The Seventeen Year Housing Emergency

LuxHousing_Northpoint.jpgby Mike Connolly

The City of Cambridge declared a “housing emergency in the shortage of affordable housing” in the year 1999.

And yet, some seventeen years later, as the development boom proceeds (see Northpoint luxury housing tower photo on the left), and as people continue to be priced out of the city, officials have yet to produce a comprehensive housing plan or enact basic protections for tenants.

We need to adopt stronger housing policies, or else we risk the continued erosion of Cambridge’s socioeconomic diversity. According to Northeastern professor and Cambridge resident Barry Bluestone:

“If you took just the city of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, you’re seeing that we now increasingly have two kinds of people living here — the real affluent who can afford $4,000 a month in a condo or rent, and those people who are so poor that they actually qualify for subsidized rent or live in public housing. We’ve been losing everybody in between, who have to move further and further out to find housing they can afford. The result is we’re getting a society here in greater Boston of rich and poor — of the haves and have-nots. It’s almost like a third world country that we’re  becoming if this continues into the future…”

At the start of the Envision Cambridge citywide planning process, there remains an urgent need to focus on housing policy. City officials, residents, stakeholders, and housing advocates must work together to protect current residents and expand affordable housing programs and options. At the same time, we should develop a better understanding of market conditions and impacts, and we should also look to build our capacity for organizing, advocacy, data collection, and analysis.

A Housing Plan for Cambridge

Last year, hundreds of Cambridge residents signed a petition at calling for a comprehensive housing plan as an early action item of the citywide planning process, echoing a plank of the Cambridge Residents Alliance’s housing platform — and drawing on inspiration from recently published housing plans in Boston, Somerville, and San Francisco.

In November, Councillors Carlone and Mazen were joined by Mayor Simmons on a policy order that asked for “the staffing and resources necessary to enable the fleshing out and implementation of a comprehensive housing plan as part of an early action item of the pending citywide planning process.”

Members of the Cambridge Residents Alliance cheered the council’s unanimous approval of that housing plan order. But a few weeks later, just before the final meeting of the 2014-15 city council term, city officials nixed the idea. “It is not feasible to complete a comprehensive citywide housing plan during the first year in addition to the Alewife study and keep the project timeline intact,” the City’s memo stated.

The decision to pass on an early action housing plan was unfortunate. With “housing/affordable housing” surging to the top of concerns in the biannual citizens survey, with investment capital pouring in from around the world, and with Inman Square recently named the hottest real estate market in the country, the need to focus on affordable housing is obvious and urgent.

Already one the densest cities in the nation, Cambridge is currently on track to increase its housing stock by 30%. Cambridge has built or permitted nearly 7,000 units of new housing since 2010, outpacing even the most ambitious targets for smart growth from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. And yet, despite all this new development, the city is getting more expensive.

Fueled by low interest rates and profound levels of wealth and income inequality, today’s development boom favors tiny, luxury apartments and condominiums that are mostly unaffordable for families or individuals of low-, moderate-, or middle-incomes.

Moreover, these luxury developments appear to create upward pressure on parts of the existing housing stock. According to a recent report from the Lincoln Land Institute in Cambridge, “new luxury housing may cause dramatic upswings in the price of residential real estate in formerly distressed central neighborhoods, but the lower costs resulting from increased supply may be apparent only at the suburban fringe of the region.”

The need for action is urgent

Last summer, speculators cleared 111 units at 295 Harvard Ave., causing “hyper-stress, anxiety, fear, anger and frustration,” according to tenants who were displaced in the largest mass eviction in recent memory. Meanwhile, on Harding Street, tenants received eviction notices after organizing in response to precipitous rent increases.

Across the city, public housing tenants also have questions about the R.A.D. program, where the Cambridge Housing Authority is transferring ownership in its 2,129 public housing units to Wells Fargo and Citibank in exchange for loans that will fund renovations. These Wall Street banks will get tax credits for putting up the funds for maintenance work, and in the process, the banks will also charge CHA millions of dollars in “fees.”

It is important to note that there is broad support for the goal of affordable housing in Cambridge, and officials work very hard to respond to the overwhelming need for housing. But despite these efforts, it is also clear that stronger policies are needed. To accelerate our response, we can learn from what’s happening in Somerville and Boston.

In Somerville, Mayor Joe Curtatone presented a comprehensive affordable housing program in the fall of 2014, and last year, Somerville’s Sustainable Neighborhood Report called for a real estate transfer tax and a right-of-first-refusal program (where tenants can collectively purchase their buildings). Somerville also benefits from a Community Development Corporation that employs full-time tenant organizers who are leading a residents’ campaign to update the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance to require 20% affordability in all major new developments. And in Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh produced a comprehensive housing plan less than one year into his first term, and he is now launching a new Office of Housing Stability.

Here in Cambridge, we have much work to do. We have gone too long without a condominium conversion ordinance (the city council rejected a “condo conversion” law back on December 18, 2000), and our inclusionary zoning ordinance — which currently requires that 11.5% of new units be restricted as affordable — is also out of date. And while there is broad support for an update to the inclusionary ordinance, it must be noted that inclusionary zoning is just one step toward addressing a much larger challenge. After all, 20% inclusionary zoning has already been deemed “insufficient” in New York City, where 23 councilors signed a letter to Mayor de Blasio calling for 50% affordable housing in new developments.

Ultimately, we need to develop a better understanding of market conditions and reject what has been called the “trickle-down theory” of gentrification, the idea that luxury housing is the main answer to the housing problem. Furthermore, we must recognize that the housing emergency in Cambridge is somewhat different than the overall crisis facing the region. On the regional level, we need to do everything possible to build more housing. But on the local level, in neighborhoods such as Wellington-Harrington and Area IV/Port, we must also address the fact that luxury housing may cause displacement.

In other communities, the biggest problem seems to be the fact that multifamily housing development is almost nonexistent. There was no new multifamily housing development in 121 of the 161 communities in the extended Greater Boston area in 2014, for example. On the other hand, in Cambridge, we have actually been building and permitting our share of new, multifamily housing — the problem here is that almost all of this new housing is for wealthier individuals. Going forward, we must find ways to protect the existing affordable housing stock while ensuring that new development occurs in a truly equitable fashion.

Mike Connolly is a community advocate and attorney who lives in the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood with his wife, Kacy.

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