Part II: Income inequality grows in Cambridge
Originally published Jan. 30, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.
Every day when Debra Morris walks out of her apartment at Washington Elms in Area 4, she watches as the cranes rise higher above her house and the biotech companies creep closer in, and it makes her mad.
Nowhere else in Cambridge is the juxtaposition quite as sharp as it is for residents in Washington Elms and Newtowne Court, two neighboring public housing developments situated in the shadows of the booming biotech industry at Kendall Square.
“It makes me angry,” Morris said. “I don’t have a problem with progress, but just don’t do it – not necessarily on the backs of the people – but don’t push us out. We’re talking about families that have been here for 100 years. It’s not just a color thing, it’s a class thing.”
In Cambridge, like the rest of the country, the differences between the rich and the poor are growing. According to neighborhood-level census data released in December by the city, along with a special presentation on poverty by the city manager on Monday, Jan. 27, both individual and family incomes have risen dramatically in Cambridge over the past 30 years. But with the increased wealth, the city has also seen an increase in poverty.
Across the city, incomes for Cambridge households – or people living in the same house that aren’t related – increased 46 percent. For families, incomes rose even higher, increasing 62 percent. The Agassiz neighborhood now has the highest family income with average incomes at over $165,000. Discounting Area 2 (MIT), which Community Development Department (CDD) statistician Cliff Cook said was subject to reporting errors, the neighborhood with the lowest median family income is Wellington-Harrington at $49,000, one of the few places in the city were family incomes actually decreased from 1979 to 2011.
At the same time, the number of people living in poverty in Cambridge has increased 12 percent during the same time span. Taking out the student population, and breaking the numbers down into sub-populations, assistant city manager for community development Brian Murphy said numbers are stark.
In Cambridge today, roughly 30 percent of African American and 27 percent of Hispanic residents are in poverty compared to 9 percent of Asian and 7 percent of Caucasian residents. Just six of the city’s 32 census tracks contain 50 percent of the city’s poverty, Murphy said, a troubling trend because it implies residents are economically segregated.
City Manager Richard Rossi said he presented the statistics on poverty to the City Council Monday to keep them informed of the changing demographic trends in Cambridge so the councilors could better understand the challenges residents face. He gave the same presentation to key department heads as well, he said.
“We’re trying to get this into the hands of people so they can better influence decisions and so they can better understand the actual community and what’s going on,” Rossi said.
What’s going on?
It’s a national trend that the city is trying to solve locally, said Elaine DeRosa, executive director of Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee Inc. And, it’s not an easy task.
After rent control was overturned in 1995, there was little the city could do to change the market reality that Cambridge property is in high demand, and demand has driven up prices.
Areas where poverty is highest in the city are also areas where there is the most affordable housing, DeRosa said.
“With the elimination of rent control and then the change in the condominium conversion law, you can pick parts of the city where development has skyrocketed and you can see who’s living there,” DeRosa said. “To me, the biggest thing that’s driving where poverty pops up or decreases is how much of the housing in that neighborhood becomes destabilized.”
For seventh-generation Riverside resident and community activist Carol Hill, it’s not about who’s living in the neighborhood, but who’s not.
“We’ve been an area with mostly minorities and working-class families, but between Harvard buying up all the land and rent control being gone, a lot of people can’t live here anymore,” Hill said. “I’m one of the few families that are still here but the community is completely different now.”
On paper, Riverside hosts the highest poverty rate in the city at 25 percent of the population, but Cook said those numbers are deceiving. The Census Bureau counted Harvard-owned graduate student houses as “households” rather than “group dormitories,” which makes it look like the residents there are similar to any other young professional renting an apartment or room. But, those residents don’t have any income, even if they’re relying on loans or other assistance that isn’t counted as income.
Adam and Sarah Luck are one such family. They moved into a Harvard-owned house on Western Avenue at the start of the school year last fall. Hailing from Arizona, they said they love the walkability of the city and the fact that they don’t have to drive. Buying food and diapers for their two kids, Sarah Luck said the real difference in the cost of living is the price they pay for housing, which is three times as high for a space that’s twice as small.
Though they love the city, Adam Luck, a veteran of the Air Force, said his dream job at the Department of Defense will likely take their growing family to Washington, D.C.
Hill, who lives next door to the Lucks, said she’s seen a large turnover in the people living in the neighborhood as the longtime families have had to move out. Her house is an island in a sea of Harvard-owned land, she said, and she watched as the university bought up all the spaces around the house she grew up in.
“Harvard is huge. They can afford to pay more for property,” Hill said. “We’ve borne the brunt of everything here in the community and now Harvard is getting more property in Boston because they’ve swallowed up as much property as they could here.”
Riverside has a long history of community activism led in large part by former city councilor and state representative, Saundra Graham. Hill was with Graham when they stormed the Harvard commencement exercise in 1970 and demanded the university provide affordable housing to residents. It took several years, but Harvard eventually relented.
That same sense of community activism is no longer there, Hill said.
Although incomes are increasing across the city, Washington Elms tenant council president Mark Moses said those increases are not being felt evenly in all areas. It’s not getting easier for low-income and middle-income residents to live in Cambridge, even if their housing is subsidized, he said.
City Councilor Mark McGovern said the stats, while informative, are not surprising.
“It pretty much solidifies what we already knew,” McGovern said. “There is this divide if you’re at the poverty level or relatively close to it, you can’t afford to live in the city unless you’re living in public housing. That’s an awful dilemma to be in.”
A large part of the problem has to do with the businesses moving in that cater to the higher-income residents, Moses said. Morris remembers when Central Square used to be a place where middle-income families could expect to find a place to feed their families and also buy household supplies. Those restaurants and retail stores have largely left, she said.
Barbara Kibler, executive director of the Margaret Fuller House, which serves the Area 4 community, said she’s seen the number of people using their services increase over the past decade she’s worked there. Today, the organization’s food pantry feeds 1,200 families each month.
“Even though the neighborhood has changed a lot, there are still many people who need the food,” Kibler said. “We see more families with young children coming to us.”
Kibler said she gets the sense that the effects of the recession are still being felt by low- and middle-income families in Cambridge.
“When you’re living in serious poverty and there are so many people who don’t have jobs or are in such low-paying jobs, it’s hard to support a family,” Kibler said. “It’s just been so much more intense over the past 4-5 years everywhere, and that doesn’t change for the folks living here.”
The stratification is hard on families with children in the public schools, said Khari Milner, a co-founder of the Young People’s Project who now works in the school district. He’s seen the schools skew towards “the haves and the have-nots,” and that’s a problem, he said, because it affects the way people perceive themselves as well as others.
“It becomes more apparent that you’re living in a different situation than your neighbors,” Milner said. “For the adults, they may think of their kids and who else is in their child’s classrooms and feel those families are living in a different condition with different issues, different lifestyles and different values. It leads to less mingling and it’s a challenge to foster a more integrated engagement that place at the school community level.”
Young People’s Project executive director Maisha Moses (no relation to Mark Moses) said the organization tries to mitigate those differences by elevating the experiences of Cambridge students in their out of school time.
“Income inequality doesn’t necessarily have to translate into these huge disparities in educational outcomes for children,” Maisha Moses said. “Cambridge is a place that has the resources to do that and it’s more so a matter of will and choice and maybe generosity of spirit and breaking down of old thoughts and ideas about what other people can or cannot do.”
At Washington Elms, Mark Moses said that generosity should be supported by the same people who are profiting from the increasing property values, and he wasn’t shy about pointing his finger at MIT and big developers.