Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Greg Karczewski’s essay announces the imminent opening of US2’s high-rise Bacon Building at 20-50 Prospect St. in Union Square (“USQ opens housing, public space in Union Square this summer that includes 90 affordable homes,” May 3) and praises the immense benefits US2 is thereby and otherwise visiting upon Somerville, beginning with the “90 affordable homes” in the project. Alas, this piece by the president of Union Square Station Associates is mostly a collection of empty rhetoric, old news and hype.

In reality, US2 is failing to meet its existing affordable-housing commitments to the Union Square neighborhood. Leaving aside the complex financial definition of “affordable across three income tiers” (occupants in “affordable” units are selected by lottery from three tiers – below 50 percent; 50 percent to 80 percent; and 80 percent to 100 percent of annual median income, about $90,000 – and pay 30 percent of their income as rent), “affordable” does not begin to describe what they’re advertising here: Studios begin at $2,500 a month, a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment starts around $3,300 a month and a two-bedroom apartment ranges from $4,220 to $5,800 a month. If we take rent to correspond roughly to 30 percent of income, US2’s offerings are geared toward tenants with annual salaries around $100,000 (for studios), $132,000 (for a one-bedroom) and from $168,800 to $232,000 (for a two-bedroom) – out of reach for the vast majority of Somervillians, those of us who build and cook and clean and serve in local businesses, teach in our schools or serve on our fire and police departments.

Seen in this light, US2’s project is indeed a “historic” achievement, but hardly or solely of the “affordable housing” type Karczewski and US2 would have us believe – for never in the history of Somerville have so many unaffordable units that exclude average wage-earners and price out longtime residents and neighbors been built at once.

The measures Karczewski touts are either requirements of doing business or hard-won concessions after negotiation with neighborhood representatives. The $1.5 million US2 promises to “in addition“ contribute to the Somerville Affordable Housing Trust is not a supplementary gesture of goodwill sprung from US2’s rocky heart as much as it is the nominal housing linkage fee all developments larger than 30,000 square feet are required to pay by law. The impressive sounding sum (“millions”!) will fund all of three to four apartments and amounts to peanuts in view of the escalating housing crisis in Somerville (and Greater Boston).

US2 doggedly opposed paying for the Union Square T station elevator (the city should pay for it, it insisted) in negotiations with the Union Square Neighborhood Council until it became clear it would be bad publicity. It continues to waffle on contributing to the proposed pedestrian bridge over the tracks, promising and delaying as has become its trademark – see the two-years-and-counting holdup over the affordable-housing project on Webster Street. As to “embracing the community’s vision,” the vision seems to be largely that of US2’s investors and the city planning staff, not the vision of the residents and community organizations. The “public park” will indeed be public but much less green and quite a bit smaller than what the community hoped for; it will also have to double as the sole access/transit space to get from Prospect street to the MBTA green line station.

We should “know,” Greg instructs us in his oh-so-colorful closing, that US2 is collaborating behind the scenes with oh-so-many local entities, as if that were a testament to the goodness of its intentions and the transparency of its executives’ benevolent souls. The reality, from everything I have witnessed, is more sordid: a developer that hides behind any easily affordable business excuse to stave off community investment, shirks deadlines, violates fair-labor practices and smugly recasts as the outstanding results of corporate charity the commitments it begrudgingly made and barely keeps.

Matthias Rudolf, Somerville