The hollowing out of Somerville

How a city can shrink while prospering and what it says about all our cities

Round numbers bewitch the mind, so there’s something inherently fascinating about this map of American cities that used to have over 100,000 residents but now have fewer.

One thing you’ll notice is that 100,000 is a pretty arbitrary threshold, and cities that have lost tons of residents — notably, population-loss champions Detroit and St. Louis — aren’t on the list. Just because you’ve lost half your population doesn’t mean you’ve slipped under the 100,000 threshold. But one of the most interesting things is that while this is mostly a list of cold weather rustbelt communities suffering from deindustrialization, it also includes the wealthy town of Somerville right outside Boston.

Somerville has managed to shrink over the past fifty years while thriving on another level, transforming from an affordable working-class town into a much richer place that’s also shrinking.

I want to talk about Somerville’s population loss because while it’s a little bit of a unique case, it illustrates an aspect of urban dynamics that preservationists and NIMBYs tend to overlook: you can freeze a neighborhood’s building stock in place, but you can’t stop it from changing.

Somerville 101

This is going to be a lot of words about a kind of obscure town, so on the off chance that you’re not familiar with the Greater Boston area, you have Downtown Boston on one side of the Charles River, Cambridge (where MIT and Harvard are) on the other side, and then Somerville next to Cambridge on the far side of the river.

The thing you need to know is that, while Cambridge and Somerville are suburbs of Boston in some theoretical sense, in reality this is a continuous built-up urban area. And because Greater Boston is one of the oldest cities in America, these places are dense and more “urban” than most American central cities.

And there is no meaningful separation between Cambridge and Somerville at all. Unless you happen to have just looked it up, there’s no way you would intuit that Trina’s Starlite Lounge is in Somerville whereas The Druid is in Cambridge. A normal human experience would be to say this is just one neighborhood.

But technically, these are two separate towns. When I started college over 20 years ago (it pains me to write that down), the joke was that Somerville was “Slummerville” — Cambridge’s poor cousin, rough around the edges.

Urban living was coming back into vogue in the United States at that point, driven by shifting family structures and falling crime rates, so Somerville started changing fast. My dorm-mate Jared Kushner took family money and invested it in Somerville rental properties, which turned out to be a savvy move because the forces of gentrification already sweeping through Cambridge were poised to hit Somerville in a big way — with big benefits to landlords.

The prosperity itself is welcome. Lots of cold weather metro areas have done very poorly during the rise of the sunbelt, but Greater Boston has thrived. The area’s longstanding investments in higher education give it a constant influx of new students and spinoff companies that have made it a hub of biotech startups and medical device companies. The extremely old-fashioned street networks of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and other surrounding towns defy the logic of auto-centric development and have created a rich ecosystem of walkable neighborhoods that people like. And Massachusetts stands out as a bastion of good government liberalism, with public services that aren’t just well-funded but actually high-quality in terms of things like the performance of the public school system.

But in some ways, that makes Massachusetts — even more so than California — an exemplar of the failure of the current progressive governance model, which really has made these communities better places to live. But instead of becoming engines of opportunity, the quality of life has been capitalized into house prices, and poorer residents are getting squeezed out.

More, smaller, richer households

With assistance from native Cantabrigian Milan, we can see that statistically, the decline of Somerville is not a normal post-industrial story.

The key thing is that the town, which was on the poor side when I first visited, is now richer than average and growing richer.

And Somerville’s population decline has been driven not by a reduction in the number of households in the town, but by a steady decline in the average household size.

Now obviously falling household size is not unique to Somerville; it’s a general trend in American life, albeit one that started 10-20 years later in most of the country.

But it explains the paradox of rising relative incomes and falling population in a town. St. Louis has shrunk because fewer people want to live in St. Louis. Phoenix has grown because more people want to live in Phoenix. And Somerville, oddly, has shrunk even though more people want to live there. In Phoenix, rising demand has meant a lot more construction. In Somerville, it’s meant just a little bit more construction and rising prices. But with prices rising, the new people moving in are richer, and they demand — and obtain — more square feet per capita than their predecessors.

In today’s Somerville, a two-bedroom that maybe used to hold mom, dad, and a couple of kids is now home to a childless couple with a spare room or two unrelated roommates. A building that used to be three small apartments stacked vertically might now be a large home for a rich family.

Gentrification is roiling Somerville politics, and unfortunately, the local perception is that Somerville has had tons of new construction and the solution is to slow it down. The truth is that just like everywhere else in Greater Boston, Somerville really hasn’t had much construction relative to demand, and that’s why prices are soaring. The perceived link between building and gentrification tends to generate very counterproductive local backlash politics when what’s really needed is a bigger and more regional approach.

Gentrification spillovers

Part of what makes Somerville interesting is that sociologically speaking, a lot of these Greater Boston towns are really more like neighborhoods than cities, so you can see trends in the town-level statistics that are similar to lots of places around the country.

When a neighborhood becomes a better place to live, richer people start wanting to live there. That leads to both some new construction and some renovation of the older housing stock. And politics tends to focus on what’s visible and subject to regulatory scrutiny (the new construction) when it’s the renovation of the older housing stock that drives displacement. It’s a huge fallacy of the preservationist mindset to think that you can preserve a town or neighborhood or community by preserving the exterior of its buildings. Preservation can’t stop the rich from outbidding the poor. It also can’t change the fact that as America gets richer over time, people want bigger homes. One way to get bigger homes is to build new buildings with more square footage. The other way is to simply have fewer people in town as the community hollows out.

The “more construction” way creates jobs, grows the tax base, and minimizes displacement. It’s better.

But one thing the local backlash politics gets right is that a single well-located town can’t bear the entire weight of a whole region’s development pressure. If you look over at the Supreme Liquors where an undercover cop confiscated my fake ID or the Chipotle where there used to be a Blockbuster near Central Square T station in Cambridge, it is dense by American standards, but it’s hardly maxing out what the market would bear in a transit-adjacent portion of an expensive city.

What’s cool is that shiny new tower in the background. But buildings like that should be all over Somerville. And they should be near the Commuter Rail stations all throughout the Boston suburbs. Both politically and substantively, the state of Massachusetts needs to act to ensure that the soaring land prices throughout Greater Boston translate into actual growth and not endless repetitions of the Somerville displacement story.

States can lead on housing

Over the summer, my policy advice to the Texas state government was that they should preempt local zoning in the expensive city of Austin. And my policy advice to the Maine state government was that they should preempt local zoning in the expensive city of Portland. So you may be seeing a pattern here.

My view of this, which is borrowed from Yale law professor David Schleicher, is that the outcome of housing policy debates depends on the question you’re asking people.

If the question is “would you like dense new construction projects right on your block,” then the answer is probably going to be no. The reason for this is that even viewing it very optimistically, construction is noisy and annoying, and once it’s done you’ll have more traffic on your street and more difficulty finding a place to park. Some people really can talk themselves into becoming ideological YIMBYs who affirmatively fight for more local density, but the basic NIMBY position has an incredibly compelling logic.

A big part of that logic is that the benefits of increased housing supply, though extremely real, are also extremely diffuse. You are creating more housing supply on a region-wide basis. You are creating more tax revenue for an entire town. So lots of people who would benefit from more housing in Cambridge actually live in Somerville or Boston or Medford or Brookline, but all the costs of more housing in Cambridge fall on Cambridge residents. Since Cambridge residents get to vote on Cambridge town issues, they vote no. Then the same pattern repeats in Somerville. More housing would be beneficial, but many of the people who benefit live in Medford or Cambridge or Brookline or Boston, so they vote no. And more housing in Brookline would be beneficial, but many of the people who would benefit live in Medford or Somerville or Cambridge or Boston, so they vote no.

Trying to tell people that a few more rowhouses and apartments in their neighborhood will address housing scarcity is like trying to drain the ocean with a teaspoon.

But if you make it a state issue and the question becomes “more housing in Boston and Cambridge and Somerville and Brookline and Medford and everywhere else, but especially the highest-priced areas where latent construction demand is highest,” then everyone who benefits gets a vote. And big interest groups like major employers and public sector unions who benefit from growth have a chance to lobby for big changes with real upsides. I celebrate and congratulate everyone who works on YIMBY issues at a local level. But especially given the incredibly fragmented municipal boundaries in Greater Boston, state-level policy change holds the most promise.