Saturday, April 20, 2024


The Cambridge Housing Authority’s executive director, Gregory Russ.

The Cambridge Housing Authority’s executive director, Gregory Russ.

The Cambridge Housing Authority is again proposing to nudge a tiny group of middle-income public housing tenants to move out, partly to free up apartments for much poorer people on the waiting list for public housing and partly to help higher earners make the transition to private housing.

The authority approved a carrot-and-stick approach in 2012, but didn’t carry it out. Now the move is part of a proposed revamp of many policies and rules affecting public housing tenants. The Alliance of Cambridge Tenants, which represents public housing residents, is questioning the impacts of the proposal and wants the authority to withdraw it and talk to the affected tenants.

The plan would give a cash payment to higher-earning tenants who leave to help cover security deposits and other costs of renting in the private market. Each year residents delay moving out, the incentive would shrink. If they don’t leave within four years, they would lose the payment and their public housing rent would be increased closer to market levels.

Still 32 on the list

Last year 32 families and individuals fell into the targeted category because they earned at least 100 percent of the area median income for their family size – less than 2 percent of the roughly 2,500 households in public housing. Executive Director Gregory Russ said the number is the same now, but could not provide current median income standards by family size, so it’s not clear what the total of 32 is based on. Last year the medians ranged from $68,500 for a single person to $97,800 for a family of four to $113,500 for six people, according to the authority.

When people apply for public housing they can’t earn more than 80 percent of the area median income, but there is no income limit after they get into an apartment. Most households living in Cambridge developments actually earn much less than 80 percent of median income; almost three-quarters make less than 30 percent of the median, according to the authority.

More than 7,800 families and individuals are waiting for public housing, according to an authority report.

Correcting an inequity

The authority says the plan would benefit the top earners in its developments by helping them move to the private market, as well as free up housing for people on the waiting list. In addition, it would correct an inequity, Russ has said, since most public housing tenants pay about 30 percent of their income for rent, but high earners may pay a much lower percentage.

That’s because the authority has “ceiling rents” for higher-income tenants.  Currently the maximum rents at most developments range from $844 a month for a one-bedroom unit to $1,308 for a six-bedroom apartment, Russ said.

At those rents, most tenants earning the area median income – at least those in effect last year –  would pay less than 30 percent of their income for rent, in some cases far less.

Under the proposed policy, tenants who don’t move out after four years would see their rents rise to the maximum authorized for subsidy in the private rental market under the Section 8 rental assistance program. Section 8 lets low-income tenants pay 30 percent of their income to a private landlord; the government pays the remainder up to a maximum – this year ranging from $1,242 for a studio to $2,346 for a four-bedroom apartment, Russ said. Even at those levels, some tenants earning the area median income might not pay 30 percent of their income for rent, using last year’s median income figures. For example, a single person earning $68,500 and living in a studio in public housing would pay 21 percent of his or her income for rent.

Questions from tenants

In written comments, the Alliance of Cambridge Tenants said “it would be useful for CHA to talk to affected tenants” to tell them about the incentives and penalties for moving and staying and find out whether they wanted to move.

The tenants’ group also questioned whether losing higher-income tenants could have a “destabilizing effect on the public housing community.” Other concerns included penalizing high earners, charging rents “not on the rent schedule” and “not recognizing that public housing … requires ‘good cause’ for evictions,” the alliance said.

The group said reducing the incentive for families that wait to leave might “undermine their long-term success” in private housing by leaving them without adequate reserves if they run into problems such as losing a job.

Asked to respond, Russ said the authority is negotiating with the tenants’ group over all the changes in policy and hasn’t decided whether to keep the plan for higher-income tenants. In an annual report to federal officials earlier this, the authority said it hired a new director of property management in October and “once the new director is settled, discussion of implementation [of the plan for high earners] will commence.”