time, George was a musician and Judy was a dancer—they were artists who were looking for an affordable and safe place to live and raise their young daughter, Rachel*. They found their place on Powder House Boulevard, and for 25 years never had a renter’s lease. Judy described their verbal arrangement with the landlord as a “normal, humanistic, old-fashioned” agreement.
The Pratt family’s description of their past two decades on Powder House would hardly be recognizable to the students who live there or frequent the area today.
Rachel, now in her mid-twenties, explained that growing up, she and her neighbors felt like “one big family.” They would leave their doors open, share food from each other’s gardens, and eat dinner with the people who lived in different units of the apartment. They were neighbors with the Somerville Alderman—an elected member of the municipal council—and Judy fondly recounted a story of a time he helped her get a possum out of her garage. Rachel met her best friend playing in the Tot Lot—the playground outside Harleston Hall.
“I feel like a lot of people are confused when I tell them stories about growing up in my house,” Rachel said. “At one point in the unit downstairs there was a two-bedroom apartment with 11 people living there.” It was “a little crazy,” but shaped her into who she is today.
The Somerville where the Pratt family raised Rachel has changed. When they first moved in, Judy recalled that “everyone was a teacher, a plumber, a mailman—workers” and Somerville was full of “families who have lived there forever.”
Now that’s gone. These days, the area is inhabited mostly by young professionals who can afford the rising rents. The McDonald’s in Davis Square became an upscale Korean barbecue restaurant, the Dollar Store is gone—there is even a shop that exclusively sells oatmeal. The liquor store Rachel’s grandparents owned in Somerville is now the site of an artisanal nut shop.
Wealthy families with grown children from towns like Belmont and Lexington are moving to Somerville to downsize, and seeking out smaller, often renovated and expensive condos. As Boston is becoming more and more of a tech hub, the young professionals working at new tech companies and making high salaries are choosing to settle in Somerville. These are some basic markers of gentrification, but another sign—and perhaps a less visible one—is the loss of community.
The way Rachel sees it, “a lot of people moving in, they’re not looking to live [permanently] in Somerville, they aren’t trying to set down roots. They are just looking for a place until they make their money and can move to the suburbs.”
“It feels like all the houses on my street turned to condos,” she continued. “People had to move [as far as] New Hampshire. If you didn’t own your house, good luck.”
Rachel’s observations perfectly reflect recent trends of the Somerville housing market. Many have coined Somerville the “Brooklyn of Boston.” Property values are increasing at an average of 10 percent each year. Two-bedroom condos on the Pratt’s former street are selling for over 1 million dollars, and Powder House Boulevard is constantly a site of renovation. Judy spoke of developers and speculators knocking on residents’ doors, actively pressuring those who owned their homes to sell to contractors. Many were swayed, and moved to areas farther away from the city. But with all these changes comes a radically different neighborhood.
Penn Loh, the Director of the Master Public Policy Program and Community Practice at Tufts’ Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, says that “the whole phenomenon of gentrification is multi-causal.” Evidently, one of these causes in Somerville is Tufts itself. As Tufts’ class sizes increase—as they have been for the past five years—and the availability of on-campus housing options remains stagnant, more and more Tufts students are moving into Medford and Somerville, and existing communities suffer as a result.
Tufts students often don’t know their off-campus neighbors personally—unless they are other students—and when they do, those relationships tend to be strained. Somerville is the most densely populated municipality in New England, which means neighbors live physically close to each other. This often leads to tension. Students have spoken of verbal fights with their neighbors, said their neighbors will take pictures of friends entering their house if they suspect a party, and will often call the police on them.
But the issue isn’t just Tufts. Many Somerville residents I’ve spoken to who live in subdivided homes said they wouldn’t even go to their downstairs neighbor to ask for a cup of sugar. “We didn’t even think to get to know them,” one resident told me.
“The soul of the city is gone,” Judy lamented.
This problem isn’t a new one in Somerville, and it’s one the University is well aware of. Tufts’ history of gentrification in Somerville is well understood among its residents. This became especially apparent in the last couple of years when Tufts considered buying a 41-unit apartment building at 119 College Avenue in Powder House Square—not far from where the Pratts lived. Tufts called off the plan after city residents cited fears that this would only worsen the existing affordable housing shortage in the area.
According to Barbara Rubel, Tufts’ Director of Community Relations, the school “is committed to creating more housing for undergraduates. This includes modifications to existing dorms […] significant renovations to Miller and Houston Halls, and creating apartment style housing for juniors and seniors in some Tufts-owned wood frame properties on blocks immediately adjacent to campus.” Rubel says Tufts is also considering building a new dorm, which would “have a positive impact on student life and our host communities.”
At the same time, professors in the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Department, namely Loh and Professor Laurie Goldman, have been studying the effects of gentrification through the Somerville Gentrification Project. Goldman said a main goal of the project is to “learn more about how people are experiencing gentrification in Somerville,” and spoke to the many organizations in Somerville that are working towards alleviating the crisis. Groups like the Affordable Housing Organizing Committee and the Somerville Community Corporation have been fighting for legislation that increases inclusionary zoning of affordable housing in the city from 12.5 percent to 20 percent, and working on a transfer tax, which would attach a fee to property sales that would go into funds to create job opportunities for low-income residents.
While Somerville residents are fighting for these changes, the Office of Residential Life and Learning at Tufts and the Office of Community Relations are strategizing ways to make Tufts students living off-campus better neighbors. Matt Austin, the Associate Director of Housing Operations, told me they are working to “change the culture of students living off campus,” hoping to show students they do not exist in a vacuum and teach them how to respectfully “embrace their space in the community.” But in the meantime, families like the Pratts are suffering.
Judy and George were no strangers to the gentrification unfolding around them, and had long been wondering when it would hit their unit. Last year, after their landlord got too old to take care of the house, he sold it to a man who tried to immediately raise their rent by $600. “The first time I met him, he yelled at me,” Judy said. The Pratts soon realized their time had come.
While the landlord didn’t explicitly tell them they needed to leave, Rachel said “he was making [my parents] feel unwanted and unsafe.” Judy added that “we felt like we were being forced out.”
Judy went on to tell me her unit didn’t have working fire alarms for over five months, and the hall and staircase light didn’t work for months either. For two people in their sixties, unlit stairs felt, and were, dangerous. When the downstairs neighbors—a group of Tufts graduate students— would call the landlord with a problem, he would drive over immediately. Meanwhile, he completely neglected any requests from the Pratts.
“He only wanted to rent to students and young people,” Judy said.
Judy and George made a plan to move out by September 1, and told their new landlord they were going to break their lease. Originally, he agreed, but later changed his mind and said they had to leave by July 31 so he could gut and renovate the apartment, knowing full well the Pratts didn’t have a place to live for August. Judy said they got lucky—some of her dance students helped her and George find a place to temporarily live. If that hadn’t happened, they don’t know what they would’ve done.
For now, Judy and George have settled into their new place, still in Somerville. Their friend owns the house and gave them a good deal on the first floor. But they are still worried. Their friend could get too old to take care of the house and sell it, and who knows who could buy it then. “I just don’t want to be old and uncomfortable,” Judy told me.
As for their former landlord, the city recently shut down his construction on their old unit for violations of the Massachusetts building code. Once it’s back on and the construction is finished, the unit will likely be rented to Tufts students.
*Names have been changed at the request of the family