Wednesday, July 24, 2024

An apartment tower in Cambridge’s Inman Square must wait for renovations, Homeowners Rehab Inc. says. (Image: Google)

Cambridge affordable-housing developers have built or renovated hundreds of units for low-income tenants in recent years. But the pace is slowing, delaying improvements for many occupants of buildings that need work.

The reason: ever-increasing demand for a limited supply of two essential and linked funding sources that developers need to pay for the projects. One of the resources, tax-exempt “private activity” state bonds, falls under an annual cap. Getting an allocation of bonds qualifies a developer to get federal low-income housing tax credits, which can be sold to banks and other investors to pump cash into a project.

“Massachusetts has seen an unprecedented demand for private activity bonds in the last couple of years,” Cambridge Housing Authority executive director Michael Johnston said. The state agencies that distribute the bonds, and thus the federal tax credits, “have gotten to the point where they are not able to distribute all the bonds they would like to fund in a year, requiring projects to wait multiple years.”

Two tenants who live in low-income housing, one owned by a nonprofit agency and the other by the Cambridge Housing Authority, recently contacted Cambridge Day separately to draw attention to problems in their buildings. Trudi Goodman, a tenant at 1221 Cambridge St., Inman Square, for 28 years, said the plumbing and electrical systems in the 116-unit building were flawed, the roof leaked during downpours and occupants were plagued with mice, bedbugs, cockroaches and other pests.

The Cambridge Housing Authority’s R.C. Weaver Apartments on Clifton Street, North Cambridge. (Photo:

In North Cambridge, Anne Kreider, a tenant in a small public housing development on Clifton Street, said the combination air conditioner and heating units sporadically leaked, sending liquid flooding into apartments; the heat sometimes came on during the summer; and air purifiers occasionally belched dark smoke.

The Cambridge Street building is owned by Homeowners Rehab Inc., one of the city’s two major nonprofit developers of low-income housing. Executive director Sara Barcan acknowledged that “this building does have some problems – plumbing is one” and that “it needs a major renovation.” But HRI is not ready even to apply for financing, she said.

“To do the work that really needs to be done in that building will take many millions of dollars,” Barcan said. That requires a supply of federal low-income housing tax credits that “is the only tool we have,” Barcan said. Despite the “excellent system” established by state agencies to help fund affordable housing, “we have such a high need in Massachusetts that there is a queue to get all the resources together. In any year there is more demand than resources.”

While HRI waits to get in line, “what we’re doing is to invest every dollar we can in continuing to keep the building in the best shape we can until we can do a major renovation,” Barcan said.

Heating and cooling

Cambridge Housing Authority’s R.C. Weaver Apartments on Clifton Street are less than half a mile from the huge Jefferson Park Federal public housing project it plans to build, replacing 175 deteriorating units and adding 103 more apartments for an estimated $213 million. In contrast, CHA has no firm plans to modernize the 20-unit Weaver, which houses elderly and younger disabled tenants, though it intends to rehabilitate the building.

Repair records for the central heating and cooling system, an energy-efficient heat pump model installed in 2014, show 21 complaints of leaks into apartments from 2018 to July this year. Most occurred in summer months and some were severe.

“Water pouring out of the A/C,” said one report in July 2018. “Water is running down the wall,” another complaint said the next month. The records also included several complaints of unwanted heat, most in 2018. “Air conditioner is blowing hot,” one tenant reported in early September of that year.

Kreider said that when her unit started providing heat instead of cooling, a maintenance worker told her the central condenser that controls the system was set to turn on the heat if the air temperature fell below 70 degrees, and that employees couldn’t change it. She ended up turning off the air conditioning at night and buying a portable unit, she said.

Johnston said there was nothing wrong with the system. The leaks occur because “there is a condensation drain in each [apartment] unit that can clog over time. The drains are on a cleaning program, but that does not guarantee against leaks and failure,” he said.

Commonly used system

As for heat coming on during the summer, Johnston said the system switches to heating mode if the outside temperature falls below 65. “If the resident is too hot in the [apartment], they can switch off the unit and open a window,” Johnston said. But Kreider’s apartment, like some others in the building, has no cross-ventilation because all the windows are on one side. Nighttime temperatures can fall below 65 during the summer, triggering hot air instead of air conditioning; Cambridge temperatures were in the low 60s during the nights after the heat wave in late July.

Johnston said the building’s type of HVAC system is “commonly used and there is nothing special about the units at Weaver. They are the same as we installed at St. Paul’s (a modernization of St. Paul’s Residence, a 24-unit single-room-occupancy building near St. Paul’s Church near Harvard Square), just an older model.”

He added that landlords have no obligation to cool an apartment to a certain level the way they are required to provide heat.

Doing better than some

The most recent annual federal inspection of Weaver found no serious violations. And a consultant’s 2015 assessment of Weaver’s physical condition with a focus on energy use and environmental impact found that the building “has been well maintained in recent years and appears to be in overall good condition.” Still, the building has no sprinkler system and the roof was in “fair” condition in 2015. (Though sprinklers are not required in the current building, they would be if Weaver is modernized).

The housing authority wants to rehabilitate the building. “For the past several years CHA has hoped to establish a firm schedule for modernizing Weaver, but CHA’s ability to set a schedule has been impacted by the high demand for private-activity bonds,” Johnston said. The authority’s most recent annual plan says the authority could start the process of finding funding at the end of this year. The estimated cost is $12 million.

Johnston said having two state agencies allocating bonds for multifamily projects – MassHousing and MassDevelopment – can make the process more difficult for developers such as CHA that “are trying to move multiple projects through the pipeline,” because “both bond issuing agencies want to make sure to spread the resources as widely and as broadly [as possible]. This has meant that in general CHA’s projects are moving more slowly than we would want.”

Still, Johnston said, CHA “is in a better place than other housing authorities competing for bond funds, because two-thirds of our portfolio has already been modernized.”

Forced to be patient

Tenants such as Goodman and Kreider will continue to wait. Goodman got a meeting with Barcan and city officials in May after she sent a letter in March to city councillors and others in city government describing conditions in the building. “This building is literally falling apart,” the letter said. Goodman said HRI “is not maintaining the building in an ongoing way.”

The result of the meeting with Barcan? HRI agreed to hold another meeting, this one with residents of the building “to make sure other residents [besides Goodman] are familiar” with the management company responsible for maintenance, Wingate Management Co., Barcan said. “They are onsite every day and respond to every complaint.” Barcan said Goodman had requested the meeting with residents.

Goodman agreed that Wingate “is working hard, but it’s too much for them,” she said. At the meeting with Barcan, she said, “they asked us to be patient. I told them people are terrified to leave their apartments. They’re afraid they’ll be flooded.”

Kreider continues to catalog what she sees as problems at Weaver Apartments. Like Goodman, she believes that CHA isn’t maintaining the building adequately, including not cleaning the hallways; Johnston disputes this vehemently. Kreider has also complained repeatedly about neighbors smoking, in violation of CHA’s smoking ban; Johnston said management workers, who are offsite, have responded to her complaints but found no evidence of smoking.

On July 25, as heat mounted, Kreider reported: “Like clockwork, my A/C just spewed water and gave up the ghost.” A worker told her “it probably wouldn’t be attended to for at least a day,” she said in an email.