Friday, July 19, 2024

Construction at Jefferson Park housing Jan. 5 in Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The new Jefferson Park Federal public housing development will offer more than 200 low-rent apartments to people on the Cambridge Housing Authority’s waiting list for affordable housing, but the authority can no longer give priority to people who live or work in Cambridge for all the openings. Instead, 30 percent of available units must be filled without regard to “local preference.”

The change has been seeping into the city’s affordable housing programs, including CHA public housing, at the insistence of state officials. Jefferson Park will be one of the largest developments affected by the policy, with an estimated 240 of its 278 new units expected to be open to people on the waiting list, according to figures provided by CHA executive director Michael Johnston.

The state has opposed local preference because it can lead to racial discrimination, and state agencies have authority to impose their wishes because the state helps finance most affordable housing projects in communities and must approve tenant selection plans, Johnston said.

“Local preferences have historically been abused by white, affluent suburban communities to limit diversity, and the state has been refusing the use of local preferences in most communities,” he said.

In Cambridge, though, local preference hasn’t affected diversity, Johnston said.

Because the city also puts in “substantial resources for the development of affordable housing, we have worked with the city to successfully push back [against the state] and have retained the use of local preferences, but the battle has been fierce and neither the state nor the city are willing to back off their position and we are in the middle,” he said.

“It is important for residents to know that city resources are being used to assist others in their community, especially here in Cambridge, where we can show our use of a local preference has no impact on diversity,” Johnston said.

He said the tenant selection plan for Jefferson Park that mandates a 70 percent-30 percent local preference split is a compromise. “The bottom line is that projects cannot move forward without resources from both the city and the state, and this is the compromise number,” he said.

The authority hasn’t decided how to carry out the policy. “Currently we have the ability to sort the list with or without preferences, so in theory, when you run the list without preferences, you are not excluding those with a local preference, they just are not percolating to the top of the list,” Johnston said. “Bottom line, more thought needs to go into this.”

The waiting list now totals more than 22,000 individual applicants for all CHA programs, and approximately 5,500 have local preference, he said. Those numbers could change because the authority is “in the process of a massive update/purge of the list” that’s expected to be finished by the end of the summer, Johnston said.

The construction of Jefferson Park was split into two projects because of its high financial needs and long building times. The first part – 195 units – is expected to close financially this month and reach “substantial completion” in spring 2026. The remaining units will reach the same point a year later.

Johnston said about 30 percent of tenants who were living in the development before it was torn down are expected to return. That amounts to approximately 38 households; the original development had 175 units, but 57 had been mothballed because of deterioration.

A much smaller CHA project that was upgraded, the Putnam School in East Cambridge, is ready to reopen and accept 23 new tenants. Johnston said the selection plan for that site still mandates 100 percent local preference “but I suspect that Putnam School will fall under the 70-30 local preference” in the end.

In 2020, the authority reluctantly accepted the state’s demand for a 70-30 local preference split at two other rehabilitated public housing developments: The Burns Apartments for seniors and disabled people in North Cambridge and Roosevelt Towers Low-Rise, a family development in East Cambridge.