Friday, June 14, 2024

The Cambridge Housing Authority’s LBJ Apartments in Cambridgeport. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

The Cambridge Housing Authority has turned down a request from the group representing its tenants to help fund a local rental-assistance program that could serve immigrants now legally frozen out of CHA housing programs. The group, the Alliance of Cambridge Tenants, hoped the authority could pay for the aid with earnings from its consultant work outside Cambridge.

CHA executive director Michael Johnston said the agency earns a “small additional markup” above staff costs on its outside work. “The consulting keeps talented staff here at the CHA, shares our bench strength with other agencies throughout the state and is in line with our mission of preserving and creating affordable housing. Any cash left on the table at the end of the day goes to CHA’s current/future redevelopment needs,” he said. “So no, we would not be interested in committing them to creating housing for undocumented households.”

The federal government bars undocumented immigrants and others such as people awaiting a decision on asylum applications from housing supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Massachusetts has no such restrictions in state-funded housing. But in recent years, CHA has converted its approximately 660 units of state-funded housing to federal public housing to take advantage of federal programs that can help fund the ambitious rehabilitation of its entire public housing portfolio.

In September, most remaining state-funded rental vouchers that CHA could hand out were transferred to central state control, according to ACT. “Cambridge has no resources for those [immigrants] who don’t have HUD status,” said Susan Hegel of Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services, the attorney for ACT.

Johnston said that “no one has been denied’’ housing because of immigration status since CHA converted its state-funded public housing to federal housing. Families can qualify if at least one family member meets HUD requirements, although they must pay slightly higher rent. In the past CHA would award one of its state housing vouchers to households “that are 100 percent undocumented,” he said. “These are few and far between, and when I ask staff if they have denied a household because of immigration status, the answer is always, ‘no.’”

It’s not known whether immigrants who don’t meet HUD requirements simply don’t apply. It’s also not clear what impact the transfer of state rent vouchers to central control will have on the policy of using state vouchers for applicants where no family member meets federal immigration requirements.

A Somerville model

ACT said in a written comment on CHA’s annual plan for 2024 that its proposed local rent aid program could follow the model of a voucher program in Somerville – a program that Somerville is paying the Cambridge housing agency to administer. ACT also estimated that CHA has a balance of almost $10 million from outside work, citing figures in the annual plan.

In a written answer, CHA observed pointedly that Somerville city funds are paying for that city’s vouchers and added: “We would definitely consider partnering with the city of Cambridge if funds were made available.”

Asked whether CHA has talked to Cambridge city officials about cooperating to start a local voucher program, Johnston referred questions to city officials: “Since CHA is not part of the city of Cambridge, I don’t want to get into details, but will say there have been discussions.”

The City Council unanimously approved a measure on March 6 asking the city manager to confer with city agencies and the housing authority “on the feasibility of municipally funded housing vouchers and report back to the City Council in a timely manner.” The policy order cited a local municipal voucher program in Boston and the then-planned Somerville program.

Awaiting a response

Jeremy Warnick, a spokesperson for the city government, said: “At this point, internal discussions have taken place about the feasibility of such a program and a response will be submitted by the city in response to the order.” Warnick also said a city program that started in 2020 during the pandemic offers up to six months of subsidies to households whose rent, mortgage and condo fees, or cooperative carrying charges, amount to more than 35 percent of their income.

The Housing Stabilization Program is for Cambridge residents affected by the pandemic whose household income is less than 80 percent of the area median and who have “liquid assets” less than $75,000. Homeowners must also have bought their property as part of an affordable-homeownership program. Warnick could not say how many people the program has helped; the city is still accepting applications, he said.

Another change

In other comments on the housing authority’s 2024 plan, the tenants group asked CHA not to change a rule that allows tenants and voucher holders to deduct medical expenses and child care costs from their income if the expenses exceed 3 percent of their income. The authority wants to increase the threshold for deductions to 10 percent of income. The deductions affect the rent paid by tenants.

The change “could have a substantial impact on elderly and disabled tenants,” the comment said. The tenants’ group wants CHA to analyze the effect of the change before adopting it and discuss its findings with ACT and its lawyers.

The authority responded: “We do plan to move forward with this change and reiterate that it will be phased in over multiple years.”