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Does New Mass Transit Always Have to Mean Rapidly Rising Rents?

U.S. cities big and small are struggling to welcome transit development while preserving affordable housing.
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Flickr user Chris Devers

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—On Saturday nights, Davis Square bustles with the young and fashionable. They're seeing an independent film at the restored movie palace or taking in a comedy show down the street. They're slurping ramen at a Japanese restaurant, sipping a beer at a sidewalk table, or people-watching on the busy central plaza. Tucked into a corner of Somerville, a city of 77,000 just northwest of Boston, Davis Square is a prototype vision of urbanism — dense, transit-oriented, walkable, and a real estate agent's dream. A typical one-bedroom apartment rents for as much as $2,000, and single-family homes now sell for upwards of $1 million.

Van Hardy lived here in the mid-1980s. When he looks back on the last three decades, he's amazed at how things have changed. "Davis Square was kind of a depressed area, a lot of crime," the 64-year-old says. The neighborhood began to transform after metro Boston's light rail and subway system — known as the "T" — extended into Somerville in 1984. The new Davis Station offered an easy commute to Harvard, MIT, or downtown Boston via the T's Red Line. "As soon as the Red Line came in, there were more college kids, young professionals," Hardy recalls. And as the neighborhood grew more desirable, Hardy's rent went up, forcing him and many of his neighbors to move across town.