Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Cambridge recently ranked first in “best cities” to live in America, according to review website Niche. “Living in Cambridge offers residents an urban feel and most residents rent their homes. In Cambridge there are a lot of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and parks. Many young professionals live in Cambridge,” Niche wrote.

On the other hand, we needed to score higher in categories such as weather, cost of living and housing. According to Niche, our median home value is $888,000, compared with the national $244,900. Our median rent is $2,388, compared with the national average of $1,163.

Under the surface, though, there is an exodus of essential medical workers from the city. In the past three years, I noticed five medical doctors I know practicing at Mount Auburn Hospital deciding to move away or retire. Because I had to cope with the care gap it created, I could not help asking one of the doctors why. “Dr. F” told me it was an obvious decision for many doctors: On the one hand, medical doctors’ earnings in Massachusetts ranked 48 among all states; on the other, we live in one of the most expensive housing markets. If one doctor can earn double the money in New Jersey and pay less for housing, it is an easy decision for them to move.

In short, exorbitant housing and rental prices have driven away our doctors and possibly nurses, teachers and city workers. We could be left with many critical jobs vacant, and if there is one thing the Covid pandemic taught us it is that America’s best livable city cannot be without essential workers. We may have ignored that our essential workers are some of the most hurt by the affordable-housing shortage. As income stagnates, our essential workers are being priced out of our city, which needs their crucial services.

Therefore, I am calling for developing high-quality workforce housing in Cambridge to support everyday working individuals and families such as our firefighters, grocery store workers, teachers, police and medical staff. In the current affordable-housing paradigm, they earn too much to qualify for low-income housing but are severely cost burdened by market-rate rents.

Moreover, our City Council should commission a focused study and regular monitoring of housing affordability for essential occupations such as teachers, medical staff, firefighters, police and child care workers. In creating such a workforce housing program, we should uphold zoning requirements such as parking and setbacks, as these are necessary for our essential workforce’s high quality of living. The success of such a program can borrow from policymaking for inclusionary zoning.

Our workforce housing should ensure energy efficiency. We should promote our workforce homes with solar panels, Energy Star appliances and air-source heat pumps that can heat or cool the house. We should build fast electric-vehicle charging stations around our city. Our competent government should implement such a program with high priority and streamline the application process. We should identify critical occupations that need such supportive housing through careful study. We can retain the most livable city through the swift and decisive implementation of workforce housing.

To attract our essential workforce to stay, we should also maintain a solid community support infrastructure such as walkable bars, restaurants, coffee shops and parks. These are elements that made Cambridge a tremendous, livable city. Any city policies or initiatives that do away with these elements will hurt our chances of retaining our essential workforce to live and work here. Our preparedness for another pandemic or natural disaster depends on our resolve to support our workforce. 

Nothing can substitute the togetherness resulting from the widespread embedding of our essential workforce in our communities.

Hao Wang, candidate for Cambridge City Council