whitespace

The city has nearly $860,000 more it can spend on preserving affordable housing at places such as the  504-unit Fresh Pond Apartments on Rindge Avenue. (Photo: Schochet Cos.)

The city has nearly $860,000 more it can spend on preserving affordable housing at places such as the 504-unit Fresh Pond Apartments on Rindge Avenue. (Photo: Schochet Cos.)

Grants worth $857,178 that “dropped out of the sky” could be used to keep lower-income people in Cambridge, city officials said Monday, and the same officials vow movement on saving room for middle-income residents as well.

The Community Development Block Grant money actually came to the city after loan refinancing for The Neville Center at Fresh Pond for Nursing and Rehabilitation, city officials said. The notion it “dropped out of the sky” was phrased as a question from city councillor Craig Kelley at a Monday council meeting, but Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for Community Development, agreed at least that the money was “not planned, not budgeted and not expected, but we’ll certainly do our best to put it to good use.”

The money could be used for buying property where a public housing component is scheduled to expire or raising the financial incentive to an owner to keep public housing instead of switching to all market-rate housing, Murphy said. The limits on the money’s use are that it has to conform with the scope of the federal Community Development Block Grants themselves and would exclude work focused on middle-income residents.

But with more middle-income residents and families being pushed out of increasingly pricey Cambridge real estate, it’s an issue that keeps coming up.

Murphy said his department is looking not only at increasing incentive payment to landlords, but at two issues discussed by the council in the past several months: raising the stated goal of having apartment and condo developers set aside 15 percent of their units as affordable housing – 18 percent was the figure the Massachusetts Institute of Technology agreed to for zoning to remake 26 acres in Kendall Square; and the possibility of a “matching program that could go for middle-income units [or] other possible ways to do the middle-income initiative that’s been important to the council.”

Councillor Marjorie Decker, who proposed the 18 percent figure in a policy order in April, wondered if the units created in the 3 percentage point difference of that “inclusionary housing” zoning could be set aside for middle-income residents, just as the first 15 percent is set aside for low-income residents.

“It’s really something that should be done fast, because stuff’s going up all around us,” she said, referring to the ongoing construction of housing stock.

“We do very much agree with the importance and sense of urgency on this,” Murphy said, “and we have a draft [request for proposals] that’s working its way through the process that we’re trying to get done as soon as possible.”

Councillor Leland Cheung worried about the loss of the 504-unit Fresh Pond Apartments, on Rindge Avenue in North Cambridge near the Alewife MBTA station, from the list of affordable places to live in Cambridge.

“Absolutely they are on our radar, because they are such large projects. It’s very important housing, especially for immigrants new to our community, [and] the owners should be very much aware of the city’s interest in maintaining the affordability there,” Murphy said.

With those units’ affordability expected to expire in 2020, negotiations were unlikely to start before 2018 at the earliest, Murphy said. The owner, Boston’s Schochet Cos., was likely to be a willing partner, and there were units expiring elsewhere in the city – including the Briston Arms on Garden Street by Danehy Park – that would need attention first.

Cambridge has some 5,500 low-income households in its affordable properties, according to John J. Woods, deputy director of planning and development at the Cambridge Housing Authority, and some 11,000 more on a waiting list.

In Kendall Square, MIT committed to building at least 120,000 square feet for “residential uses,” including at least 24,000 square feet of housing that could be afforded by what planners deemed middle-income households, meaning whose total income wasn’t more than 120 percent of the median income for the Boston Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. The Census pegs median household income at $71,738, putting the ceiling for middle-class income at those future residences at $107,607.