Thursday, February 29, 2024

The Burns Apartments in North Cambridge, painted black and white.

The state is doing a good thing in breaking down local-preferences policies for public housing – but not in Cambridge. Here, it’s arguably turned a positive into a negative.

The Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development guidelines for affordable housing is meant to prevent racial discrimination in subsidized housing; as Sue Reinert wrote this week for Cambridge Day, evidence in lawsuits statewide has shown that some overwhelmingly white communities have used local preference to keep nonwhite applicants out. Adoption of the policy in Cambridge means that applicants who already live or work here will get first priority for only 70 percent of the empty units at the Daniel F. Burns Apartments in North Cambridge and Roosevelt Towers in East Cambridge, instead of for all of them. The rest will be for anyone who’s applied, chosen by date of application.

“DHCD and MassHousing pretty much dug their heels in” on enforcing the 70-30 split, Cambridge Housing Authority executive director Mike Johnston says.

As of this summer, there were nearly 10,000 families and individuals in Cambridge waiting for public housing.

The problem here is that there’s no problem here – meaning that the problem the state is trying to solve doesn’t exist in Cambridge. If elsewhere in the state local preference is still used to keep nonwhite residents out of public housing, that’s not the case here. “The percentage of racial minorities living in CHA housing exceeds by far the percentage of minorities that live generally in the city of Cambridge,” Johnston says.

While enforcement of the 30 percent policy in Cambridge won’t necessarily result in nonwhite local applicants losing out to white applicants from outside the city, blanket policies are always a bad idea – why come up with a way to correct an injustice and apply it in a way that risks causing the very harm it’s supposed to prevent?

Cambridge should never have been forced to apply the 70-30 split to even two of its public housing sites. If enforcement of the policy becomes a threat for other CHA housing developments citywide, it’s time for a waiver or appeal system that will keep potential harms at a minimum.