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A Hesitant Solution to a Thorny City Problem

Land-Banking for Affordable Housing

By Julian E. Barnes

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.

Upsetting the Balance

Even if funds were available, the realities of the city's planning processes would mean that the successes of a land-banking strategy might be several years in the future.

"Cambridge has arrived over many years at a balance between the speed of development and the responsiveness of decision makers to neighbor-hoods," Stockard says. "That means Cambridge takes time to get things done."

But Cyr says that even if the city lacks the money and other resources it needs now, it is important to get the land bank in place so as to take advantage of the situation when they it become available.

"We will situate ourselves at the starting block so when the money comes we will be ready," says Cyr.

Limits on Income

The major roadblock now standing before the land bank scheme is a debate over who will receive first crack at the new housing--if and when it is built. The current proposal calls for housing to be built for any family making 80 percent of the Boston area median income of $44,625 a year. Under that plan, preference would be given to families making $22,313 annually, or 50 percent of the median income.

Critics of the current plan, however, would like to see all the housing go to families earning $22,000 a year or less.

"We are very heartened that the city of Cambridge is makeing this land available," says Fred Reiz of the University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square which along with the Phillip Brooks House Association runs a shelter for homeless families in the square in the winter months.

But Reiz says that new housing must target the people with the lowest incomes, even if that means a longer search for the funds needed to finance the projects.

"We are aware that it is a challenge to find development money," says Reiz. "If we are going to retain people in Cambridge we are going to have to stretch. It is economically difficult, not economically impossible."

But while experts say they understand the need to provide housing to the city's poorest residents, they say they do not want to limit the land bank's options.

Since the state economy is going to limit the amount of housing the city can build, Schlesinger and other city planners says that a lower maximum income will only delay the creation of new housing.

"I applaud people who are interested in providing housing for those earning less than $23,000 but the land bank ought to retain a certain amount of flexibility," says Daniel J. Wuenschal, executive director of the Cambridge Housing Authority.

"It will be more possible to build in the next year if we are not locked into a project that requires $60,000 to $70,000 in subsidies," says Schlesinger. "On the other hand, we are committed to providing homes to low income people."

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