The Housing Committee held a public hearing on December 11, 2003 beginning at ten o’clock and twelve minutes in the Sullivan Chamber to discuss the following issues:
The current status of the Section 8 program and its effect on the programs on the MultiService Center.
Recent changes in the Cambridge housing market and how the City’s affordable housing programs can take advantage of these changes.
The Planning Board’s perspective on proposals to amend the zoning to provide incentive for the creation of units affordable to middle income residents.
Present at the hearing were Councillor Anthony D. Galluccio, Chair of the Committee, Councillor E. Denise Simmons and D. Margaret Drury. Also present were Beth Rubenstein, Assistant City Manager for Community Development, Ellen Semonoff, Deputy Director of the Department of Human Services (DHS), Len Thomas, Director of the MultiService Center, DHS, Stephanie Ackert, Director of Planning and Research, DHS, Darcey Jameson, Director of Housing, Community Development Department (CDD), Chris Cutter, Housing Division, CDD, Mike Johnston, Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA), Jennifer Hrabcheck, Planning Board, Barbara Shaw, Planning Board and Just-A-Start, Jane Jones, Homeowners Rehab, Inc. and Bob Costa, Cambridge Neighborhood Apartment Housing Services.
Councillor Galluccio convened the hearing and explained the purpose. He began with the issue of the freeze on Section 8 vouchers and invited Mike Johnston to begin the discussion. Mr. Johnston said that Cambridge is still over-leased by ninety-three vouchers. There are 10,000 applicants on the waiting list, 3,000 are Cambridge residents (self-identified). Federal appropriations do not call for any increase in vouchers for the next fiscal year. The CHA is still covering emergencies and is keeping its commitments for project-based vouchers. By federal regulations, a housing authority can make 20% of its Section 8 vouchers project-based, but Cambridge is exempt from the 20% ceiling because of its Moving to Work Program. He added that the CHA now has a list of 20-25 names of tenants in project-based Section 8 units who have requested a mobile voucher, which they are entitled to after one year in a project-based Section 8 unit. Mr. Johnston said that Cambridge has a relatively large Section 8 program, larger than that of Somerville. When all Section 8 units are included, the total, including mod-rehab units, is around 2800.
Councillor Galluccio asked how many of the 3,000 self-identified Cambridge applicants live in Cambridge as opposed to those who work in Cambridge. Mr. Johnston said that he does not know and is not allowed by regulation to discriminate; the regulation says “living or working” status qualifies as a resident.
Mr. Johnston said that Cambridge is not the only community that is over-leased. The Metro Boston Housing Program is over-leased by 1,000 vouchers. HUD does not pay for over-leased units. The CHA has to pay the entire subsidy.
Mr. Johnston said that he expects the OK for President Bush administration’s proposal, the HANF (block grant) program to come back as a proposal to Congress this year. This is a block grant scheme and would be the downfall of the Section 8 program. He explained that under the block grant system, the state would get the same amount every year. The federal government would give a chunk of money to the state and recipients have to fight every year for adequate funds. Also, there would be an immediate increase in the administrative costs by adding another layer.
Councillor Galluccio asked if it is going to be a struggle just to maintain the current level of funding. Mr. Johnston answered in the affirmative. There is also the issue of tenants moving to and from cities. Mr. Johnston stated that he has had sixty families come into Cambridge with their mobile Section 8 vouchers.
Len Thomas noted the frustration of decreased asking rents but no Section 8.
Darcy Jameson noted the strength of Cambridge’s multifaceted approach to affordable housing.
Councillor Galluccio said that he has been amazed by how much the rents have fallen over the past few months. However, he still sees a disbelief among lower income tenants that they can find anything affordable. He asked whether Cambridge should be setting up some kind of database so that landlords who want to rent their apartments could list them and low/moderate income tenants would have easier access to information about available rentals that they can afford. He also asked whether Cambridge staff are working with tenants to make them aware of and able to deal with this new market.
Beth Rubenstein said that databases can be difficult to keep up-to-date. However, the idea of trying to get people to change their perceptions to correspond with the new reality is a good one. Perhaps staff could prepare written material. Also, she could see utilizing websites to disseminate this information.
Councillor Galluccio said that he does not think it would be as hard to maintain an up-to-date list in the current market, where movement is much slower than in previous times.
Ms. Jameson suggested sending a flyer or information piece to folks on their waiting list for affordable housing.
Ms. Semonoff noted two different categories – those who could afford those newly lowered rents and those who still cannot. The City needs two strategies.
Stephanie Ackert informed the committee that there is a database that DHS subscribes to – Housing Works.
Mr. Thomas agreed that two strategies are necessary. He said that the MultiService Center makes and maintains weekly listings of the more affordable apartments listed in the newspaper.
Councillor Galluccio said that the next step would be trying to talk to the landlord owners of a rental unit that has been listed in the paper for a few weeks to see if they would take less money.
Mr. Johnston noted the problems of the CHA being perceived as pushing for lower rents and then having landlords working to get out of their leases as soon as the market changes.
Barbara Shaw said that the affordable housing community does this kind of coaching that Councillor Galluccio is describing every day. Just-A-Start has a mediation program that is happy to do this for tenants.
Councillor Galluccio said that he does not believe that the mediation staff see that as their job and that one would not know from the name of the program that they provide such a service. He said that it is like job coaching.
Ms. Semonoff said this is the kind of coaching the MultiService Center staff does for low income people, but higher income people generally would not go there, because the MultiService Center’s mission is known to be that of serving low income individuals.
Councillor Galluccio said that he would like to get up-to-date information in the market to serve the residents who call him every day. It is important to get the leaders of the agencies to change their mindset by collecting this information and getting it out to where it will be useful.
Bob Costa said that lower income people know to come to the MultiService Center. The question is how do we get to the somewhat higher income people. One way would be by putting information in the paper, another would be running a workshop.
Mr. Thomas noted that the low income population in need of housing is growing as well. Cambridge now has twenty-six families in a motel in Cambridge. The attitude of the State Department of Transitional Assistance is that there are 500 apartments in other parts of the state and that’s where we should be sending people.
Councillor Galluccio emphasized that he would like to see listings provided. He added that the new housing booklet is excellent. He said that he believes that the market is going to get much better for tenants. A lot of new housing is going to come on line, thousands of units, not including those at North Point. He would like to see the listings provided along with a “coaching sheet” on how to negotiate with landlords. He urged staff to take a look at the market, provide information on average rates in different areas and develop some kind of listing. He also urged them to get staff to take proactive coaching roles when directing people to contact landlords.
Mr. Thomas said that he will ask staff to create a “cheat sheet” for all tenants.
Councillor Galluccio moved to the issue of the middle-income housing zoning amendment. He invited comments on the Planning Board’s perspectives on this issue.
Ms. Shaw said that the Planning Board was of a single mind. Inclusionary zoning is an excellent tool and it really works. It is not a good idea to tinker with something that works that well. Also, this is not the right time. The market is down and middle-income families can access and afford rental units. The City already has a good new middle income homeownership program. Ms. Rubenstein added that both CDD staff and members of the Planning Board had some reservations about the Planning Board’s role in evaluating proformas.
Councillor Galluccio said that if there comes a time when Cambridge is losing projects because the zoning needed to be changed to keep residential construction in Cambridge competitive, he wants the Planning Board to feel free to communicate with the City Council. He encouraged keeping communication going between the Planning Board and the City Council.
Steve Kaiser, Hamilton Street, spoke in opposition to giving dimensional relief ever to encourage affordable housing. He urged using tax relief instead.
Councillor Galluccio said that he would very much like to see a “cheat sheet” of advice, general rental listings and Section 8 listings as soon as possible, hopefully some time in January. He also asked Ms. Shaw to coordinate with the mediation staff with regard to coaching tenants.
Mr. Kaiser said that there are also things that landlords can do. He said that the Cambridge community needs to see examples of landlords who are not greedy, and who are charging reasonable rents. He believes there are many landlords we can find who will help to try to keep Cambridge affordable.
Councillor Galluccio said that he hopes that the lesson this new market teaches landlords is that it is much better to have a consistent tenant than to gouge the market and then have prolonged vacancies when the market comes back down, as it always does.
Councillor Galluccio thanked all those present for all their hard work in the affordable housing field.
The meeting was adjourned at eleven o’clock and twenty-five minutes a.m.
For the Committee,
Councillor Anthony D. Galluccio, Chair