Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Cambridge is addicted to development. The housing crisis in Cambridge is intrinsically linked to an affordability crisis. Building our way out of this crisis in a city that is already among the densest in the country is missing the mark. The city’s housing agenda is developer-driven and has focused largely on building new housing. Since the abolition of rent control in 1995, there has been no major housing policy that specifically and significantly addresses the rising and out-of-control rents in Cambridge. The average rent in Cambridge is $3,243, which is 70 percent higher than most other cities in the state.

My vision is that any Cambridge resident who wants to stay here will be able to, without being displaced, kicked out or becoming homeless – whether they are low-income, middle-income or the working poor. Unfortunately, Cambridge’s position as one of the nation’s most expensive and inflated housing markets is actively pushing out Black and low-income residents and squeezing out middle-income families. According to the recent Cambridge Community Foundation Equity and Innovation Report, there is a $62,000 income gap between the average Black household and the average for all Cambridge households. Further, between 2010 and 2018, the Black community did not experience the same increases in median household income as other races. 

How do we address this? Increasing affordable housing and pathways to homeownership for low- and middle-income residents is necessary for retaining diversity in our city.

My 50/20 housing goal would increase the amount of affordable housing in Cambridge from to 20 percent from 14 percent and increase our homeownership to 50 percent by 2040 from 35 percent. It is not only about building housing units; given that the price of new affordable housing construction is upward of $900,000 to build one unit, we need to consider options that invest in people and not developers. The city’s commitment for investing in an affordable rental unit is typically a third of the cost, which based on recent estimates would amount to $300,000. Why not offer similar investments for homeownership in Cambridge for residents who are in need?

I would like a more affordable Cambridge and want to see more tenants become owners. I think this is achievable with thoughtful, deliberate and proactive policy planning and execution. Cooperative housing, social housing, community land trusts and down payment programs should be seriously considered and developed in meeting this 50/20 goal. I am proposing that we pilot innovative housing strategies that could be viable options for quicker implementation in addressing the affordability crisis. 

  • Rent stabilization. Let’s model the New York Rent Stabilization policy, in which landlords are incentivized with a property tax break for reducing rents. This program was launched just a few years ago, and today 50 percent of the qualified landlords have taken advantage. I believe that a plan that engages landlords as part of the solution is our best chance to lower rents. This pilot program would need a home rule petition to be approved by the state Legislature. I have spoken with key legislators and affordable housing activists in Boston and Somerville, and they like this program. I believe that if Boston, Cambridge and Somerville are on board with this rent stabilization model, we have a greater chance of seeing it passed.
  • Affordable down payments. I would like an easier pathway for homeownership so families are able to pass down their homes to their children and build equity. The city’s current affordable homeownership program, HomeBridge, does not do either of these things. In fact, you might as well call it a permanent rental program. 

I propose an affordable down payment program in which the city offers a significant down payment – from 30 percent to 40 percent – in the form of a loan that shares ownership of the house. This allows the homeowner to afford a place they would not normally qualify for or have any hopes of owning. Over time, and with the building of equity, the owner may be able to buy out the city’s stake and fully own the property. To discourage flipping, the loan could be fully or partially forgiven after 20 consecutive years.

Most renters are paying much more than the equivalent of a mortgage with the high cost of rents in Cambridge. The average rent in Cambridge is equivalent to the monthly payment of a $600,000 mortgage at today’s rate. What is most challenging for low- and moderate-income families, including those with Section 8 vouchers, is lack of money for a down payment. This housing strategy leverages city funds to build stable housing and could be a game changer in addressing the acute wealth gap that exists for many Black, Brown and low-income residents in Cambridge.

Nicola Williams, candidate for Cambridge City Council