Officials discuss ways to close Cambridge’s poverty gap

Originally published April 14, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

Cambridge has a poverty gap – a growing divide between the income a family can make to qualify for public housing and what it takes to rent or buy on the open market.

That poses a tough policy question, said Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA) executive director Greg Russ, because it requires choosing between providing subsidies to people with substantial incomes on paper, but who still cannot afford to live in Cambridge, and those at the very lowest income levels. It’s just one of the questions councilors, department heads and non-profit leaders grappled with at an April 8 meeting of the Human Services and Veterans Committee meeting, chaired by Councilor Marc McGovern.

In a normal market, Russ said housing authorities might be able to move residents from public housing to an apartment on the private market. But, even paying the maximum amount – what the CHA calls a ceiling rent – would still be significantly cheaper than market rents.

“So, there’s no way to migrate families with reliability because that income gap is substantial,” Russ said. “You would have to raise their incomes much, much higher, and no one has been able to do that.”

The average monthly rent for a three-bedroom apartment in Cambridge was $2,613 in 2010, which requires an income of roughly $90,200-$108,240, according to the Community Development Department’s housing profile. In the same year, the federal government defined poverty as $22,050 for a family of four, but in Cambridge, the median household income was more than three times that, or around $69,000. For family households, that number was even higher, at nearly $93,000.

Russ said families can stay in public housing if they make up to 80 percent of the area median income, or around $55,200, but they’d still have to nearly double their income before moving into a market-rate apartment.

When it comes to designing an anti-poverty policy for the city, Councilor Nadeem Mazen said it was first imperative to settle on a local definition of poverty, since the federal poverty line does not account for cost-of-living differences state-to-state. Community Development statistician Cliff Cook said the department had developed a Cambridge poverty line in the past, but it had not been updated in some time.

“That’s an important baseline for us to settle on and work from when we talk about these numbers and the goals we might be aiming for,” Mazen said, adding a crucial part of drafting that definition should be a comprehensive community outreach effort.

The city’s Human Services Department has a community outreach team, said Assistant City Manager Ellen Semonoff, equipped with outreach workers from myriad racial, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, who are tasked with reaching out to communities that may not always look to the city for help. When the city designed its Baby University, an early childhood education program for low-income families, Semonoff said the program’s design included input from a wide range of people, including potential recipients of the program’s services.

Although there is some room to add supportive services for residents, with a staff of around 650 employees, roughly a third of which are full-time, Semonoff said her department is already running at capacity.

“It operates about as large as we can manage it,” Semonoff said. “If we were going to do something large, it would require a huge leap forward.”

What policies the city puts in place will have to depend on the population it wishes to serve, Semonoff said. A pitch could be made, she said, to house all of the chronically homeless residents in Cambridge, to give that housing unit to a family making $26,000-$30,000, or to a family making $70,000 who still cannot afford to live in the city.

“I do think that’s a huge challenge that the council will have to wrestle with,” Semonoff said.

When the council sets its goals for the two-year council term this summer, McGovern said he would like an anti-poverty policy on the list.

“What I’m hoping is generated from this conversation is really raising the issue to a point where it becomes as important to people as development is in the city,” McGovern said. “The question is, how do we raise these issues of poverty and hunger to the point where it becomes the No. 1 issue in the city, because it should be.”

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