THIS WEEK ON SOMERVILLE NEIGHBORHOOD NEWS – DISPLACEMENT, THE NEW FACE OF HOMELESSNESS
Rising rents, soaring home prices and high-end developments are causing displacement across Somerville. The organizations that fight homelessness are finding their resources are being taxed to keep residents in their homes, before they are displaced, and at greater risk of homelessness.
“We need to look at how to do development without displacing our current residents, and there’s been a lot of displacement.” said David Gibbs, Executive Director of Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS.) “There’s been a lot of people at really every income level from the lowest to the higher middle-income levels who’ve been forced out of the city.”
Organizations like the Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS) and Somerville Homeless Coalition (SHC) have been seeing a rising number of families and individuals seeking assistance because they are struggling just to meet their monthly rent. In Somerville, housing costs are 35% higher than the state average, which can put many residents at risk of becoming homeless.
Sam Davidson- Weiss works with homelessness prevention at CAAS and says, “A lot of families in Somerville are paying upward of 50% of their income towards rent. Some more than 80% or 90% and just barely getting by.”
“For a family of 4 the cost of living is roughly $70,000 year so if you’re making less than that you’re either going into debt or relying on government assistance or the generosity of neighbors, and if you’re making just a little bit over that you’re doing ok, but you’re still economically vulnerable these days,” says Gibbs
And families are not the only ones who face this obstacle. Rising rent costs also affect the organizations in place to help residents, like SHC, who helps provide assistance to those struggling to make their rent payments every month.
“We lease about 40 apartments across the city and we’re a tenant just like anybody else, if we’re not able to meet those rising costs then we have to give up those apartments. The ones who really suffer are the ones living in those apartments, our clients,” said Michael Libby, Deputy Director of SHC.
In addition to providing emergency housing to homeless families, SHC also keeps a food pantry stocked for people who may need food on an emergency basis. They offer home delivery to those who are disabled or homebound and are not able to leave their homes to go to the pantry, as well as serving a community meal every Monday evening at the First Congregational Church of Somerville.
Davidson- Weis says one of the most crucial ways of preventing homelessness in the city is educating tenants of their rights, “There are landlords who are trying to increase the rent or trying to evict them because they’re planning on selling and one of the most important things to know is, if a landlord is trying to evict you and you don’t have a place to go, you do not need to leave. Any rent increase can be a negotiation and if the landlord is telling you to go, you have legal rights.”
Members of the community group, Union United have also been coming together to educate tenants and bring awareness to displacement in Somerville. Last month they held a rally scheduled for Union Square Plaza but were forced to relocate to St. Joseph’s Church after heavy downpours.
However, the rain did not put a damper on the rally. Members like Marie Douge still spoke out, “I’m here tonight because Somerville is my home, that’s where I spend most of my time. My friends are being displaced and I was displaced too,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave Somerville and I hope every day I can come back. I say that because Somerville is my hometown. It’s the only city in this country I have ever lived in.”
Somerville’s Board of Alderman have been very supportive of groups like Union United and have been pushing to increase affordable housing requirements in new buildings from 12.5% to 20% across the city. Alderman Matt McLaughlin, who attended the rally, urged residents to speak out and make their voices heard. “The developers, the consultants, they want things, we need things, and we vote in the city, I’m a voter as well as an elected official, but we need to let people know, let your elected officials know that this is not going to stand.”
Gibbs also encourages residents to get involved and seek help, “Somerville is an amazingly tight community considering its size. We’re nearly 80,000 people living in the city; you can’t know everybody, but it is in some ways a small town and people do know a lot of folks, and there are networks of support. Anybody can get help here if they reach out for it and we certainly, CAAS, will welcome anybody walking through the door, and I know virtually every agency will do that, and we’re really lucky in that regard.”