Waitlist of 21,000 people for affordable housing got personal as councillors considered tree law
It’s a figure that advocates often cite to illustrate the need for low-cost housing in high-rent Cambridge: the 21,000 households waiting for an apartment in a Cambridge Housing Authority development or for a Section 8 rental assistance voucher. Now the public housing agency has published the photos and stories of dozens of those applicants in an effort to “put a face and voice” to the numbers. The online brochure is called “Stories of the Can’t Wait List: Who are the 21,000?”
Some examples: a middle-aged disabled man living on “a very small monthly amount” from Social Security Insurance that “is not enough to live on, save for retirement or to pay rent.” A homeless person “living in a sober house” with nine other addicts in recovery. A family that endured domestic violence and has lived in shelters since January 2020. “A few times we were not able to find shelter or transportation to shelter,” a parent says. “We’ve had to sleep in parks, abandoned buildings and even on the courthouse steps.”
The authority emailed the publication June 25 to the nine city councillors and City Manager Louis A. DePasquale – certainly not an audience that would need convincing of the importance of affordable housing. So why now?
The authority’s executive director, Michael Johnston, said he’d been thinking for several years about showing the “real people” on the waiting list, but staffing made it possible just recently. There was a more specific reason, too, he said. City councillor Quinton Zondervan had proposed on June 21 an amendment to the city’s tree protection ordinance that threatened recent Affordable Housing Overlay zoning regulations easing requirements for affordable housing developers, Johnston believed. The amendment would have required the city to help affordable housing builders “ensure maximum canopy protection and maximum canopy expansion” in new affordable developments.
That was better for CHA than previous unsuccessful efforts to make affordable housing projects subject to the tree protection ordinance. The ordinance requires property owners to get a permit to remove most trees over a certain size and to pay a fee if they don’t or can’t plant enough replacement trees.
Cambridge has been losing tree canopy, exacerbating the impact of excessive heat from climate change, and councillors have tightened requirements to slow the loss. That can conflict with the plans of low-income housing developers who have little leeway on time and finances. The affordable housing builders had welcomed the new Affordable Housing Overlay, which essentially guaranteed zoning approval for projects that met minimum requirements and promised to reduce delays.
Acting to change an amendment
Johnston sent an email to councillors on June 21 opposing the tree protection amendment, saying “this will create nothing but confusion and will open the door to litigation, as any project opponent could challenge a building permit alleging efforts for maximum canopy were not made.”
Even more specific, CHA intends to tear down and rebuild the 177-unit Jefferson Park Federal public housing development and add 100 additional units there. Critics have decried plans that call for cutting down 146 trees, mostly to install underground utilities; keep 56; and plant 194 new trees.
“Basically, we saw [Zondervan’s amendment] as an avenue to weaken the Affordable Housing Overlay and in turn, possibly jeopardize CHA’s redevelopment of Jefferson Park,” Johnston said in an email Thursday.
The council was scheduled to adjourn for most of the summer after the meeting of June 28. CHA sent the online version of the “Can’t Wait List” to councillors the Friday before that final meeting. Although it was not yet in print, “I felt it was appropriate to get it out before the council went on recess and wanted it in the hands of councillors before discussion of councillor Zondervan’s proposed amendment to the tree ordinance,” Johnston said.
Opposition at Jefferson Park
Whether or not the publication turned the tide, Zondervan proposed a different amendment June 28, one that CHA and the city’s two other major affordable housing developers could support, according to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who helped broker the compromise. The new amendment allows but doesn’t require builders of affordable housing to apply for money from a fund made up of fees charged to private property owners under the tree ordinance that can help the low-income housing developers “increase canopy protection and canopy expansion.”
Jefferson Park still faces opposition from some neighborhood residents and from tenants in the development who want to keep trees. Some faulted CHA for removing all but five trees when the authority rebuilt Jefferson Park State several years ago. Referring to that project, “there are definitely some things we can improve on,” said one Jefferson Park planner at a community meeting in March.
Neighbors said they are worried that parking will be squeezed on adjacent streets because the new Jefferson Park Federal project will provide four off-street parking spaces for every 10 units – the requirement under the Affordable Housing Overlay, according to a CHA representative at a community meeting in March. The overlay doesn’t explicitly mandate any parking ratio but does require a developer who doesn’t use supply four spaces for every 10- units to submit to the city a “transportation demand management program” designed to reduce traffic. The plan must offer amenities such as free subway passes and real-time public transit information.
Besides the parking objections, one Jefferson Park Federal tenant, James Williamson, said he didn’t welcome the additional low-income units planned for the new development. “An additional 120 units is not good for the people who live here,” he said. “It’s a greater concentration of poverty.”
A decade to get in
Thousands will almost certainly remain on the “Can’t Wait List.” Cambridge gives priority to people who live or work here, and to veterans; only 5,000 of the total claim to be in that category, Johnston said.
Maybe 500 low-income units and vouchers become available every year, Johnston said. At that rate, it would take 10 years for a Cambridge resident on the list to be offered an apartment or voucher, and 42 years to serve everyone on the list, he said – and that’s if no one new applies, Johnston said.
Johnston spent much of his 30 years at CHA deciding which applicants qualified for a unit, and sometimes he represented the authority in disputes when unsuccessful applicants appealed the decision, he said in an email. At one appeals hearing, an applicant who had been told he could not prove his residency in Cambridge was asked where he lived and answered: “‘Under a tree in Harvard Square.’”
The man gave the same answer when asked where he lived the previous night and and previous month. “At the end of the hearing, the hearing officer asked if there was anything else that the individual wished to add and he simply stated, ‘People live in homes, not under trees,’” Johnston said.