Community Benefits Agreements in the Commonwealth of MA


Spending a week in Boston with my brother who’d fallen suddenly ill, I took a break from Mass General Hospital and went for a walk with my fourteen year- old nephew Stefan along the Charles River Esplanade,  a public waterway  that rivals the Twin Cities Grand Rounds in abundant natural beauty commonly shared.

In both Minneapolis and Boston however, questions of access lessen the equity of these shared spaces, while private development along public ways and in neighborhoods are pushing out the gente and bringing in the gentry.*  Luckily, in both places the gente are  are organizing.

In Somerville, a town two miles outside of Boston, Union United,  a coalition of “small business owners, residents, immigrant groups, religious congregations, labor unions, and community-based organizations,”  have developed a Community Benefits Agreement in reaction to  a development project in their town square.

Union United’s  CBA  addresses the particular needs and dreams of those living in the community, demanding low-income housing for families and seniors, small business assistance for minority businesses, a multicultural community center and green practices that facilitate  “alternative modes of transportation. ”

More important than particular demands, is the way in which the  Union United CBA creates a process that insures the long-term participation of low-income people and the substantial Latino immigrant population of Somerville, in their own community development.

Based on research of benefits agreements across the country, Tufts university Urban Policy professor Penn Loh believes it is essential that Union United  sign the agreements with developers.  Loh argues that one of the ways CBAs get diluted is when municipal governments  step in and become the signers for the community. Inevitably, the cities end up representing the interests of gentrifiers.

In Minneapolis, activists have joined this nationwide effort  assure the vitality of  working class neighborhoods through  CBAs. One major effort is the campaign to hold the New Seward Food Coop on the 38th Street in the Bryant/ Central neighborhoods accountable for fighting the gentrification that attends  high-end grocery stories when they move into low-income communities.  People working within the coop and others working through the CBA process have together succeeded in an essential first step.  First round of hires included over 60% People of Color,  close to their  representation in the neighborhood, a key demand of the CBA drafted by neighborhood activists.

As the negotiation processes in Minneapolis, Minnesota  and Somerville Massachusetts continue, it is helpful to get a national perspective, to see how communities are winning and losing in the war against gentrification. Loh’s research shows that for the people to win, they have to be at the table.

*At a recent Gentrification forum in Minneapolis artists silkscreened T-shirts that read “Gente-fy the neighborhood. Gente means “the people” in Spanish. 


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