On Monday March 2, 2020, the Cambridge City Council voted unanimously to approve an appropriation of $15 million, as part of a total of $40 million which has been committed to preserve the 504 affordable apartments in North Cambridge, officially known as Fresh Pond Apartments. This was the most important vote I’ve taken, and it is especially meaningful being able to do so as mayor because I grew in these apartments, which you may know as “Rindge Towers.” My family was fortunate to come to Rindge Towers in the early 90s, and to gain access to the resources and programs this city provides, which have shaped my trajectory. This same access continues to nurture and shape the future of the hundreds of families making their lives there.
These 504 households represent individuals and families like mine who are the community and culture of North Cambridge and the city at large. These are the families who swim at the McCrehan Pool, the CRLS students getting on the train at Alewife in the morning, and families working in our community. I am humbled by the trust placed in the city by the residents of Fresh Pond Apartments, as we worked to figure out a tenable and long-lasting strategy to maximize resources in a way that wouldn’t upend their daily lives. It’s hard to imagine the outcomes, had this effort been unsuccessful, leaving so many families to face the impossible consequence of losing their homes, and ultimately their schools, healthcare, places of worship, and the places where they work and play.
The city’s unique commitment to working with the building owners, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and a variety of affordable housing advocates is a major step forward in the effort to keep Cambridge vibrant and economically diverse. Now more than ever, it’s tantamount that we protect our most vulnerable low- and middle-income residents, while opening new pathways to respond to the ever-increasing need for affordable housing in Cambridge.
The affordability restrictions at Fresh Pond Apartments (which were set to expire at the end of this year) will be restored through a two-part approach. Currently, 338 apartments are managed through Section 8 funding received directly from HUD. The remaining 166 apartments are kept affordable through a now-defunct HUD program called the “Below Market Interest Rate” program (“BMIR”). As a part of this preservation effort, the Section 8 contract has been renewed with HUD, extending affordability to the 338 apartments for another 20 years. The remaining 166 former BMIR apartments will be preserved by a direct payment from the city to the owners of Fresh Pond Apartments that represents the difference in value between the apartments if they were to be converted to market-rate housing and the value if they were restricted as affordable.
In exchange for this $35 million payment, the owner will maintain the affordability of these apartments for another 50 years (with affordability levels determined by the city). An additional $5 million will be set aside for a rent phase-in reserve to transition current residents to the new affordability structure. Next steps in the process will include many meeting with residents to discuss the preservation plan.
As the phenomenon of displacement continues to impact communities nationwide, I am further committed to working to shape policies and develop strategies to ensure that the city I’ve grown up in doesn’t fade away through the displacement of its people. This was the most important vote I’ve taken, and it is especially meaningful being able to do so as mayor. I am honored to work alongside our housing advocates, the city manager, my colleagues on the City Council, members of the Cambridge Development Department, and Affordable Housing Trust to secure equitable and continued access on all levels for our residents, particularly through safe, decent and affordable housing options.
It has been a privilege to be involved in this effort and I look forward to celebrating more victories like this, as we strive to maintain long-term affordability throughout Cambridge.
Sumbul Siddiqui grew up in Cambridge and is a two-term councilor. In January, she became the state's first Muslim mayor.