“What architect isn’t interested in housing? I hate the whole blasted idea of it. I think it’s a worthy undertaking – to provide a decent apartment for a man who earns fifteen dollars a week. But not at the expense of other men. Not if it raises the taxes, raises all the other rents and makes the man who earns forty live in a rat hole. That’s what’s happening in New York. Nobody can afford a modern apartment – except the very rich and the paupers.
Have you seen the converted brownstones in which the average self-supporting couple has to live? Have you seen their closet kitchens and their plumbing? They’re forced to live that – because they’re not incompetent enough. They make forty dollars a week and wouldn’t be allowed into a housing project. But they’re the ones who provide the money for the damn project. They pay the taxes. And the taxes raise their own rent. And they have to move from a converted brownstone into an unconverted one and from that into a railroad flat.
I’d have no desire to penalize a man because he’s worth only fifteen dollars a week. But I’ll be damned if I can see why a man worth forty must be penalized – and penalized in favor of the one who’s less competent”.
Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, 1943
The above quote is what one of the major characters, Howard Roark states, while speaking to another main character, Peter Keating, on public housing. I would like to invite you to substitute the word New York with Boston or Cambridge and try to disregard the year the book was written; I think you will not be surprised in noticing that quote is very relevant to Boston today. More than 60 years have passed since the publication of that literary masterpiece; mankind had since survived a world conflict, landed on the moon, designed and perfected computers, mobile phones as well as a whole variety of commodities; still, being able to afford buying a house is a struggle. I’m not suggesting different lives have different values, as Ayn Rand did through Howard Roark. Nor am I suggesting that less effort be expended in sheltering the poorest or least fortunate among us. Nevertheless, this passage illustrates the difficult situation in which people starting their careers find themselves in Boston today.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, this new year seems to have started off by taking a step farther from the sought-after American Dream. The right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” often goes in pair with the affordability of putting a roof over our head or, in the best case scenario, buying one. Prices in the Boston area have risen so much in the last decade that by this pace only millionaires will be able to afford putting a roof on their dreams.
Today’s students and young professionals (tomorrow’s middle class) are already being kicked away from the City. Cambridge (and Boston) rental prices have gone sky-high and even renting a small studio apartment where eating and sleeping happen pretty much in the same space, has become a luxury only few can afford. I wonder if this trend will ever see a happy ending, capable of satisfying everyone’s needs whilst maintaining the diversity this city has always been known for.
The City of Cambridge has recently approved an implementation to the 2011 Basement Overlay District. This new approval should be able to add roughly 1,000 units of housing to the city. Flexibility for units with 6′-11″ ceilings is allowed in order to help homeowners add usable space in their basements without adding square footage to the neighborhoods.
As a Cambridge resident and tenant, I worry this is going to simply become another way to rent small spaces for very high rates… I would like to see the City of Cambridge find a way to maintain the city affordable for local young professionals. Diversity is what makes and keeps Cambridge such a special place to live, hopefully the City Council will keep this in mind when working on the zoning master-plan.
Photographs by Claudio Bianchi with gracious permission