Cambridge Housing: Renovate or Replace?

CAMBRIDGE — What do you see when you travel through the compact neighborhoods of Cambridge? Little houses, big houses, and every now and then a house that is literally falling down. Sometimes an entire row of houses in bad repair—damage and rot to the siding, a hole in the roof. What do you see in that rotting house? Is it neighborhood blight, or a historic home in need of some loving care?

There is a kind of revolutionary war going on in the wards of Cambridge right now. One camp points to worn, sad-looking housing and calls it historic; the other calls it blight and wants to remove it. The question is, which side is the “right” side, and who is going to win this war?

At an early-spring County Council meeting, a name popped up in connection with a large number of tax-sale houses changing hands. Jim Chaney took possession of a number of those homes, and had plans to pick up many more. Soon afterwards, we received a call at the Banner office from a local resident who wanted to remain anonymous, fearing reprisal from the city if the resident’s name was printed.
The resident pointed out the designation of the Pine Street Historic district, and was distraught over the city’s policy of selling these houses to Mr. Chaney and allowing him to tear them down. “They should be restored, and preserved as part of the architectural heritage of Cambridge!” the resident told us.

We tracked down Mr. Chaney and asked for an interview, and he was happy to talk to us about his renovation plans, and the work he’s done so far with the so-called blighted housing in Cambridge’s neighborhoods.

Please note, going forward, that Jim Chaney is only one contractor buying tax sale housing and replacing it. There are a number of others, either fixing up housing or building new, to sell or rent.

Jim told us his story: “I started years ago working in Cambridge. Back in 2000 as a matter of fact. I bought a big bunch of properties from a local bank that was foreclosing on them. Of course, I started fixing them up.

“As time went on, I specialized in buying bigger lots of property, multiple properties at one time. I thought, ‘Some of these houses are just not worth fixing. It costs way too much money, they have no insulation, seven foot ceilings, 12 by 12 rooms at best, in a lot of cases.’ You’re talking six to twelve hundred square foot houses that were built years ago. Sometimes things outlive the years for us.

“I finally got with the city and said, ‘I would like to start putting in some new houses.’ Of course, we had a lot of rounds to go there. I would battle back and forth. We finally came to an understanding. That’s how we got to this point.”

To understand the problem, a trip back in history must be made. In the 1940s and 1950s, and earlier, Cambridge was a social and industrial hub in the region. Delmarva’s largest employer, the Phillips Packing Company, was located right in town, and it directly employed thousands. Cambridge was a boom town, and neighborhoods were filled with “factory housing” as it’s called, homes built to accommodate Phillips’ employees, and for the myriad of associated trades supported by Phillips.

In many cases the houses were put up quickly, and as cheaply as possible. When the packing company closed its doors in the early ‘60s, a long economic downhill slide started. Many of the blighted houses we see in Cambridge now were directly affected by that economic crash. Some changed hands, some simply fell empty, and have been for decades.

To give a good example of the positive effects of his efforts, Jim takes me down to the 500 block of Cedar Street, between Race and Pine. A few years ago this block was lined with rotting houses. “This was actually a really bad street, one of the worst ones in Cambridge,” Jim tells me. “In this block, there were shootings and stabbings. There was a bar called Chat and Chew that the city finally shut down and had torn down, it was in such deplorable condition.

“When I bought the properties that were on this street, a lot of them, I went to the city and said, ‘I want to tear them down.’ They worked with me on it. We got them torn down, talked about getting some new sidewalks, better lighting. We got rid of all the blighted houses, built new houses, put the sidewalks in, new streetlights. You’ve got a nice street people want to live on now. What more could you ask for? There’s no crime on this street anymore, no problems whatsoever.”

Mr. Chaney makes a good point. Standing on the 500 block of Cedar Street on an early summer evening, there are folks walking down the new sidewalk. A young woman pushes a baby carriage, kids play in front of the homes. The houses Jim built are simple, to be sure, but they’re new and solid. Jim tells me he tore down five houses on this block, all beyond help.

“They had poor electric, sixty amp systems. The plumbing’s outdated. They only sit twelve inches off the ground on piers, and they’re very expensive to heat. If you’re going to cool them, you have to have window units and those units are not efficient at all. There’s no insulation in them. They’re painted with lead paint. The pipes were soldered. Do you really want children in those houses?”

Jim talked about trying to restore the houses in his early days, and is quick to point out that some of them can be saved. “But the vast majority… After spending $50,000 (on renovation), you can’t go up and down the stairs. You think you’re going to fall. Everything’s wrong about the house. I’ve just put in fifty, plus what I paid for it. I could tear it down and build a new house that had three bedrooms, two baths, central heat, central air, no lead, a nice kitchen and laundry room, 200 amp electrical service.

“It’s more cost effective, you have a sellable product. You have a safe house that is just a better improvement for the neighborhood. How can you argue the point?”

We remind Jim of the protests of people hoping to restore all the houses in the historic district, who don’t want to see new replacements.
“If you have a better answer then I do, then bring it to me,” Jim answers. “They’ve been talking for twenty years, ‘We need to do something. Where’s the local commissioner for this ward?’ Who, by the way, when I went to ask for a letter of support from the city, did not want to give it to me. ‘We need to do a study.’ That’s the answer to everything. They’re always doing studies and nobody’s doing anything. I’m catching flack because I’m doing something about it. If you don’t like what I’m doing about it then jump in and help me.”

Gage Thomas served as one of the City Commissioners when the issue of remove and replace came up, and he was supportive of Mr. Chaney’s efforts. “I think what Jim’s doing is a great initiative to reverse the deterioration of our neighborhoods,” said then-Commissioner Thomas. “Foreclosed properties, blighted properties, properties beyond repair—if you remove and replace those properties it will increase interest in the neighborhood. People will see the work being done and think, ‘This is the time to buy.’ Also, you’ll have other builders saying, ‘This guy did it, I’ll follow his lead.’

“The object is to get these houses back on the tax rolls,” says Commissioner Thomas, “and not have them rot away while the city maintains them.”

At the time of our interview, the ward in question fell into Commissioner Frank Cooke’s district, and he was unafraid to voice his opposition to Jim Chaney’s proposals and policy of housing replacement. “One of the unique features of Cambridge is its inventory of late 19th and early 20th century housing stock. Remove it and we might as well be Levittown,” he said in a letter of dissent to the City Council. Mr. Cooke was against the policy of selling properties en masse to a single developer, a situation in these days of tight mortgage lending certain to lead to an increase in the number of rental units rather than homeowner-occupied houses.

“I would assume that they are offering to purchase most remaining properties perhaps for the cost of foreclosure, an almost giveaway,” said Mr. Cooke in his letter to Council. “If that is the case, why not auction all remaining properties using a national auction house? Why not offer the same deal to citizens, including policemen, firemen, and teachers, who would agree to fix them up and to live in them?”
Dispensation of the blighted and abandoned housing in Cambridge falls to the Dorchester County government, which has agreed to sell parcels of houses to Mr. Chaney and sees it as one way to reverse the decay of the city’s neighborhoods.

“There are areas in town,” said County Council President Ricky Travers, “where we can have the older housing re-habbed. We have some key areas—the 500 block of Pine Street is one of the key areas we’re looking at right now—trying to get these houses re-habbed to the status they were years ago. Some of the houses that have been sold already on tax sale are well beyond preservation. They are absolutely unsafe, to the neighbors and the community, and demolition is pretty much the only recourse.

“Here is a house on the corner of Pine and Elm, on the 500 block of Pine Street,” Mr. Travers said, “They’re going to re-hab that one. We had several homes that were sold in these foreclosures that individuals are going to re-hab, either for family or for rental. Not all of them are being torn down. But there’s a blighted housing problem in Cambridge, and that just creates the wrong message for the neighborhood, the wrong people come into the neighborhood because they use the house for the wrong reason — whether it be drug trafficking or whatever—and we’re trying to eliminate that. And most of the response we’ve had out of the neighborhoods has been very positive that we’re getting rid of this blighted housing.”

The argument can be made that Jim Chaney is just another city landlord, looking to make rent money off of a needy population. But when he talks to me, he continually stresses the need to turn Cambridge around, to make the city great again, if we can use a recently overused expression. Mr. Cheney gladly accepts the role of a one-man urban renewal force, and he can be convincing — he wants to see Cambridge restore at least a little of its old glory, but he admits that one house at a time is a slow way to go.

“People don’t realize it takes a long time to turn a neighborhood around,” says Mr. Chaney. “Especially one that has been in this condition for this many years. I’ve got the support of the community. I tear houses down, I have people come up to me constantly saying, ‘Great. We’re glad to see it go.’ The community sees it. Why don’t some of the local politicians?

“Listen to what the community wants. The community wants better housing. They want the blighted gone. They want better lighting. They want more sidewalks. I’ve talked to another developer in the area. He is sitting back, waiting right now to see what happens. If we do this, he’s going to jump in. He’s right along with us. He wants to see more stuff. The more this community turns around, the better off everybody is going to be. How do you argue with better housing, is my question.”

But why Jim Chaney? And why Cambridge?

“It’s something I love to do. I can look at something and see what it could be, not for what it is — I like to see the end product. A lot of times the people who are complaining about housing blight don’t do anything about it. The difference between them and me is, I do something about it. If it’s a problem, we work our way through it. I pick up my tools, I get the job done, and I’m not using government money. I’m using private money.

“As far as Cambridge, It’s becoming the place to do it, let me put it that way. It is the tipping point right now. A lot of good things are going on in Cambridge. The city council has done a lot of good work. The mayor has done a lot of good work. They get it. They realize the needs that need to be met.

“We’ve also got Habitat. They’re doing the same thing I’m doing, just on a different style. They’re trying to improve the neighborhood. They’re getting rid of the blighted, they’re putting in new houses, they’re promoting homeownership. Nothing but good come out of homeownership. That’s it. Home ownership is always a good thing.

“I think Cambridge has the potential to provide a historic ambiance that people want, but at the same time, the affordability and the nice neighborhoods. Cambridge has it all.”

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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