I’m frequently seeing the word “gentrification” employed to describe the demographic change taking place in Somerville since the late 1990s. We’re certainly seeing changes, but I question how much of it is gentrification.
When the term came into general use it described a revival of old and run-down neighborhoods by well-to-do newcomers. Back Bay and the South End of Boston underwent tremendous changes of this sort in the 1970s and 1980s. In the heyday of suburbia after World War II, the well-to-do stayed out of many urban neighborhoods, which as a consequence were affordable. But by 1970 there was a revival of appreciation for urban Victorian architecture. Unloved old townhouses were bought by urban homesteaders, who recognized their solidity and beauty and began putting in the money to maintain them well—with predictable implications for low-income tenants.
What we’re seeing in Somerville is different. Unlike the brick townhouses in the South End, which remain graceful even when they’re completely derelict, the wood-frame, two-family houses around here are not architectural treasures. This is not to say that, with some effort, the typical turn-of-the century, development houses in Somerville couldn’t be made attractive. But people who move here aren’t doing so because they’re charmed by the housing stock. They move here because there’s a regional housing shortage, and Somerville remains affordable relative to Cambridge and Boston. Mostly young people—because the apartments are on the small side—they’re not happy about the enormous mortgages they’ve been forced to take on, but they have had little choice.
For the typical two-family house, one obvious way to cover a big mortgage is to raise the rent on the second unit, but, at least in my immediate neighborhood in Ward 5, the rental population was fairly transient, often comprising students and young, working singles with no particular intention to stay put in Somerville. So, contrary to what you might expect, dislocation of long-term renters has not been common here. Changes were no doubt different where the rental population was different.
Instead, what I have seen has been a sort of reverse gentrification as old Somerville families moved out. The generations that had grown up eight-to-a-bathroom were no longer willing to live that way, so they abandoned their homes to the grandparents or rented them out to students. These were almost all owner-occupied houses that had been freed of mortgages for some generations, so initially there was no hurry to sell. But as prices went steadily up, there was nothing to keep the owners from cashing in.
One of our neighbors decided to live full-time at what had been a summer house in Hull. Another, an energetic widow in her eighties who had lived in the same house since her twenties, was strong-armed by her daughters to move to Burlington where they could keep a closer eye on her. She told me, with a hint of mirth in her eyes, “My grandson wants to buy the house, but I don’t think he can afford it!” Her grandson eventually paid rather handsomely for the house, which he fixed up—not so he could move in himself, but to keep it as an investment. He has two rental units, one occupied by students, another by a single, professional, mother.
In other cases Somerville’s desirability to the buyer was coupled with the seller’s dissatisfaction with the city. One long-term resident commented, as she put her house on the market, that she and her daughter had gone to Somerville High, but now her grandson was ready for high school and, “I’m not going to put him through what I went through.” Her family moved to New Hampshire.
And so on. This end of the street has certainly seen an exodus of long-time residents, but I know of no case in which an old Somerville family was forced to move out by rising rents, taxes, or housing prices. One local activist has argued that they were forced to move out because the deals were too good for them to refuse! That interpretation is both forced and untrue. The younger generations of these families had moved out before the prices started going up, and they weren’t planning to come back. The older generations, when they were ready to settle into their final retirement, chose places they thought were more comfortable or more suitable for their needs.
It’s misleading to call this process gentrification when, in fact, those leaving the city were pretty much as well off as those coming in. The main difference between the two groups is the level of debt: those departing had little, those coming in have a great deal. The main beneficiaries in this process have been the expatriates, the developers, and the real estate agencies. The losers, arguably, are newcomers saddled with large mortgages, and renters who end up having to subsidize those mortgages.
Some of the agitation we’re hearing about gentrification is at least partly what might be called bahniephobia. While factory jobs have all but vanished from Somerville, Harvard, M.I.T., and Tufts have been growing impressively, and so has the need for housing by students, faculty, and staff at these universities, with all the attendant town/gown tensions. We’re lucky to have these problems. Think about what it’s like for residents of Detroit, where factory jobs have vanished and there has been nothing to replace them.