Study Shows Plight of Elderly

Cambridge Housing Costs, Gentrification Seen as Enemies

Elderly people in Cambridgeport and Riverside, the two residential neighborhoods closest to Harvard, are losing their homes to gentrification and rising taxes, according to a report released Saturday.

"What we have here in the elderly people here is a real jewel, and we don't want to lose it," said Paul Houlihan, Associate Director of UMass/Boston's Gerontology Institute and director of the project. "If we don't act now, that jewel is going to be gone--it's going to be bought out, driven out," he said.

Houlihan supervised a group of older students at the Institute who recently completed interviews with 103 of the neighborhoods' 1700 elderly residents. He said the study found that many older residents fear crime and loneliness, and often must leave their homes because they are "house-rich and cash-poor."

According to the report, older residents who own their homes have lived there for an average of 28 years. Many live in houses whose value has grown to $200,000 or more, but half must pay their property taxes from annual incomes of less than $10,000.

Houlihan said others are driven into the city's impersonal and shabby high-rises because they are not physically fit enough to maintain their own homes.

Cambridge's housing shortage is among the nation's most acute, and has made the city a lucrative site for developers, leading to concerns in many neighborhoods that each house sold is likely to be converted to offices or luxury condominiums, he said.

The project was co-sponsored by the Riverside/Cambridgeport Community Corporation, which was founded to help preserve affordable housing in the neighborhoods.

Pablo Calderon, director of R/CCC, said the study confirmed his organization's assertion that the city needs more housing that the elderly can afford.

City Councilors Saudra Graham and David E. Sullivan, both strong supporters of rent control, attended a press conference held on Saturday to release the report. Graham echoed Calderon's comments and said she would continue to advocate the construction of more low-income housing.

Houlihan said that those residents who consented to be interviewed were among the healthier and more courageous members of the elderly community, since many others must have been afraid to let a stranger into their homes.

However, even those who were interviewed for the study often said they were afraid to take advantage of existing city and community programs created for their benefit. Graham, a native of Riverside, said many have asked her, "If I get a grant from the government, then what can the government do to my home?"

Calderon also said that the area's large foreign population was often mistrustful.