Thursday, June 20, 2024

Cambridge Housing Authority costs are being strained during the coronavirus crisis, including by having to pause five large construction projects. Work at Millers River Apartments from late 2019 is shown. (Photo: Cambridge Housing Authority via Twitter)

A program that helped lower-income Cambridge residents remain in their homes if they faced a big rent increase or heavy rent burden for another reason has been suspended by the Cambridge Housing Authority. The housing agency doesn’t have the money to continue the aid and also serve other needy tenants at a time its resources are being stressed by the Covid-19 pandemic, it was explained.

A memorandum presented to agency trustees on April 13 said tenants in private housing who might have needed the help have several protections: a state eviction moratorium during the Covid-19 emergency, a city request to landlords not to raise rents, and local and state aid programs for renters affected by the virus. “CHA feels that with these additional protections in place,” dropping the authority’s program “will not have a significant effect on potential applicants and/or will not lead to further displacement of residents,” the memo said.

The agency will propose a substitute for the program in the next several weeks, it said.

CHA established what it calls “in-place vouchers” in August 2015. The Authority was spurred by publicity about longtime tenants in two Harding Street buildings who got hefty rent increases after the family that had owned the building for years, keeping rents moderate, sold it to an investment company for $3.6 million.

The feminist writer and activist Ti-Grace Atkinson lived in one of the buildings and brought attention to the tenants’ plight.

In response to the problem, and similar situations in the city’s hot real estate market, CHA added a way that applicants could qualify for an emergency Section 8 rent assistance voucher: Instead of having to show that they faced no-fault eviction, tenants could get a voucher if their rent was going to increase by more than 25 percent or they were paying more than 40 percent of their gross income for rent. Applicants had to earn less than 80 percent of the area median income and lived in their apartment for at least a year.

And landlords had to accept a voucher, with its limit on rents. Section 8 allows tenants to pay 30 percent of their income for rent with the government paying the rest, up to a maximum set by the CHA based on federal guidelines.

Pressures on an agency

The April 13 memo said CHA faced increased subsidy costs of at least $170,000 a month for the next several months because many of its own public housing tenants have lost their jobs in the pandemic and have qualified for lower rents. The authority also had to stop five large construction projects when the city imposed a construction moratorium last month, which carries extra costs, the memo said.

The agency is giving first priority to helping its own tenants who have lost income, it said. CHA “unfortunately does not have the resources to keep the ‘in-place’ voucher criteria in effect at this time,” the memo said.

Despite that language, executive director Michael Johnston said CHA didn’t suspend the program to save money but “to rethink our priorities given that we have more than 20,000 applicants on our waiting lists, some that have waited for many years for a shot at getting a voucher.”

The emergency voucher program “essentially allows a household to circumvent the entire waitlist. Granted it is certainly better to prevent homelessness than allow someone to become homeless and then act, but we think we can do that in a different way than granting a lifetime voucher over one of those on the list,” he said in an email.

Fearing “an onslaught”

Before the pandemic, Johnston said, CHA got an average three applications a month for the vouchers, “a negligible number” that allowed the agency to issue its normal number of Section 8 certificates to other tenants. “An onslaught of in-place requests” would prevent that and wouldn’t be fair, Johnston said.

CHA has increased aid to tenants in other respects; the agency made it easier for its own tenants who have lost jobs or income because of the pandemic to get approval for lower rent. It also allowed applicants who had higher priority for housing because they worked in Cambridge to keep that priority if they lost their job after February.

Speaking of the increased subsidy costs because of the pandemic, Johnston said CHA could recover that money from the federal government – but it’s not certain.