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Cambridge Has $88 Million in Federal Relief Funds. Now, Officials Face a Daunting Question: Where Should it All Go?

Cambridge City Hall is located in Central Square.
Cambridge City Hall is located in Central Square. By Santiago A. Saldivar
By Elias J. Schisgall, Crimson Staff Writer

The City of Cambridge currently has access to $88.1 million in federal funds, much of which remains unspent. Now, the city faces the daunting task of deciding where it goes.

Following the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in March 2021 to boost the economy, Cambridge was awarded $65 million directly from the federal government and $23 million through an intermediary statewide fund.

So far, the city has spent about $33 million of the relief funds on government projects, including meals and housing for unhoused Cambridge residents, Covid-19 testing and vaccines, and relief grants for small businesses and restaurants. At a meeting of the City Council Finance Committee on Wednesday afternoon, residents and representatives from local nonprofits made speeches asking the Council for a slice of the remaining $55-million pie.

During the meeting, Assistant City Manager David J. Kale said 40 community groups and nonprofits have applied to the city for funding so far, with requests totaling upwards of $180 million.

The bulk of this total comes from requests from the Cambridge Housing Authority, the non-profit that runs public housing in the city. In its requests, the CHA recommended spending up to $29.6 million on social services for CHA residents and infrastructure and planning costs related to new public housing projects.

This sum includes a $9 to $18 million expansion of Cambridge RISE, a guaranteed income pilot program.

During the Wednesday meeting, Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui reiterated the Council’s support for using ARPA funds for a larger guaranteed income program. In February, the Council unanimously voted to request policy options from the City Manager on using ARPA funds for direct payments to Cantabridgians “facing eviction, housing instability, and/or homelessness.”

The CHA also filed a request for up to $54 million — nearly all the city’s remaining funds — to be allocated toward the construction of 128 new units of affordable public housing at two sites in the city. During the meeting, Michael J. Johnston, the executive director of the CHA, described the request as a “placeholder,” giving the Council the option to allocate any amount of funds toward public housing construction.

Other large funding requests include $6 million for improvements and green space near Jerry’s Pond in North Cambridge; $15 million to provide housing stipends to unhoused people through the non-profit Project Right to Housing; $2 million for an equity fund investing in businesses owned by racial minorities; and $5.5 million for Cambridge HEART, a community-based public safety alternative to policing.

On May 2, according to Kale, the city will take a “strategic pause” on accepting proposals to sort through existing applications and evaluate their eligibility for funding.

In the meeting, Councilor and Finance Committee co-chair Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80 said that though there are “many, many excellent proposals,” not all will receive funding.

“As difficult as it is to understand that money is limited, we have more worthy projects than we can possibly fund,” Nolan said.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.

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City PoliticsCambridge City CouncilCambridgeFront Middle Feature