Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Zoning has a racist and class elitist history of exclusion and stratification. The legacy of that history in Cambridge is the erasure of low-income and marginalized populations. We can’t undo that history. Instead, we need to be intentional to prevent reproducing similar harm. And, for those who seek to invoke Richard Rothstein and his brilliant account of how zoning created residential racial segregation, and to use that as support for the Missing Middle Housing petition, I would ask that we also attend to the critical issues of class in discussions of housing and city planning.

I am an immigrant Black woman from a low-income single-parent female-headed household. After experiencing childhood homelessness, my family was finally able to settle in public housing in Cambridge. Living in Cambridge has undoubtedly changed my life’s trajectory, and afforded me opportunities beyond my mother’s wildest dreams. I want to stay in Cambridge. 

As a visibly racialized low-income person who has spoken up, I have been approached by supporters of the Missing Middle Housing regarding my opposition. People are often surprised to hear my take. For example, I see MMH as a template for zoning reform. While I am pro-development and in favor of reform, I think we all need to ask ourselves: What kind of housing do we want to see? How do we build more of those? I see zoning as a tool. We should use it to build the kind of housing we want to see. It should address specific problems and be linked to affordable housing programs.

I support MMH as a great starting point for having these conversations, especially for the suggestions that will encourage reform and housing security.  There are already residents here struggling with housing instability and insecurity. How do we address the needs of the members of the community? We are in danger of further racial and class stratification if we are not intentional about changes to zoning ordinances.

For the record, I am pro-development. I fully support Capstone Communities and Hope Real Estate’s affordable housing development, Port Landing, as well as the new affordable development in North Cambridge. But the places that are being targeted for intervention from for-profit developers and identified in the MMH are largely Central Square (and Harvard Square), where the majority of the rough-sleeping and shelter-unhoused populations occupy space. Both sides of Central Square – The Port and Riverside neighborhoods – are the most densely populated and have historically been the lowest-income areas in the city. Although this is changing rapidly, these remain the neighborhoods with visible African-descended populations in Cambridge (North Cambridge notwithstanding). Because of this, these neighborhoods are serving as the lowest-hanging fruit and the ripest for gentrification.

Supporters of the MMH will make the point that instead of a single-family house on a property, having a triple-decker or more units will allow more people to live on the same property allotment. I agree and support that zoning change. A family home that is worth $1 million will be replaced with three or more units each worth $750,000. The fact is that this does not address the crisis of affordability. From where I stand, it looks as though mid-income earners want an opportunity to buy properties in Cambridge to gain equity long term. As I am certainly not that, this has nothing to do with me.

I have been asked why it is that low-income people are not actively supporting the MMH petition. From the perspective of those who support MMH, it looks like low-income people are acting against their own interests. But if affordable units are not tied to the zoning reforms now, it will reproduce racial and class stratification. We, the poor, know that you won’t come back for us. 

It is great to allow more people to have access to housing opportunities in Cambridge. But increasing the overall density of Cambridge with more people at or above the annual median income, which is at $95,000, will actually decrease the overall percentage of the lowest-income people in Cambridge. The resulting higher overall annual median income will have repercussions for programs that use AMI as the basis for defining affordability, like the Middle Income Rental Program. This will leave significant proportions of the existing population ineligible for social housing programs and effectively drive them out of Cambridge.  

And lastly, the influx of high-wage tech workers with no connections to the working class population in the city, results in diminished political power for low-income, racialized minorities. Removing political weight from the low-income voting block means there will be few of us left to encourage support for low-income housing.

The MMH does not bar or limit the amount of luxury condos that are developed in Cambridge. These properties tend to be managed not by individual property owners, but corporations. As a social researcher and as a poor person, I am concerned about the rise of corporate landlords as a national trend; Matthew Desmond’s Eviction Lab at Princeton University has taught me that they are the last to give people a chance and the first to invoke eviction, with a negative impact on low-income and marginalized renters. Is this what we want for Cambridge?

I have made these points to some supporters of the MMH who have sought me out to learn about my opposition. I have heard over and over again that they hear my points. Many agree that my arguments make sense, and will result in bad outcomes for low-income Cambridge residents. But rather than support the idea of amending the process from here or rescinding their own support, they have said that they had invested too much time and effort in this petition and will continue to lobby for it. What I understand from this is that their time is more valuable than low-income residents’ ability to remain in Cambridge. 

I plan to continue to voice my opposition to the MMH. I am calling on people who care about our city to ask for a wider process.

Stephanie Guirand is a doctoral researcher in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research focuses on low-income inner-city African-descended men who live between multiple households. She writes for The Black Response Cambridge.