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City Developers Pledge More Building as Affordable Housing Issues Persist

As a paucity of available affordable housing continues to plague the Cambridge area, the city government's Housing Committee gathered Tuesday to assess the current outlook and discuss looming challenges.
As a paucity of available affordable housing continues to plague the Cambridge area, the city government's Housing Committee gathered Tuesday to assess the current outlook and discuss looming challenges. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Taylor C. Peterman, Crimson Staff Writer

As a paucity of available affordable housing continues to plague the Cambridge area, the city government’s Housing Committee gathered Tuesday to assess the current outlook and discuss looming challenges.

City housing officials and representatives from local housing corporations outlined steps they have taken to increase investment in Cambridge, pledging more development in the near future.

City Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler said the city has a “responsibility” to provide affordable housing, citing its dynamic economy.

“Cambridge has a lot of resources, and I think with a lot of resources comes a lot of responsibility,” he said. “Cambridge is a city known for innovation, and I think we also can apply that to housing.”

Members of the housing committee include multiple city councilors, as well as representatives from the city’s housing authority and affordable housing organizations.

Carl Nagy-Koechlin, executive director of Just-A-Start, a local development corporation, said that his organization has attempted to serve the “people side of housing.”

“No matter how many apartments we develop, it’s really only going to serve a fraction of the needs,” he said. “So we also provide a number of housing services: court mediation to prevent evictions, rapid rehousing for families that have been evicted.”

For decades, Cambridge has grappled with the effects of gentrification, including ballooning housing costs. From 2005-2014, for instance, Cambridge experienced the largest increase — 79.8 percent — in median single-family home prices in all of Massachusetts, according to the Warren Group, which compiles real estate and financial data.

Christopher Cotter, housing director for the Affordable Trust Fund, said that the Trust Fund is currently looking at new sites and will have more projects to announce in the coming months.

“We are talking with developers about moving into the permitting phase of their development timeframe,” he said.

Despite the promises proffered by housing organizations at the meeting, the reception from local residents did not appear universally positive. Valerie A. Bonds, a longtime Cambridge denizen, said she was disheartened by the lack of representation of tenants living in affordable housing at Tuesday’s gathering.

“I’m disappointed that there weren’t more representation from the tenant councils, tenant associations, and tenant committees of members who live in affordable housing, whose leadership should be here to speak for us,” she said.

Bonds said she would like to see a representative from those that oversee her building to be present at the tenant council meetings.

“I’d like to see more interaction between owners and management involving attending monthly meetings of the resident community organizations,” she said. “I think that would make the biggest difference for me.”

Michael J. Johnston, executive director of the Cambridge Housing Authority, said that his agency has worked to move its portfolio out of public housing and into a Section Eight “project-based portfolio,” referring to the government program that provides housing subsidies to low-income individuals. In the past decade, he said his agency has conducted approximately $500 million worth of renovations, building, and other work in Cambridge.

“A new world means we have investors,” he said. “We’ve had investors come in and provide us money to basically do the work.”

“For our residents, that means new kitchens and baths, new plumbing in the walls, new windows,” he added.

Bonds, though, said that she is disappointed that what she called necessary renovations have not occurred despite recent rent increases. The renovations that have occurred, she contended, are minor.

“I believe that some of those renovations are cosmetic, and that the serious improvements that need to be done, in my opinion, are not being taken care of,” she said. “These repairs, it seems, are repairing repairs.”

—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at taylor.peterman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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