Affordable housing is one of Cambridge's perennial unsolved problems, a thorn that presses deeper into the City Council's side with each reminder of the 4000-plus families now waiting for an answer from the city's Housing Authority.
But for all the arguments and debates that rage each week in City Hall's Sullivan Chamber, city residents have long contended that the council does very little to actually create new low-income housing, instead delegating the details of its policies to the city's vast bureaucracy.
Part of the trouble, according to City Councillor Edward N. Cyr, is simply procedural. Currently, the council allocates city land for development on an ad hoc basis, and consequently spends too much time arguing over pressing issues such as brick color and shutter size.
But along with the problem, Cyr has proposed a solution which he is touting as the first step toward an effective housing policy for Cambridge: creation of a so-called "land bank" to stockpile city property for future development. The plan, he says, is intended to "take the politics out" of affordable housing.
"Cambridge needs a housing policy, and this is one little piece of it," says Cyr. "This is a single piece in a complex process and we will get there slowly but surely."
Under Cyr's proposal, the city would donate land to the Affordable Housing Trust Board, which would work with neighborhood groups to solicit proposals from developers and decide what type of housing is to be built. Currently the board can only allocate tax money from commercial development, which is used to give "stopgap" loans to developers working on low-income housing projects.
The land bank is still being discussed in the affordable housing subcommittee of the City Council, and observers say the proposal will most likely be approved in the next two months.
City officials say they have identified about 12 parcels of land that could be transferred to a land bank, creating a maximum of 150 new apartments at an average rate of about 30 a year.
Getting on the Bandwagon
And James Stockard, a member of the Affordable Housing Trust Board, predicts other city land--and even privately owned land--would eventually become part of the land bank.
"We have hopes that over time others would get on the bandwagon and institutions like Harvard and MIT will donate land," says Stockard.
But merely setting up a land bank, he says, won't make the city's housing shortage go away.
"Free land is important but it won't make units affordable," says Stockard, explaining that the city needs a variety of state and federal subsidies to keep the price of housing down.
As the state drifts into ever deeper financial problems and federal support continues to evaporate, the funds that an effective land bank would depend on are becoming increasingly scarce.
"The state economy is severely limiting or shutting down the housing programs," says Susan B. Schlesinger, the housing director in the city's Community Development Department.