Affordable Housing Opportunities in all of parts of Cambridge

A map of the current affordable housing units in Cambridge supported by the Community Preservation Act

I believe that the concentration of affordable housing in certain neighborhoods in Cambridge is increasing social and economic disparities, and this is not something that the City Council should tolerate. In keeping with my promise to be an advocate for the   placement of affordable housing all throughout the city, I gave the following testimony in Cambridge City Council requesting the City to investigate the possibility of buying the Episcopal Divinity School site on Brattle St. after their relocation to New York City: 

“Robert F. Kennedy said “Some see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not. I’ve always been a great admirer of Bobby Kennedy, particularly his absolute commitment to economic justice that I have tried emulate in my elected career.

There is no doubt that there is a critical need for affordable housing in this this City. I’ve heard it in this Council Chamber over and over again for almost 30 years. Yet for all the work we have done on the issue the problem continues to get worse. But if you look at a map of the City and see where we’ve successfully built affordable units it is a fact that this effort has been localized in the eastern and northern areas of the City and the Harvard Sq area has not done its fair share.

We increasingly face the risk of Cambridge becoming a City of the very rich and the very poor and we all know where, in that scenario, all political and economic power will reside. I, for one, am unwilling to allow that to happen to the City I love. We need to commit to building all types of affordable housing, That means housing including single occupancy spaces and middle income housing, particularly housing for eligible Cambridge residents, families, starter apartments for young adults, veterans, homeless and seniors who have been displaced as well as immigrants and refugees.

Since I introduced this order, I’ve been dismayed at the comments I’ve heard in opposition. Loss of green space, historic preservation, density, traffic, cost and Lesley College. And all the knee jerk excuses are not based on any idea what I had in mind when I proposed this order. As Elaine DeRosa put it last week during public comment, when it comes to affordable housing it is never the right place, it is never the right size and it will only happen “when pigs fly”. Sadly, this reminds me of the excuses used by residents of this same area some 20 years ago against the Commonwealth Day School. In the opinion of many at that time these excuses were nothing more than fig leaves for the real problem – elitism, classism and racism. I thought we were beyond that point as a society in Cambridge but I’m afraid we’re beginning to see a repeat performance.

Recently the City acquired Vail Court buy eminent domain for affordable housing despite pleas by many in the neighborhood to make the site available for open space because of the total lack on open space in that area. Contrast this with the Episcopal Divinity School site which is surrounded by open space including Cambridge Common, Longfellow Park and the Charles River front. Surely if this Council put such a high priority on affordable housing over open space in the Vail Court neighborhood where open space is non existent, could we do anything less in a neighborhood where open space abounds. No area of the City has a right to special treatment.

Let’s be very clear, there is not a more ideal site for affordable housing in all of Cambridge than this site – located in the heart of the City, providing access to public transportation, recreation and open space, and retail. It is exactly what we as a Council profess we want for an affordable housing location. Urban designers have said that we can accomplish this through a well thought out plan of adaptive

rehabilitation, saving the open space and maintain the historical structures. As for density and traffic, they also say that a housing component for this site will actually reduce density and traffic.

As for costs, not only do we have the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to assist in this project, we are also dealing with the Episcopal Divinity School with its stated mission of economic and social justice.

And we’re also dealing with Lesley College and their ownership of 7 condominium units at 99 Brattle St which it quietly purchased in 2009 for $25.5-million with the right to purchase the additional 5 condominium units. Like the Episcopal Divinity School, Lesley College has also professed its commitment to social and economic justice. In fact, Lesley College’s new President, Jeff Weiss, said, at the end of his inaugural address just 3 months ago “Let us never forget that we are bound together in our common passion for the reward, nothing more and nothing less than creating a more just, equitable, and rewarding society for all.” Just as we were able to work with the Archdiocese of Boston, which has a similar commitment to social and economic justice, and made its buildings available for affordable housing without concern to its return of investment, I fully expect that these two Cambridge non-profits will also step up to the plate to make this project possible.

No one expects this to be easy, but it must be done – nothing less than the future of our City as a diverse place to live and work is as stake. And in that vein, I’d like to end with another quote by Bobby Kennedy, “ Just because we cannot see clearly the end of the road, that is no reason for not setting out on the essential journey. On the contrary, great change dominates the world, and unless we move with change we will become its victims.”

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