How SCC is Building an Inclusive Community in Union Square, Somerville

October 24th, 2013 by Julia Prange Wallerce

In early 2012, the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC) purchased a vacant and structurally deficient brick building from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Middlesex County located just outside the heart of bustling and “up and coming” Union Square, Somerville.  In a part of the city where property values had already skyrocketed nearly 150% since 2005 and two new planned Green Line stations promise to significantly boost housing demand, this was a unique opportunity to preserve affordability for existing Somerville residents who might otherwise find themselves priced out of the city. With a 40+ year track record of building and supporting affordable housing for working families and vulnerable individuals in Somerville, SCC was well positioned to seize this opportunity and to create a project that would benefit not only its tenants but its entire surrounding community.

Somerville Community Corporation spent its first few months as new owners of the property at 181 Washington Street reaching out to neighbors through community meetings and door-to-door conversations. The first community meeting- held at the building itself- was an important time not for SCC to unveil any plans for the site, but for residents to get to know the organization and understand their commitment to the local community. A second community meeting- held only after a sufficient number of neighbors had been reached directly- was held a few months later and attracted double the attendance of the first (over 80 people). Four additional public meetings were held by SCC before any plans were submitted to the Planning Board and each was preceded by flyers, doorknocking, mailings, and email invitations to neighbors. 

While many in the community applauded the SCC’s initial proposal to build a mixed-use, transit-oriented development with ground-floor commercial and 40 energy efficient, affordable rental apartments on the abandoned site, a vocal minority expressed their opposition.  The proposal both conformed to zoning and responded to the City’s recently approved Comprehensive Plan (aka “SomerVision”, which calls for 1,200 new units of permanently affordable homes by 2030, and increased height and density on key corridors, including Washington Street), but these residents had a different vision for the site.  They proceeded to form an active opposition group called “Union Square Rising”.

In the face of opposition, a growing group of neighborhood supporters as well as a broader group of residents who felt passionate about the need for affordable housing in Union Square also became actively involved to demonstrate the need and desire for this project, and shared their enthusiasm under the newly developed “Everyone’s Somerville” slogan, embracing the idea that Somerville should be a community in which people of all incomes and backgrounds can afford to live.  This became the basis for a new website, stickers, and posters that businesses and residents placed in their windows.

The “Everyone’s Somerville” message was perhaps best conveyed at a rally in July, 2012, in Union Square where a group of Union Square neighbors who reflected Somerville’s great diversity each held a letter to spell out the slogan. Signs were hung in trees around the square to illustrate the dire need for affordable housing and to expose the human toll of displacement by gentrification. Over 50 people attended what resulted in a very positive, upbeat meeting to celebrate this opportunity. This positive momentum continued throughout the year with door knocking, performance of skits, and standing out with banners and signs before important meetings. Meanwhile, the vocal minority of opponents captured the attention of the media and other residents by misrepresenting the nature of the project by disseminating false information, claiming the mantle of “neighbors”, and developing their own tactics to stop the proposal in its tracks.

In early 2013, SCC’s proposal took a new turn through an innovative partnership with developers at Cathartes Private Investments who proposed to redevelop the neighboring site at 197 Washington Street- currently a working funeral home.  This unique public-private partnership suddenly enabled both developers to make a greater investment in the neighborhood than either could do alone and to create a seamlessly designed mix of retail and housing for people of all incomes at the two sites. Neighbors were again invited to provide input on the public space aspects of the new joint-project at a Saturday afternoon design workshop in February, 2013 and many of those suggestions were integrated into the design plans unveiled in the Spring. 

Opposition from some neighbors continued through the remainder of the public meetings and into the Planning Board hearing in June. Many were concerned about parking and traffic, building height (disruption of views), and overall density and scale of the project. As usual, SCC continued its positive messaging about this opportunity to support “Everyone’s Somerville” and provide a new, thriving gateway to Union Square. Supporters again rallied behind the letters spelling out the slogan and unveiled a string of over 100 signed postcards supporting the SCC/Cathartes project before the Planning Board in June.

After three Planning Board meetings (where supporters consistently  outnumbered opponents by 3:1), an aggressive media campaign (nearly a dozen letters were featured in local papers and blogs and staff worked closely with reporters to keep them engaged), and over 150 supportive comments submitted for public record, and a revised design proposal that reduced the total height and number of units, the Somerville Planning Board voted 4-1 in favor of granting a permit for the project to move forward. SCC was invited to apply for State funding this past summer, and will request 9% low income housing tax credits (LIHTC), project based Section 8 vouchers, and funding from various other programs to bring the project to fruition. Approximately $1.6 million has been committed to this project in local, state, and federal funds, and the balance of project costs will be covered through private loans. CEDAC has already loaned funds to the project for acquisition and predevelopment costs.

SCC is deeply grateful for the unwavering support that our community and allies have shown over these last few months (and even years!) for this crucial opportunity to provide new affordable homes for families of all incomes in a rapidly gentrifying part of Somerville.  As the permitting process moves forward, SCC will continue to uphold a place that is truly everyone’s Somerville.

For more information about this project, check out! You can also find SCC on Facebook and Twitter

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Fisherman Starts Anew

October 24th, 2013 by

Scott Nolan started fishing more than 25 years ago. Setting out from various Cape Cod and MA ports, he focused initially on sea clams, and then scallops. After a decade out of the business, Nolan came to the CDP in the Fall of last year with interest in a Micro Loan to support the retro-fit of a dragger to go sea clamming. According to Nolan, "It was a big project".  Sea clamming involves particular equipment, all of which needed to be outfitted on his newly purchased boat, the Goody Hallet. With business support and financing from the CDP and affordable rate quota from the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, Nolan is now one of the few local small boats out on the water in this particular fishery. As he said, "We have a little niche."  He also commented, "Things are going quite well right now and we're catching a lot."  When she's not out sea clamming, you can find the 80' Goody Hallet in Provincetown Harbor. Read more about Scott in this article in the Commercial Fisheries News.   

Reprinted with permission of authoring organization Community Development Partnership, a MACDC member, and Scott Nolan.

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Is Your Nonprofit A Jack of All Trades and Master of None?

October 17th, 2013 by John Fitterer

Have you ever tried explaining what your organization does only to sound like you’re listing items on a menu?  “We have this program and that service….”  “Oh, and did I mention we run a loan fund for small businesses and provide supportive housing for the elderly?”  If you’re not careful you can sound like the “Jack of All Trades, Master of None."  If you don’t have a cohesive narrative, anyone listening to you will just become confused and tune out.  The question you need to answer before you respond to any question about what your organization does is – “What is the constant central theme that defines why I’m here?”  Once you can answer that in a sentence, you’re on the road to clear engagement.

Start with the people that you’re directly working with and don’t go too far astray.  For example, you can say, “Our organization was founded by the area’s residents to help lead the community’s revitalization.  We focus on building homes, commercial space and helping the residents with job opportunities and career advancement.”  That sentence might not fit your organization exactly, but I’m not saying “We provide services ranging from x, y and z.”  I start and end my statement with what’s most important to us: How we work with and champion a community and its residents.

Oftentimes, I also like to engage people by talking expressly about why CDCs, for example, are so different from each other.  CDCs should be instruments of redevelopment for each community in which they’re working.  Communities have different needs from each other, or at the very least have different emphasis on similar needs.  While one community may be continuing to address the foreclosure crisis, another community may have large vacant factory spaces.  These two organizations could be working within adjoining communities and still have significant differences in focus.  Use this to stand out a bit and talk about how you’re responding to the needs of your community specifically.

Finally, a cohesive message is only as good as the messenger.  Make sure that ALL staff, ranging from property managers to accountants, know how to present the organization.  It is not good enough if only the executive director or communications director can effectively talk about the organization  

Nonprofits, in general, and CDCs, specifically, can be tough organizations to define and to explain.  A CDC grant writer will tell you that it can seem like well-crafted butchery fitting an organization’s purpose into a 2,000 character text box in an online application.  Take the time to really think about how you can concisely present an accurate description of your organization that doesn’t sound like a list of items on a menu.  Be engaging, direct and to the point.  At the beginning and end it should be about people and how your organization helps make change happen by being a central resource that local people use to transform their community.

To read more about this topic, check out Joe Kriesberg's post "Is there a common theme that unites the CDC sector?"

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