Letter to the Editor: Examining Cambridge housing

The Dorchester Banner welcomes readers’ comments on topics of public interest.

Cambridge housing was cited as the top issue by virtually every candidate in recent League of Women Voter forums where each candidate was provided a platform to answer questions from the community. There are no simple solutions.

The League of Women Voters left a report on Cambridge housing in 1969 in the time capsule opened last summer. That report points to problems that persist today, including insufficient code enforcement and housing in the rental market that is below habitable standards.

A Cambridge Neighborhood Revitalization Plan was published in July 2019 that recognizes and addresses some of the same problems, from the Pine St perspective, leveraging a market analysis from March 2019. The plan describes a process that retires substandard or vacant properties, featuring a land bank concept, calls for increased code enforcement, and a housing trust fund, as well as incentives and support for increased affordable home ownership. Implementing such a process will be very challenging, but a process is what is needed.

Candidates at the recent LWV forum agreed there was a problem, most noted the need for more code enforcement, and few recognized the role of a land bank process. I was disappointed that none cited the Cambridge Neighborhood Revitalization Plan, and was disturbed by one proposal by mayoral candidate Andrew Bradshaw to offer tax incentives to encourage landlords to improve housing.

It is often cited that over 50% of the housing units in Cambridge are rentals. What goes unsaid is that these business owners, the landlords, pay less in property tax than most every homeowner in Cambridge.
Fully 50% of rental properties are taxed at an assessed value of $25,000 or less. 50% of non-rental homeowners are taxed at $60,000 or more, and the average homeowner is assessed at about $140,000.
This means the typical landlord pays about $250 each year for city services while, homeowners pay typically more than twice that number. Those who are familiar with the city budget know that each residence receives over $1000 in city service value each year, while the average homeowner contributes over $1,000.

Housing subsidies are featured in the 1969 LWV report, and federal subsidies have and will play an important part in the Cambridge housing market. None the less, tax breaks are ineffective as candidate Bradshaw proposes them.
Tax breaks for developers who might be persuaded to prefer tenants displaced from poor quality housing could help shift residents to better conditions, but our ‘typical’ serious problem housing units will require more than a tax break of $250 per house to address them.

Federal subsidies and code enforcement can be used to enforce minimum standards and shield tenants from rent increases — while increasing the taxable value of the rental properties that receive substantial improvement. A process that builds new housing for displaced tenants, encourages landlords to improve conditions to receive increased, perhaps subsidized, rent and retires housing stock that is below livable standards will improve conditions for our residents — and increase the tax base.

I don’t want to discourage new ideas and I was encouraged by support for more comprehensive housing policy coming from Ward 1 candidates Sharon Smith and Brian Roche — and from a very encouraging new face in Ward 2, Lajan Cephas. Perhaps we can take a collective, closer looks at the Cambridge Neighborhood Revitalization Plan — and make a commitment to implement it.

Greg Boss