Survey Says: Housing Tops Cambridge Residents’ Concerns

City gets low marks for high rent in biannual citizen satisfaction survey

Life in Cambridge is good—but it’s too darn expensive, residents said in a survey unveiled by city officials yesterday.

City Manager Robert W. Healy presented the results of a biannual citizen satisfaction survey to Cambridge’s nine council members—and five onlookers—in the Sullivan Chamber at City Hall yesterday.

In the telephone survey of 400 city residents, conducted by the firm Opinion Dynamics last month, 22 percent said that “housing/affordable housing/rent control” is “the single most important issue facing the City of Cambridge today.”

Only 15 percent of respondents said that access to affordable housing is “excellent” or “good,” compared to 76 percent who called it “fair” or “poor.”

Those who can afford to live in the city are content—86 percent of respondents said that the overall quality of life in Cambridge is “excellent” or “good.”

But high housing prices leave many stuck outside the city limits.

“Many people who work in Cambridge can’t afford to live here,” Elie Yarden, a board member of the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods, said at a citizens’ forum in the Cambridge Senior Center following the presentation of the survey.

It’s not the first time that Cantabrigians have complained about sky-high housing costs—23 percent of residents listed housing as their top concern in the city’s last biannual survey in 2004. According to a paper by Glimp Professor of Economics Edward L. Glaeser, the Cambridge-Newton area experienced the third-fastest rate of housing price growth between 1980 and 2004—behind only Long Island, N.Y., and Boston-Quincy.

City officials said that Cambridge is addressing the problem. “When it comes to affordable housing, I do believe we do more than any city in the commonwealth,” Councillor Anthony D. Galluccio said in an interview yesterday.

But when the city offers affordable housing, it draws new residents from nearby localities—and the housing crunch persists. “We’re not joined by many other communities in making affordable housing a priority, and I think that means we’re always going to be swimming against the tide,” Galluccio said.

Historically, Galluccio said, students at Cambridge’s universities have driven up local housing prices—especially when the schools themselves don’t provide dorms for their enrollees.

Harvard is in the middle of a major development effort in the Riverside neighborhood—which will house graduate students and other Harvard affiliates. But those efforts might not mitigate Cambridge’s housing squeeze if the University increases the size of its student body.

“We’d have a lot of egg on our face if we all applauded new housing, and then we just saw corresponding increases in enrollment,” Galluccio said.

While housing anxieties persist, Cantabrigians are increasingly worried about the quality of the city’s public schools—19 percent of respondents said education was their principal area of concern. That marks a 3 percent rise from 2004.

But more comprehensive data on schools will become available once Opinion Dynamics completes a study of Cantabrigians’ views on the city’s education system. And the School Committee plays a more prominent role on this matter than the City Council. “Other than budgetary allocation, we can’t manage the school department,” Galluccio said.

Some speakers at the citizens’ forum expressed concerns about the structure of the city’s government.

“Is it time to change, modify, or get rid of Plan E?” asked Lawrence Adkins, president of the Riverside Neighborhood Association.

Under Plan E, adopted in 1938, the elected nine-member council hires the city manager, who directs most of the daily operations of local government. The plan does not include term limits.

Adkins suggested that councillors should be subject to term limits—an idea that was met with applause.

—Staff writer Virginia A. Fisher can be reached at vafisher@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Nicholas K. Tabor can be reached at ntabor@fas.harvard.edu.