Finch Cambridge is a 100 percent affordable apartment building near Alewife. (Image: Finch Cambridge)

Forty percent of people have experienced bias from living in inclusionary housing – the few affordable-rate homes scattered among market-rate homes in a building or complex – that they feel has to do with their income, race or gender, or having kids, according to a survey presented Tuesday to Cambridge officials.

Forty-nine percent of inclusionary-unit respondents among the 430 residents surveyed said they had not experienced bias, though, and there was an overall sense of belonging among them despite any incidents, with 93 percent of owners and 78 percent of renters saying they felt at home in their building or complex.

Still, the survey findings worried city councillors, who said the data bore out issues they’d been hearing for years.

“I was not surprised,” said E. Denise Simmons, the councillor chairing the Housing Committee hearing where the data was presented. “I have heard [inclusionary residents say they] felt like they were a child of a lesser god.” Other councillors and vice mayor Alanna Mallon also told of being contacted by individual residents over the years about problems.

Bias most commonly took the form of people acting “as if they were better than you” and showing less courtesy and respect “a few times a year up to almost every day,” said Alexandra Curley, a member of the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities study team from Case Western University in Cleveland. That’s despite inclusionary renters and especially owners being a highly educated group, with 62 percent of owners surveyed having either a master’s degree or another advanced degree.

People in inclusionary units also often live in Cambridge longer than the market-rate tenants or owners who might look down on them. The average length of residence among inclusionary renters was 26 years, and for owners, 19 years.

Throughout the survey, respondents talked about fear of retaliation and eviction, and some talked about experiencing it, “getting an eviction notice as soon as they report a problem,” Curley said. With that fear as a backdrop, “we didn’t hear from anybody who indicated that they had reported an incidence of bias that it was resolved in a appropriate way.”

The bright side

The problems also persisted despite a rule set by the city from the start of the inclusionary program in 1998: Its units are to be indistinguishable in quality and location from market-rate homes, and there now being more than 1,100 such homes occupied or being built citywide, according to the Community Development Department. Under current provisions, 20 percent of residential floor area in projects of 10 or more units must be set aside for low- and moderate- income tenants or moderate- and middle- income homebuyers.

If there was a bright side, it’s that the study is being done at all, said the Case Western Team. Despite there being inclusionary programs in several U.S. cities, there is little effort to look into how bias and discrimination affects tenants.

“Most cities are having the conversation whether to have inclusionary housing,” said Mark Joseph, of the study team. “Cambridge is way out front in terms of your percentage and your requirement of the units. And you’re probably familiar with having to compare yourself to yourself.”

Because there were no other bias studies that could be found, “the request from the City of Cambridge immediately stood out to us,” Joseph said.

Property management problem

Cambridge officials and residents speaking during public comment confirmed for the Case Western team that the problems they identified were long-lasting, including an inability to hold property management teams responsible for complaints whether because of frequent turnover that made training hard or because some managers just don’t care. Among renters, 59 percent of bias was experienced from property managers and only 32 percent from fellow tenants, the survey said.

Some examples from the Tuesday conversation: getting grief from property management over a request to hold a yard sale in a community room that’s more usually used for wine-and-cheese events, or being required to pay rent online – and then being assessed a fee for doing so. Because the number of inclusionary households will by definition be a minority, managers “are not going to put a lot of time or energy into really understanding they have different needs,” said Michael Johnston, executive director at the Cambridge Housing Authority.

It can also be hard to escape a bad situation. Program rules can discourage residents from taking jobs that will nudge them past an income threshold and force them out of their home, Simmons said.

The discussion and work will go on, Simmons said.

Wine tastings in the common room

Among public commenters was Valerie Bonds, who noted that property-manager trainings that were being suggested “have been asked for for five decades [as] we have heard similar stories, seen similar reports, yet this type of behavior continues.” She pointed to the failure of tenant councils and tenant associations to intervene.

Inclusionary resident Kathy Watkins said she was also “a little cynical” that anything would change, and urged the City Council to explore other forms of housing that gave tenants more say over how a building is run, and maybe found ways to encourage better, longer-term relationships.

“When I first moved into an inclusionary housing unit, I tried to participate in some of the building activities and get to know people. But people move out so quickly that I just gave up,” Watkins said. Activities put on by management companies can also be off-putting, especially to lower-income tenants. “They’re just not something that interests me, a lot of these wine tastings. Most of the events they put on are trying to sell you things.”


This post was updated Dec. 18, 2022, to correct that Finch Cambridge is a 100 percent affordable apartment building, not one with inclusionary units.