In the Land of the Lord

by Sonia E. Andújar

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 13— During Europe’s Medieval Period, the Serfdom condition of bondage to the land of their noblemen kept farmers in a dependent status.  In the United States after the end of the civil war, sharecroppers and tenant-farmers were tied down to the land of the lord with almost no hope for ownership and progress.  The present situation of many subsidized tenants sometimes resembles those of the Serfdom, sharecroppers and tenant-farmers of the past.

We understand that providing housing is not a constitutional right, but it is a basic human right and not a privilege, as reaffirmed in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights to which the United States was a signatory in 1966.

It is also known that poverty is a human-made and just providing charity or sympathy to vulnerable populations instead of socioeconomic justice is not enough. Awareness of the impact to the community at - large of marginalization of the poor has created better housing conditions thanks to advocates and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 which prohibit housing discrimination, but unfairness still exists.

Subsidized housing is a government sponsored economic assistance program for families and individuals with low to moderate incomes in need affordable housing.

It’s not affordable if tenants cannot pay for it. Tenants are helped thru direct housing subsidies, non-profit housing, public housing, rent supplements and some forms of housing cooperatives among others.

Nevertheless a large group of subsidized tenants with dreams of becoming more self-sufficient   live and will continue to live in the land of the lords.  The Lords

are  those whose economic and political power makes them powerful enough to have housing options in a high- cost area such as Cambridge.

In 1995, rent control polices in Massachusetts were eliminated after a statewide referendum.  The housing market responded fairly quickly to this change. In Cambridge, the rents as well as the assessed values of formerly controlled properties increased steeply. In the rental estate business landlords now prefer to rent to tenants who can pay market rate rather than to lower-income or subsidized tenants because business is business.

Homeownership is the largest financial asset that provides security to families and individuals from unwanted moves.  For Section-8 recipients a step towards economic mobility can be Limited Equity Cooperatives (coops).  A type of shared home ownership in which tenants buy a share in a cooperative, usually at a low price. Each share entitles members   to occupy one unit and participate in the decisions regarding the cooperative giving them direct control and lower operating costs. Limited equity coops limit the return that shareowners can receive on the resale of their shares while market rate coops can sell their shares at market value. The shareowners of  Limited Equity Cooperatives are usually low-income households and provide no landlord profit.

Housing coops are nothing new in Cambridge. There are several unrestricted market rate coops. Most of the limited- equity coops were created in the 1980s (when rent control was in place) with financial and/or technical assistance from the city as described in the Web page of the Cambridge Community Development.

The turnover in this housing is very low. A Section 8 voucher can be used to pay some of the monthly carrying costs of a coop unit.  However, it’s very difficult for a low-income family to come up with the funds to cover the share purchase price.

There are problem to solve before developing Limited Equity Cooperatives in Cambridge including housing market prices, the cost of almost no available land, the difficulties of getting financing, regulatory constraints and housing policies There is also an invisible obstacle - the strict criteria for acceptance as a coop member.

 It is not hard to imagine that those who decide on prospective members for Limited Equity Cooperatives might want individuals of their own race, style of living and who bring to the table certain influence, money or status.  If you are poor with no influence or enough money, the coop share might be handed to someone who although might have other housing options, can give more in return.  There is a natural tendency to be generous in interpreting the rules for those we like or belong to our particular group.  The playing field in the world of Limited Equity Cooperatives is so slanted that only those with enormous resolve, money and connections make it past the starting line.

Participating in Limited Equity Cooperatives by itself will not transform lives completely.  Is only a nudge for low-income famines to start participating minimally in a socioeconomic environment that it’s out of their control.

For those that think that subsidized tenants only want entitlements, bailouts, handout, copouts, don’t want to work and assume responsibility allowing them access to Limited Equity Cooperatives can be a measuring tools of those assumptions.

It seems pointless to continue doing research accumulating data and endless discussions about creating and preserving more affordable units.  What about helping Section 8 families build equity thru some sort of homeownership?  What about  Cambridge expanding  support for Limited Equity Cooperatives?

What about changing the golden rule?  No, not that one. The one that says: “ those that have the gold, make the rules”.

___________________________________________________________—Sonia E. Andujar is a board member of ACT.

She can be reached at: tenants