Sunday, May 26, 2024

More affordable housing is demanded at a People’s Housing Rally held June 17, 2021, at Cambridge’s City Hall. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge is getting around $3.5 million to spend next year on affordable housing, programs for lower-income people and community development – issues of intense interest to residents. But as few as two people attended and spoke at a Wednesday hearing seeking direction on how the city would spend the money.

That’s in sharp contrast to the city’s participatory budgeting process, which lets residents vote every year on how to spend $1 million on projects from murals to tree plantings. Participatory budgeting gets a publicity push from June to December, along with a dedicated website. According to the city, last year more than 8,700 people voted from among more than 1,320 ideas submitted by hundreds of community members – all to use less than one-third of the money coming from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the 2024 financial year.

The federal grants play “a very crucial role in a very large number of individuals and families in the city,” said Robert Keller, an associate planner at the Community Development Department, but interest is lackluster. “Public interest varies from year to year” but is usually limited to questions about how the city spends the funding, rather than ideas on where to put it.

Members of the public are cited as commenting in only three of the 11 past years for which plans are available. There was a substantial amount of participation in 2021, when the city was required to develop a plan to guide the next five years of grants, according to a report.

Information for joining Wednesday was not easily available. The city’s calendar displayed the wrong Zoom meeting ID; a correct one was on a “News and Announcements” posting on the CDD website.

Aside from meetings being posted on the city’s website, Keller said, public comment is solicited through notices in the Cambridge Chronicle, a newspaper owned by news giant Gannett that has not had staff in Cambridge since the summer. The outreach “is consistent with HUD guidelines,” Keller said to emailed questions, declining to address to what degree public comment directs spending.

Richard Harding, a former School Committee member and board member of Just A Start, a nonprofit housing developer, said there is “a long-standing city problem around communication to the residents, particularly the most vulnerable residents in the city.”

Posting information on the city’s website “only works for some residents, and those residents often aren’t people of color or people who have other barriers to communication,” Harding said.

Grants to be spent

The four grants summarized Wednesday are the Community Development Block Grant, the Home Investment Partnership Act grant, the Emergency Solutions Grant and the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS grant.

The roughly $3.5 million in spending excludes the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS grant, which is being administered by the city on behalf of all of Middlesex and Essex counties (with Lowell assisting in Essex). This grant totals around $2.4 million. Cambridge has used it for housing placement, assisted living and housing expenses.

The Community Development Block Grant can be used to benefit low- to moderate-income people, fight poor housing conditions and urgently address problems that threaten the health or welfare of the community where other resources are not available. In the past, Cambridge has used this grant to acquire, preserve and develop affordable housing, provide legal services for housing issues and for job training, among other uses.

The Emergency Solutions Grant focuses on funding shelters and rehousing people. Cambridge has used this funding for data collection on homelessness and street outreach.

The Home grant – according to HUD, “Home” is nonsensically an acronym for “Home Investment Partnerships Programs” – is used for affordable housing and partnerships with developers.

Impact of the funds

The city has created, rehabilitated and preserved more than 1,700 affordable-housing units with funding that includes the CBDG and Home programs, according to Keller’s presentation. CBDGs have also been used to help more than 400 small businesses operate, become more accessible and more visually appealing, and to help 50,000 people with public services.

A draft action plan for 2024 funds will be available to view Friday, Keller said. Comments on that plan will be accepted until May 19 by sending an email to [email protected]. A second public comment session will be held 5:30 p.m. April 26. Keller said it will be advertised next week.

Relevant comments will be included in the final plan, Keller said, though the commenter’s name can be redacted if they want. Previous plans can be found on the CDD website.