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Somerville Housing Becomes Less Affordable for Middle and Low-Income Families

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By Petros Kasfikis

SOMERVILLE, Mass - When Cathie Jo Micarone moved into Somerville Public Housing with her children, she thought that the new apartment would offer her a temporary solution. But 18 years later, Micarone watches her grandchildren playing in the Somerville project's playground, and 15 River Road continues to be her address.

Her situation is far from unique. While Tufts' plans for expansion, together with other development projects, like the arrival of the Green Line, render Somerville a more appealing place to live, ongoing gentrification gives rise to an affordable housing crisis, which may have result in pushing many community members out of the town.

According to the rent index of Zillow.com, an online real estate database, the medium rent in Somerville is $21,000 per year; up almost 17 percent since October 2011.

Somerville Housing Authority, which oversees these programs, claims that affordable units cost only 30 percent of one's income. The renting price fluctuates according to the income. However, the number of affordable units cannot satisfy the high demand, a fact that leads to huge waiting lists. Almost 1,000 people are currently waiting to receive housing aid in Somerville, according to the housing authority of the city.

The city already has in place some programs that seek to provide affordable housing to struggling families. Apartments in Mystic River and Saint Polycarp Village, together with other complexes that are scattered across the city, try to offer affordable housing by providing rental subsidies to the most vulnerable citizens, who cannot afford market-level rent.

According to the SHA, people who are eligible to apply for affordable housing should make less than the city's median income, which in 2013 was about $65,000 for individuals and $94,500 for a family of four people.

However, more and more Somerville residents fall into this category. The Bureau of Labor statistics indicate that 17,000 households, almost half of the city's residents, are eligible to receive housing aid. However, there are only 4,500 units available, a number that satisfies only 26.4 of the total demand.

Although Micarone was working, she says that she could not continue to pay her rent. As a result, she had to wait long for a spot in the public housing.

"The rent was getting too expensive and I was having a new baby. It took me a few years to get in," Micarone explained. "I couldn't afford to rent the apartment. After I rented the apartment, I went to a family shelter and then I got here."

At this moment, 12,500 households, which include 29,000 individuals, are unable to access affordable housing. These families are considered at risk for leaving the city.

SomerVision, the city's comprehensive plan for the next 25 years, seeks to create 1,200 new affordable units and requires every new development project to dedicate 12.5 percent of its units to affordable housing.

Mayor Joseph Curtatone promised at his inauguration to protect and support the most vulnerable citizens.

"We would protect those who have chosen Somerville to help shape something. That starts with affordability and affordability starts with housing. We would create a new affordable housing program for working middle-class families," Cuartone said. "We would not leave the middle class behind."

However, as gentrification goes on, even people who own property find it difficult to afford the cost for living in Somerville.

Although the city says that the tax rates have gone down, most residents have to pay higher taxes because the value of their houses has increased.

The city's Assessors Department responds that out of 16,000 properties that were evaluated, only 110 were up 50 percent or more. The department also says that property assessments have not undergone any major adjustments for the last seven years.

However, the household median income has remained flat for the last four decades, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Sonya Fuentes, who works at Western Union to support her family, finds the Somerville projects to be an unsafe environment for raising her newborn son. However, with a salary of $9 per hour, she finds most rents prohibitively expensive.

"The rent is good (in public housing), but the community is not," Fuentes explained. "It is unsafe. They come and break our car door, the windows of the room, and knock the doors."