The Case for Truly Public Housing

A municipal authority in Massachusetts has deftly negotiated the privatization and deregulation of the housing market. But its hard-won success underscores the need for a new narrative about public housing in America.

Millers River Apartments, undergoing renovation, March 2020
Millers River Apartments, undergoing renovation, March 2020. [Cambridge Housing Authority]

The transformation, over months, of the elegant brutalist high-rise, with the skyward sweep so characteristic of housing design from the 1970s, was tantalizing to watch. Proceeding floor by floor, workers wrapped the beige-grey concrete bays in red and orange metal panels. Balconies with dark metal railings disappeared behind a smooth new facade. Clearly the apartment building, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a busy thoroughfare lined with modest family homes and local stores, was being painstakingly renovated. Yet there was no signage indicating the name of the project or the protagonists behind its transformation — no advertisement for “new luxury condos” with renderings of swanky amenities and aspirational lifestyles. What was going on here? Had Lacaton & Vassal finally arrived in the United States?

Not quite; but the association with the Pritzker Prize-winning French architects, who are committed to upgrading rather than demolishing social housing, was fitting. As it turned out, the project, Millers River Apartments, is a 300-unit, nineteen-story complex for the elderly and those with disabilities, owned and operated by the Cambridge Housing Authority, the municipal agency in charge of public housing. (Actually, it was previously owned by the CHA; but we will get to that later.) The building was designed by Boston-based Benjamin Thompson & Associates, in the same period the firm was achieving fame with the rehabilitation of Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and completed in 1972; its renovation, begun in 2019 and finished this year, has been carried out by Springfield-based Dietz & Company Architects.

The most exciting projects in the city — the buildings we stopped to admire in the course of running daily errands — were developed by the public housing authority.

Millers River inspired us to look more closely at the Cambridge Housing Authority. Soon we learned that the project was one of many exceptionally designed and maintained residential complexes we’d been observing around the city. A trio of high-rise buildings that had impressed us with the asymmetrical arrangement and color composition of their new facades: all CHA projects. A low-rise development with an articulated, fiber-cement panel façade and generous balconies, recently completed near the city’s main park: a CHA property. A renovated brick garden apartment complex from the late 1930s amidst the contemporary laboratories of Pfizer, Moderna, and Novartis: another CHA property. The sleek blue-green glass cube squeezed between a neoclassical bank and an office building designed by Josep Lluís Sert: a CHA project developed in partnership with the YWCA. In other words, the most interesting and exciting architecture in the city — the buildings we stopped to admire in the course of running daily errands — were projects developed by the public housing authority.

Jefferson Park State Apartments was redeveloped by the Cambridge Housing Authority and designed by Abacus Architects + Planners; completed 2018.
Jefferson Park State Apartments was redeveloped by the Cambridge Housing Authority on the site of one its early residential complexes, built in 1950 to house veterans; the new project was designed by Abacus Architects + Planners and completed 2018. [Bruce T. Martin Photography]

Newtowne Court, the oldest property in the CHA's portfolio, was extensively renovated by BWA Architecture; the modernization was completed in 2018.
Newtowne Court, the oldest property in the CHA’s portfolio, first occupied in 1938, was extensively renovated by BWA Architecture; the modernization was completed in 2018. [David Kurtis Photography]

Temple Place Apartments, a collaboration between the CHA and the YWCA, consists of 40 affordable units constructed on the site of a former athletic facility; the project was designed by HFMH Architects and completed in 2015.
Temple Place Apartments, a collaboration between the CHA and the YWCA, consists of 40 affordable units constructed on the site of a former athletic facility; the project was designed by HFMH Architects and completed in 2015. [Ed Wonsek Art Works]

This was unexpected, and counterintuitive, given the degree to which public housing in the United States has been, for the past half century, socially stereotyped and politically attacked; “the most stigmatized form of rental housing in the United States,” in the words of urban historian Lawrence Vale. 1 In particular, municipal housing authorities, many of which were established to implement the Housing Act of 1937 — the nation’s first public housing law, enacted as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal — have seen their scope of action systematically curtailed, no matter which party has held power. 2

The past half century has seen a stunning history of diminishing commitment to social welfare.

These past 50 years, in fact, tell a stunning history of diminishing commitment to social welfare. In early 1973, the Nixon administration put a moratorium on direct federal funding for low-income housing construction; in late 1974, it introduced Section 8 vouchers, which substituted direct government funding with rent subsidies to be paid to private landlords. Under Ronald Reagan, the disinvestment intensified. During his first term, Reagan halved the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. During his second term, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program was created with the goal of incentivizing private developers; today the 1986 law remains the single most important federal source of capital for what is now defined as “affordable” housing.

HOPE VI, started at the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency and implemented by Bill Clinton, was set up to eliminate “severely distressed” high-rise projects and replace them with low-rise, mixed-income neighborhoods created by public-private partnerships. It has been widely criticized as a foil for gentrification; as urban theorist Mike Davis put it, in an article for Mother Jones: “Originally conceived as replacement housing for the poor, HOPE VI quickly morphed into a new strategy for replacing the poor themselves.” 3 In 1998, Lauch Faircloth, a wealthy hog farmer serving what would be his only term as a Republican senator from North Carolina, introduced the Faircloth Amendment; a revision to the 1937 Housing Act, the amendment forbids the use of federal funds for any construction that would produce a “net increase” of public housing units. The signature housing initiative of the Obama years, the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program, or RAD, further encouraged the trends of privatization and deregulation by facilitating the conversion of public housing to either nonprofit or for-profit private ownership. 4

This history is by now familiar, but no less striking for that. The Housing Act of 1937 was passed to enable the state to do what the market has never shown any inclination to do — to build and operate “decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings for families of low income.” 5 Now, after decades of laws which have undercut that capacity, housing for people with low incomes continues to be produced, but largely through the private sector, and under the more general term “affordable housing.” The role of public authorities is mostly limited to oversight and administration and, sometimes, to land ownership. It’s estimated that the number of units owned and operated by housing authorities has decreased by more than a quarter-million in the past three decades, either through physical destruction or transfer to private ownership, from a one-time high of 1.5 million. 6 “No other major industrial nation has permitted the level of destitution and decay found in the United States,” writes housing scholar Peter Dreier, “and few have allowed decent housing to get so far beyond the economic reach of so many families.” 7

Millers River Apartments, Cambridge, Massachusetts, undergoing renovation.
Millers River Apartments, Cambridge, Massachusetts, undergoing renovation. [Left: Chris Moyer; right: Cambridge Housing Authority]

Millers River, in the distance, under construction, March 2020.
Millers River, in the distance, March 2020. [Susanne Schindler]

Given this historical context, it is all the more remarkable that the Cambridge Housing Authority has been able to build and operate projects like Millers River— projects that outshine market-driven offerings in the quality of their architecture and the proficiency of their maintenance. How has this been possible? To answer this question, we interviewed key protagonists, read annual reports, and researched the archives. 8 (Full disclosure: one of us was an intern at the CHA during the writing of this article, and is now a project manager at the organization.) What we learned about the CHA was revealing, and relevant beyond the particularities of a prosperous university town in a small northeastern state. But before we dive into the story, a word about politics, and the public, and why “public” matters.

This article is an attack on what has become political orthodoxy in the U.S. — the proposition that public housing is a failure.

We’ll get right to the point. This article is an attack on what has become political orthodoxy in the United States: the proposition that public housing has been a social, economic, and architectural failure, 9 and that the provision of housing for people whose incomes are too low to rent or buy through private markets should be entrusted to those very same markets. Not only is the logic contradictory; so too are the financing mechanisms — the significant public investment, often in the form of tax credits — that make affordable housing an attractive and lucrative proposition for private developers. Today, the inadequacies of this approach — the market failure, if you will — are everywhere apparent. This year’s report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies detailed the problems: rising costs, ill-maintained buildings, persistent race-based inequities, and an “ongoing affordability crisis.” 10 As Peter Marcuse and David Madden have written, “there is no U.S. state where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford to rent or own a one-bedroom dwelling.” 11 Clearly the system needs thoroughgoing reform. But that’s not enough; ultimately what’s needed is a new narrative about American housing — a narrative that reclaims “public housing” from its negative associations, that asserts the value of housing as a public good, and that establishes truly public housing — funded, developed, owned, and operated by public agencies — as beneficial not only to the residents who are directly served but to society as a whole. 12

Established in 1935, the Cambridge Housing Authority was, in its early decades, typical of municipal authorities across the country in both its approach and limitations. Its initial projects were clusters of walk-up and mid-rise apartment buildings, located on central sites made available through “slum clearance” or on vacant land at the edges of town. Construction was funded either by direct federal appropriations, by local bond measures, or, after the Second World War, by a state program set up to serve military veterans. Operating costs were paid for with rental revenue. By the early 1960s, the CHA owned and operated almost 1,500 apartments in ten developments scattered throughout the compact city (Cambridge is slightly more than seven square miles). Most properties were segregated by race.

Left: Moving vans and moving men filled the snow-covered walks in the park of Newtowne Court as it opened for tenants on January 14, 1938. Right: Mary Mosley and two of her three brothers move into their new apartment at Newtowne Court on January 14, 1938.
Left: Moving vans and moving men filled the snow-covered walks in the park of Newtowne Court as it opened for tenants on January 14, 1938. [Cambridge Historical Commission. Cambridge Photo Morgue Collection.] Right: Mary Mosley and two of her three brothers move into their new apartment at Newtowne Court on January 14, 1938. [Cambridge Historical Commission. Cambridge Photo Morgue Collection]

In the mid-1960s, the CHA began to engage in public-private partnerships. Again, this was typical; in those years, the newly created Department of Housing and Urban Development, convinced that private-sector projects were more efficient and cost-effective, began promoting programs that reimbursed builders of low-income housing. It was just such a program that produced Millers River: the project was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in part to alleviate a housing shortage exacerbated by its students, and then handed over to the CHA to own and manage. 13 By the early ’70s, the agency’s portfolio had expanded to include 2,300 apartments in sixteen properties, one-third for the elderly. Yet despite this increase, the CHA was — again, like many of its counterparts in other cities — in trouble. Congressional appropriations were being cut; new policies required housing authorities to prioritize the very poor, and limited how much could be charged in rent, making it impossible to support operations through rental income. Meanwhile there were reports of nepotism in staff hiring and tenant selection. The state accused the CHA of “slipshod management” and, by late 1973, was threatening to take the authority into receivership. 14

Now, almost half a century later, the Cambridge Housing Authority is no longer typical; today it is routinely praised as “sophisticated” and “high-performing.” 15 According to this year’s annual report, the authority now serves roughly 5,000 households in Cambridge — about one-tenth of the city’s households — and an additional 2,300 in neighboring cities. 16 The CHA is sought out by peer agencies as a consultant, advises HUD on new policies, and acts as a developer and manager for its own properties as well as for those of housing authorities in nearby towns.

Activist Saundra Graham interrupts the 1970 Harvard commencement to protest a university dormitory project that would displace residents in an historically Black neighborhood.
Activist Saundra Graham interrupts the 1970 Harvard commencement to protest a university dormitory project that would displace residents in an historically Black neighborhood. [Cambridge Historical Commission. Cambridge Photo Morgue Collection.]

The CHA's "reform board," ca. 1980; James Stockard is at left, with (left to right) Warren McManus, Eileen Henry, Irving Tobin, and Gerard Clark.
The CHA’s “reform board,” 1983; James Stockard is at left, with (left to right) Irving M. Tobin, Eileen Henry, Gerard Clark, and Warren McManus.  The photograph appeared in the CHA’s 1983 Annual Report.

The story of the CHA’s remarkable rehabilitation came into sharp focus during our conversation with James Stockard. A widely respected advocate for fair housing, Stockard has taught for many years at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and is co-author of the 1996 book Managing Public Housing. He has also been a longtime ally of the Cambridge Housing Authority, serving eight terms, from 1974 to 2014, on its five-person board of commissioners. Asked to explain the agency’s emergence from near-receivership, Stockard describes a galvanizing moment at the 1970 Harvard commencement, “when Saundra Graham took the microphone.” 17 Graham was a young political activist who disrupted the graduation ceremonies to protest the displacement of tenants in an historically Black neighborhood to make way for new undergraduate residences. “We will not be pushed out of our homes,” she declared. 18 According to Stockard, it was the tenant organizing and direct action of Graham and other protestors that prompted the governor of Massachusetts to appoint him, then a 31-year-old planner with a new degree, to what became known as the “reform board” of the CHA. The reform board was soon calling for far-reaching changes, including the appointment of a new executive director, and these in turn led to what the agency itself calls its “ten transitional years.” 19

Jim Stockard remembers these years as exciting and experimental — a period when the CHA staff and board adopted a range of new strategies and approaches. To start, the board underscored the agency’s public mission, and insisted on setting clear lines of responsibility and eliminating patronage. In practice, this meant that municipal leaders no longer intervened in agency operations, and that board members no longer rewarded political allies with staff positions or solicited preferential placement for family members in CHA apartments. The board limited its role to setting policy goals, approving budgets, and appointing the executive director. As Stockard emphasizes, these practices are the very basics of good public administration, but had been too often ignored by the struggling agency and the city. In the early years of the new millennium, the CHA reflected on this relationship in an annual report: “One of the reasons the CHA has been able to provide quality housing for over a quarter of a century is that the administrative and political leadership of Cambridge has asked nothing of the Authority other than to do a professional job, and the City has supported that kind of work at every turn.” 20


In addition to improving internal operations, the CHA sought to regain the trust of tenants. To this end, the authority realized that architecture could itself be a valuable asset, and so it prioritized the “comprehensive modernization” of its oldest properties, which were so poorly maintained and managed that potential residents who had been on waiting lists for years were reluctant to move in. At Roosevelt Towers, a complex of mid- and low-rise buildings constructed in 1950, an eight-story tower had become so deteriorated and unsafe that it was shuttered. A 1973 account in the Harvard Crimson, titled “Roosevelt Towers Burns While Bureaucrats Fiddle,” describes hallways that “reeked of urine,” mailboxes “ripped from the wall, probably by thieves looking for checks,” and “rows of plywood windows — signs of burned-out apartments.” 21 Here the modernization process not only addressed the building’s physical decay, with new electrical and heating systems, new kitchens, and new windows; it also reconfigured the complex, with the tower reserved for small, mostly elderly households, and the adjacent walk-up apartments for families. 22

The CHA realized that architecture could be a valuable asset in regaining the trust of residents.

At Washington Elms, a low-rise complex constructed in 1942, the CHA proposed a renovation that would significantly reduce the number of units (from 324 to 175) in order to create larger apartments and a new community center. Realizing that the plan was controversial, the city consulted closely with tenants, even paying for their independent legal counsel. Saundra Graham, now a city councilor, led residents in a planning process that took more than a year, and reinforced the value of residents’ participation in decision-making about architectural, spatial, and programmatic issues, even if it meant extended schedules and higher costs. In its 1980 Annual Report, the CHA acknowledged the value of the new approach: “Effective tenant leadership which provides loyal opposition is important to the further improvement of public housing in Cambridge.” 23 In other words, the CHA learned that direct and sustained engagement was essential in order to earn the trust of residents, even (or especially) of those who opposed their plans; and more, that if public housing looked good and felt safe to neighbors, it would earn the public’s trust as well.

In recent decades, the CHA has continued to modernize Roosevelt Towers, once notorious for disrepair and neglect.
In recent decades, the CHA has continued to modernize Roosevelt Towers, once notorious for disrepair and neglect; the latest revitalization began in 2020. [Chris Moyer]

Display at the Pisani Center, the community building that serves both Newtowne Court and Washington Elms, of a quilt created by residents showing scenes in the history of public housing in Cambridge.
Display at the Pisani Center, the community facility that serves both Newtowne Court and Washington Elms. The quilts were made by residents to mark the 50th anniversary of the CHA and its first projects. [Chris Moyer]

In 1976, the CHA published its annual report as a supplement to the Cambridge Chronicle, the city's leading newspaper.
In 1976, the CHA published its annual report as a supplement to the Cambridge Chronicle, the city’s leading newspaper.

That public housing was not just last-resort shelter for the poor but also a vital component of the city’s diversity was a crucial argument in the CHA’s bid for broad-based support.

Another new strategy promoted by the reform board was strong public communication, and the CHA pursued this goal with energy and imagination. In 1976, three years after the threat of receivership, the authority published its first annual report in many years, which it released as an eight-page supplement to the local weekly newspaper. Not only did the report reach a far wider readership than it would have had it simply been filed in the records room in City Hall; it made the bold argument that public housing was an asset not just to residents but to all citizens — and that the broader citizenry had a right to demand that this be so. “It will take a long time to make every public housing unit in Cambridge a pleasant, comfortable, safe home where any citizen would be proud to live with dignity,” the report authors wrote. “Our residents have a right to expect us to pursue that objective and we are convinced the citizens of Cambridge will settle for nothing less.” 24 A few years later, in its 1980 report, the CHA went further, positioning its work as central to the city’s racial and socioeconomic diversity and emphasizing that this diversity was vital to the city’s future. “Because of economic pressures,” the authors wrote, “the distinct character of neighborhoods … is almost certain to change unless the City and the Housing Authority use available funds in creative ways to ensure that the traditional resident of Cambridge can remain.” 25 That public housing was not just last-resort shelter for the poor, but an essential component of the city’s ability to attract and retain a range of residents, was a crucial argument in the CHA’s bid to earn broad-based public support.

It is telling that the transitional decade of the Cambridge Housing Authority coincided with that pronounced policy shift — the federal disinvestment in public housing — described earlier; and for this reason, the CHA built few new properties in these years. Yet the agency initiated prescient strategies to expand its portfolio, including the purchase of newly constructed properties for conversion to public status and the adaptive reuse of historic structures. In these years, for example, the CHA acquired a four-story neoclassical building, dating to 1907, that had once been a convent, and a late 19th-century school, and converted both to congregate housing for the elderly and people with disabilities. 26 By the early 1990s, the CHA was operating more than 2,600 units. As it turned out, over the next decades, the agency would need all its newfound organizational credibility and administrative creativity to navigate the continuing waves of privatization and deregulation. 27

To learn more about the transformation of the Cambridge Housing Authority, we talked with Margaret Moran, the deputy executive director, who directs its planning and development work. Moran has spent almost her entire career at the agency, starting in 1983 after graduating from Boston College with a degree in history and economics. She is widely praised for her analytical prowess, her ability to parse the fine print of a real estate deal, and her unwavering dedication to public service; colleagues and collaborators describe her as “a force.” When asked to explain the CHA’s effectiveness, Moran’s response was unhesitating: what’s made the signal difference, she told us, is the agency’s designation within the federal housing system as a “Moving to Work” authority. 28

Margaret Moran, speaking to the HAI Group, an organization that provides insurance for public housing.
Margaret Moran, speaking in October 2019 to the HAI Group, an organization that provides insurance for public and affordable housing. [Cambridge Housing Authority]

Moran explained the significance of Moving to Work, or MTW. Launched by HUD in 1996, at the end of Bill Clinton’s first term, the program aims to test whether loosening federal restrictions and protocols will enable local housing authorities to generate innovative and cost-saving practices while also providing more options to residents, including the ability to remain eligible for assistance even as their incomes rise — hence, the rubric “moving to work.” The CHA was one of just 30 authorities selected to participate in the first pilot program. In 1999, its MTW status became official, and has been renewed ever since; all of which is significant, for only “high-performing” agencies can qualify for the program. 29 “Moving to Work has uncuffed us as an agency,” Moran says. “Traditional housing authorities receive discrete pots of federal support: vouchers, capital funds, operating subsidies. Now, with MTW, we receive the money and have the flexibility to spend it as we see fit. We have even been able to add units.”

As an example of this flexibility, Moran described the ways in which the CHA made tactical use of HOPE VI funding. In most cities, HOPE VI grants were used to conform with the program’s goal of privatization, usually by selecting developers to demolish high-rise projects and construct new low- and mid-rise complexes that mixed income-restricted and market-rate units. (As Lawrence Vale wrote in this journal, the destruction of Cabrini-Green and other projects on the South Side of Chicago was arguably the most notorious episode of this controversial program. 30)

Rather than using HOPE VI to privatize its properties, the CHA doubled down on its mission to serve low-income tenants.

In contrast, the CHA used a $5-million HOPE VI grant, awarded in 1998, to take out $15 million in loans. It dedicated a portion of this funding to the renovation of John F. Kennedy Apartments, an eight-story tower constructed in 1963. A trio of firms — Tise Design Associates in collaboration with HTK Architects and BWA Architecture — transformed 83 small, uniform apartments into 69 larger units that accommodated both independent and supportive living for senior residents. The rest of the funding was used to acquire fourteen scattered-site condominiums and provide homes for young adults with disabilities. 31 With these projects, the CHA effectively upended the expectations of HOPE VI. Not only did the agency refuse to transfer some portion of its portfolio to private developers, who might have reduced the number of low-income apartments in order to make the project “mixed-income”; instead, it doubled down on its mission to serve “extremely low-income” tenants while also proactively exploring new service arrangements that enhanced its capacity to serve residents. 32

John F. Kennedy Apartments, a CHA residence for the elderly was modernized by Tise Design Associates in collaboration with HTK Architects and BWA Architecture; the project was completed in 2008.
John F. Kennedy Apartments, a CHA residence for the elderly, was modernized by Tise Design Associates in collaboration with HTK Architects and BWA Architecture; the renovation was completed in 2008. [Chris Moyer]

In theory, Section 8 vouchers offer choice and flexibility; in practice, the program is dysfunctional. The CHA’s response was adroit and creative.

The CHA has been just as strategic in its approach to Section 8 vouchers. Since the mid-’70s, HUD’s Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program has allowed low-income tenants to use federal subsidies to rent apartments from private landlords at what HUD defines as a “fair market rent.” 33 Under current rules, tenants pay 30 percent of their income; the subsidies, paid directly to landlords, cover the difference. In theory, vouchers offer recipients choice and flexibility; for instance, the ability to move from what HUD describes as “extreme poverty” areas (often understood to be urban) to “higher-opportunity” districts with better schools and services (often understood to be suburban). In practice, the program is dysfunctional. In many cities, especially in high-rent places like Cambridge, too few apartments are available at the HUD-determined rates, and often these apartments are located in those very same “extreme-poverty” neighborhoods. Section 8 holders face widespread discrimination and, due to limited funding, only about one in four eligible households gets federal assistance in the first place. Unsurprisingly, waiting lists for both vouchers and units are endless. “Getting a Section 8 voucher is hard,” according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report. “Finding a landlord willing to accept it is harder.” 34

To counter these problems, the CHA has kept its vouchers close to home. Many are attached not to people, but to properties, and dedicated for use in new affordable housing constructed by local non-profit developers. 35 In the late ’90s, for example, the CHA collaborated with Homeowner’s Rehab, Inc. to build Auburn Court, a six-story mid-rise surrounded by a cluster of three-story townhouses, all designed in a traditional idiom to blend into a neighborhood of 19th-century brick and clapboard houses. As is invariably the case with affordable housing in America, the financing was intricate: the CHA had access to vouchers; HRI had access to tax credits; the land was leased from MIT. Today, the authority provides vouchers for more than half the project’s apartments and, in so doing, participates, albeit indirectly, in mixed-income development. 36 But what’s especially significant is that the CHA remained an active partner throughout the project, and in the process honed its skills as a developer of new housing — skills that many public authorities have altogether lost in the past half century.

Auburn Court was developed by Homeowners Rehab, Inc. in collaboration with the CHA.
Auburn Court was developed by Homeowners Rehab, Inc. in collaboration with the CHA; the project was designed by Goody Clancy in two phases, 1996 and 2000. [Chris Moyer]

Moran shared with us yet another of the CHA’s innovative strategies. Starting in the late ’80s, the agency set up a series of nonprofit affiliates that have allowed it to expand its capacity and portfolio. 37 Though operated by the CHA, the affiliated organizations are, legally, separate entities; thus they can access funding that would otherwise be unavailable to a public authority. One of the most important of these subsidiaries is the Cambridge Affordable Housing Corporation, which was established in 1989 to enlarge the CHA’s portfolio through the inclusion of units that are not, strictly speaking, publicly owned. In practice, this means that the CAHC is able to buy existing apartments, which the CHA can then make affordable through Section 8 vouchers. 38

To cite one example: in 2001, with financing from the city and Harvard University, the CAHC purchased a four-story, red-brick, formerly rent-controlled apartment building in Porter Square, a neighborhood near Harvard Law School that’s popular with students; it then used vouchers to convert the 65-unit building to housing for very low-income tenants. De jure, the project is not public housing. De facto, the project functions as public housing. It is operated by the CHA; the apartments are subject to affordability restrictions; and a self-renewing housing-assistance contract is designed to keep them affordable in perpetuity. As a result of numerous similar projects with its affiliates, the CHA has, since 1999, added almost 400 dwellings to its portfolio through acquisitions both small and large, including several dozen apartments for assisted living and skilled nursing, and two in one of the city’s market-rate cohousing communities. 39 (In the process of adding all these units, the CHA has deftly subverted the intention of the Faircloth Amendment.)

The CHA’s negotiating skills can be seen in its agile cultivation of opportunities that arose during Barack Obama’s first term.

More recently, the CHA’s skill in negotiating partnerships can be seen in its agile cultivation of opportunities that arose during Barack Obama’s first term. In response to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the stimulus bill passed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis — the CHA applied for federal funding and was awarded four grants, totaling nearly $29 million. It then leveraged this funding, in combination with tax credits and state and local grants, to complete more than $80 million in renovations to its aging properties, including the extensive rehabilitation and energy retrofit of Lyndon B. Johnson Apartments, an eleven-story, senior-housing tower constructed in 1973. This same federal funding also supported wholesale demolition and new construction at Lincoln Way, a 60-unit, low-rise complex, opened in 1950. Completed in 2013, the new project comprises six energy-efficient, townhouse-style buildings that offer a range of apartment types for 70 households. The design, by BWA Architecture, is another instance of the CHA’s strategic deployment of architecture — from the overall expression to the smallest detail — as a central tool in the fulfillment of its mission.

Lyndon B. Johnson Apartments, a CHA residence serving the elderly and those with disabilities, was modernized by Tise Design Associates; the project was completed in 2013.
Lyndon B. Johnson Apartments, a CHA residence serving the elderly and those with disabilities, constructed in 1973, was modernized by Tise Design Associates; the project was completed in 2013. [Chris Moyer (left); Jim Raycroft Photography, courtesy of Tise Design (right)]

Lincoln Way, a CHA property designed by BWA Architecture, and completed in 2013.
Lincoln Way, a CHA property designed by BWA Architecture, and completed in 2013. [Shupe Studios]

In 2016, the CHA used a RAD conversation to finance the renovation of the Frank J. Manning Apartments, a project for seniors and residents with disabilities constructed in 1976; the project architect was Bargmann Hendrie + Archetype Inc.
In 2016, the CHA used a RAD conversion to finance the renovation of the Frank J. Manning Apartments, a high-rise residence for seniors and those with disabilities constructed in 1976; the project architect was Bargmann Hendrie + Archetype Inc. [Chris Moyer]

The Rental Assistance Demonstration Program offered another occasion for the CHA to deploy its administrative ingenuity. Launched in 2013, at the start of Obama’s second term, RAD aims to facilitate the conversion of traditional public housing to privately owned, voucher-subsidized housing. The program has been controversial and criticized by social justice advocates for encouraging the further privatization of public goods. 40 But its framework has proven useful to the CHA; the program has provided the authority, through its nonprofit affiliates, with long-term stable funding, and also allowed it to borrow against assets and hold more substantial capital and operating reserves, which in turn have enabled easier access to private loans and equity for redevelopment projects. 41 Newly empowered, the CHA went all-in on RAD; or, in real estate jargon, it “repositioned” almost its entire portfolio of more than 2,100 federally assisted apartments, converting them over the course of several years to voucher-based housing. 42 To complete these conversions, the CHA partnered with major banks, as investors, and with its own nonprofit subsidiaries, as development partners. The agency has taken great care to structure its complex RAD contracts so that it continues to manage its buildings (rather than ceding this role to a third-party management company, which is typical in RAD deals). Even more crucially, the CHA has structured contracts so that at the conclusion of the partnership, it resumes (through its subsidiaries) ownership of properties. 43

The CHA’s stratagems testify to the needless complexities of a public housing system contorted by privatization.

The innovative approaches to HOPE VI, to Section 8, to RAD all testify to the managerial perseverance, the legal and financial savvy, of a housing authority that has become expert at writing grant proposals, dissecting the technicalities of real estate deals, negotiating with investors, contracting and collaborating with architects, builders, and developers. But these administrative stratagems testify as well to the unnecessary complexities that have come to characterize a public housing system that’s been contorted by decades of privatization. These complexities are indeed so absurd that we hesitated to describe them in detail — to burden our story with exasperating technicalities. 44 But the deeper we dug, the more we realized that these technicalities, the maddening minutiae, are in fact central to the system and to the political stunting of public authorities’ mission to provide housing for the poor. “The overarching theme in bureaucratic failures can often be traced back to political animus, aimed not at the bureaucracy itself but indirectly at the disadvantaged (often minority) populations it seeks to serve,” writes journalist Kohl Neal in Current Affairs. 45

We began to grasp the extent of the problem as we probed the backstory of Millers River, and came to realize that the project is not just a successful building rehabilitation; it is a case history in the calculated dysfunctions of the system. Margaret Moran was heroically patient as she described the series of contradictory rules — the absurdities — that the agency had to grapple with in order to renovate the property and maintain its status as housing for low-income elderly residents.

Here is an absurdity of the system: to preserve Millers River, the CHA had to declare it obsolete.

Here is the first absurdity: to preserve Millers River, the CHA had to declare it obsolete. Millers River was not, of course, actually obsolete. As Moran explained, the decades-old building required extensive renovations that were too costly to finance through the usual option; that is, a RAD conversion. 46 So, to close the funding gap, the CHA pursued a high-risk, high-reward strategy involving yet another federal program with a semi-enigmatic name: Section 18, or “demolition/disposition,” a 2006 amendment to the housing act that allows a public authority to remove a property from its portfolio by establishing its physical, structural, or environmental “obsolescence.” 47 Unsurprisingly, the process was protracted: in early 2015, the CHA submitted a 300-page Section 18 application to HUD, and, eighteen months later, received official approval that the project was indeed “physically obsolete.” Thus empowered (shall we say) to divest itself of a property that it wanted to retain, the CHA then “disposed” of Millers River; as it happened, the entity to which it was disposed was Essex Street Management, Inc., one of the nonprofit affiliates it had already created in response to the arcana of housing finance. Now reclassified as “privately owned affordable housing,” and being developed not by the Cambridge Housing Authority but by one its proxies, Millers River had access to pots of federal funding — specifically, Section 8 vouchers — that had been off limits when the project was called “public housing.”


All of which was absurd enough. But there is more: for as it turned out, the recategorized and privatized Millers River was able to receive significantly larger federal subsidies than it had before its Section 18 recasting. Newly eligible for a long-term government contract for vouchers, and also for access to low-income housing tax credits (more on these in a moment), Millers River was now generating for the nonprofit Essex Street Management approximately double the rental revenue that it had for the public Cambridge Housing Authority. 48 To put it plainly: to continue operating as low-cost housing for the elderly, Millers River had to cease functioning as a public good and be bureaucratically reborn as a reliably lucrative private property. Do we need to add that the original federal support was never calculated to cover actual capital and operational costs? Or that this is yet another refutation of the assumption that the private sector is more cost-effective?

It’s already clear, of course, that the activation of “demo/dispo” points to yet another absurdity of the system: to maintain effective control of the project, the CHA relinquished official control of the project. Here again, the agency was following the funding; in particular, access to the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program, or LIHTC, the Reagan-era legislation created to incentivize the use of private equity for affordable housing construction. The revitalization of Millers River was thus carried out by a partnership assembled for the project, consisting of the LIHTC investor, in this case Wells Fargo, and Essex Street Management.

Reclassifying the building and restructuring its ownership were painstaking processes, but as we learned from Moran, these were merely the preconditions that enabled the CHA to arrange the fiendishly intricate financing that would provide for a construction contract of almost $115 million to renovate a property that had become, in its own assessment, “brittle” and “antiquated.” For Moran and her colleagues, the goals of the project were at once architectural, environmental, and social. They wanted to modernize the building and improve the lives of residents — to upgrade plumbing, electrical, and ventilation systems; to remove asbestos; to update kitchens and bathrooms; to enclose balconies and thus enlarge interior spaces; to replace studios with more desirable one-bedroom apartments. 49

To achieve their social goals, the CHA needed to position Millers River as an appealing proposition for private investors seeking tax credits.

But to achieve these goals, the CHA needed to position Millers River as an appealing business opportunity for private investors seeking federal tax credits. To describe such deal-making as arduous is an understatement; as a recent study from the Urban Institute noted, “LIHTC deals are complex, involving private investors and partners spanning all levels of government as well as real estate finance specialists and legal and tax experts.” 50 In its local permit application, submitted in 2018, the CHA noted that it had been “working for years to assemble a funding path forward for this very expensive rehabilitation at this large property,” a path that would comprise “a mix of sources including private equity via 4% Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program, tax exempt bonds, long-term private debt, and loans from the CHA.” 51

This “mix of sources” exposes yet another absurdity of the system: although intended to reduce “wasteful” government spending and encourage “market” efficiency, the complexities of LIHTC partnerships almost invariably prolong project schedules and increase project costs. Architect Kerry Dietz, principal in charge of the Millers River renovation, emphasizes that LIHTC processes added significantly to the overall cost, given the attorneys, engineers, and architects retained by the tax-credit investor to review and monitor progress. As she said: “Everyone is passing the risk.” 52 Margaret Moran made a similar point: “There is a whole industry that has grown up around LIHTC and that wants a slice of the pie.” A report from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at Berkeley put it this way: “The multiple sources of financing that LIHTC properties often require to make the math work can impose inefficiencies that add to a development’s total costs in both direct and indirect ways.” 53

Millers River Apartments, June 2022.
Millers River Apartments, June 2022. [Chris Moyer]

At Millers River, these imposed inefficiencies took predictably labyrinthine form: the CHA, which owned the land and the building, decided early on to sell the building at its highest assessed value to the LIHTC partnership — a seemingly counterintuitive move, since in most projects land and/or building acquisition is usually the single largest development cost. Why would they do this? Why relinquish ownership, usually an ideal condition for keeping costs down? Inevitably, the answer can be traced back to regulatory complexities: because the amount of tax credits depends upon the so-called “eligible basis” — that is, the costs that qualify for credits — and because the sale of the building maximized these eligible costs, Millers River was thus made that much more appealing to potential LIHTC investors. 54 In other words, to play by the rules of the game, the CHA sold an asset it already owned to a contractual version of itself, and then encumbered that asset with debt because doing so would ultimately produce more tax write-offs for the private-sector investor partner, which would in turn translate into more equity for the project.

Margaret Moran sighed and said, succinctly: “This is not the way I would do it. This is the most ineffective way you could do it. Direct grants would be more cost effective and efficient. But this is the only way available to us.”

As Jim Stockard recounted the struggles and achievements of the Cambridge Housing Authority, his continuing passion for public housing was apparent. Municipal authorities are, he emphasized, ideally suited to operating low-income housing precisely because they are set up to be accountable to the public. Their bylaws require board members to be elected by voters (which is typical in small towns) or appointed by elected officials (which is typical in larger municipalities, including Cambridge). Their budgets must be available for public review. Their hiring and procurement practices must adhere to fair labor laws and strict public bidding processes (which, as is well understood, usually increase the cost of public projects). 55 Just as important, public authorities are set up to last — to be responsible from one generation to the next and to manage their assets accordingly. As Stockard pointed out, all these practices contrast sharply with those of private developers, both for-profit and nonprofit, whose obligations are not to the public but to shareholders or trustees; whose internal operations are not required to be transparent and are often opaque; whose timelines are often determined not by the enduring human need for shelter but rather by the market-driven desire for a rapid return on investment.

The CHA’s public status and accountability have a direct impact on the architectural distinction of its properties.

The CHA’s public status and long-range accountability have a direct impact on the architectural distinction of its properties. The superior quality of the buildings that inspired us to pursue this story in the first place is a fortunate consequence of the agency’s keen awareness that it is responsible not just for design and construction but also for management, maintenance, and repair over decades. As a result, agency staff pay close attention to the myriad decisions that determine the durability of an architectural project, from programming and site planning to facade detailing and material selection. They are willing to spend more on architects’ fees and on higher-grade components and landscaping. And they devote significant time to engaging with tenants, many in vulnerable populations, to ensure their comfort, safety, and well-being.

In the year before construction began on Millers River, the CHA held “18 meetings, office hours, a Green Charrette, and other interactive events” with residents. 56 It was at these meetings that staffers and tenants debated the key question of whether to enclose the balconies. Some residents described the pleasure of sitting outdoors in good weather, while others recounted the nuisance of nesting pigeons. The ultimate decision — to enclose — was thus made through a sustained participatory process. Our own interactions with Millers River residents suggest that such efforts are appreciated. Charles Prater, a former chef and security guard in his late sixties, told us the CHA was sensitive to his (and other residents’) wishes to minimize the dislocations of the construction period. Lately he’s become a part-time building coordinator for the CHA; in that role, he ensures that packages reach their owners, that washers and dryers are working, that entrances remain secure. Another resident, Mac McLaren, a former crossing guard in his late seventies, told us that he was grateful to remain in Cambridge, where he’s lived most of his life, and he credits the CHA with making that possible.

Charles Prater, one of the residents of the renovated Millers River Apartments.
Charles Prater, one of the residents of the renovated Millers River Apartments. [Cambridge Housing Authority]

Millers River can be understood as a success story for one hard-working, high-functioning housing authority. To be sure, there are local circumstances that have furthered its success. Cambridge, with 120,000 residents, is a midsize city; hence, more manageable than metropolises like New York or Chicago. The city has long self-identified as a stronghold of progressivism. (Not for nothing does U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren live here.) This progressivism can be seen in the establishment of municipal tools like the Affordable Housing Trust, set up in 1989, and the Affordable Housing Overlay, adopted in 2020, both of which are dedicated to expanding options for low-income residents. 57 It’s also significant that Cambridge is at once a university town and a boom town, its municipal coffers fattened by a growing cluster of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies attracted by Harvard and MIT. 58

Direct public action can produce housing that is better designed and maintained, more generous and humane, than that created by the under-performing system that now prevails.

The Cambridge Housing Authority may have benefited from a well-funded network of civic, institutional, and business actors; nonetheless, its recent history can be understood as a refutation of the longstanding political shibboleth that public housing is a failure. The time has come to reject this narrative; to dismantle what architectural historian Reinhold Martin called, in this journal, “the pervasive, historically constructed barrier that has increasingly prevented us, over the past 40 years or so, from using the word ‘public’ in public in anything like an informed, enlightened, and unapologetic way when it comes to housing.” 59 It’s time to take apart the maniacally convoluted system that forces public servants to perform what Margaret Moran calls administrative “acrobatics” in order to provide a young family or retired worker with an apartment that is — again, to quote the 1937 Housing Act — “decent, safe, and sanitary.” It’s time for the United States, for its voters and taxpayers, to embrace the proposition that direct public action — direct funding, development, ownership, and management — can produce housing that is not only more efficient, better designed and maintained, but also more generous and humane than that produced by the over-complicated and under-performing system that now prevails. 60

More than 80 years ago, Catherine Bauer, the lead author of the 1937 Housing Act, wrote her seminal book Modern Housing. Writing amidst the anxieties of the Great Depression, Bauer unsparingly assessed the dismal state of American dwellings in the early decades of the 20th century:

The combined efforts of speculative builders, building and loan associations, and individuals building for themselves, cannot supply a new dwelling at a price which even the half the population can pay. And the buildings which they do construct are for the most part either built-in slums, or so badly laid out and constructed as to constitute incipient “blighted areas” from the start. The net result is that the American Standard of Living today, even in times of “prosperity,” is one of the lowest in the western world with respect to light, air, facilities for group living, and even basic sanitation. 61

Bauer’s argument became, in the words of historian Barbara Penner, “a rallying cry for … government-sponsored, noncommercial housing in America.” 62 Alas, it’s a rallying cry that remains just as relevant today.

Modern Housing, by Catherine Bauer, was published in 1934. Three years later, Bauer was lead author of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937. In 2020, thanks to growing interest in Bauer and public housing, University of Minnesota Press published a new edition of Modern Housing, which had been long out of print.
Modern Housing, by Catherine Bauer, was published in 1934. Three years later, Bauer was lead author of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937. In 2020, thanks to growing interest in Bauer and public housing, Modern Housing, which had been long out of print, was republished by University of Minnesota Press.

Recent proposals for social housing from a range or organizations.
Calls for social housing and new types of housing authorities are being made by a range or organizations across the United States.

There are gratifying indications that a new housing narrative, with calls for stronger public authorities, is gaining ground.

Yet there are gratifying indications that a new housing narrative, including calls for stronger public-sector authorities, is gaining ground. In a 2016 essay in The Nation, historian Matthew Gordon Lasner deplored the failures of a “cumbersome” public-private system that had become too complex to function effectively. “What if, instead of tax credits, mansion taxes, housing trust funds, community land trusts, block grants, legal aid, and anxiety over gentrification …,” he wrote, “we fought for the one system that really works: deep government subsidies?” 63 In a 2020 white paper from the Urban Democracy Lab at New York University, sociologists Gianpaolo Baiocchi and H. Jacob Carlson argued that we are “at the brink of a generation-defining housing emergency”; in response, they call for the creation of a federal “Social Housing Development Authority” that would generate “lasting solutions for the housing crisis by purchasing distressed real estate … and financing its transfer to the social housing sector.” 64 Last year, in California, a state assembly member from San Jose introduced the “Social Housing Bill” to facilitate the creation of “functioning housing authorities” in cities and counties, as well as a “California Social Housing Council” that would “educate participants on the history and purposes of social housing.” 65 And earlier this fall, a report from the New York-based Community Service Society proposed “20 policies to shift from private profit to public good,” in order to “shield our housing from the worst aspects of speculative investment and put New York on a path to social housing transformation.” 66

The achievements of the CHA, its adroit negotiation of a misbegotten system, underscore that public authorities can be crucial drivers of the future of housing.

These scholars and activists support direct public investment in housing; but for the most part, the recipients of public investment would be private, noncommercial entities including nonprofit corporations, community land trusts, and mission-driven developers. Public housing authorities are mentioned rarely, and largely as a legacy to be managed rather than as a resource to be strengthened. Too often those who decry the current system cling to the old preconception that private-sector development is inherently better and more efficient than truly and unapologetically public housing. Certainly this assumption underlies a recent article in the New York Times by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, on the RAD-financed renovation of a Bronx mid-rise public housing complex constructed in the early 1960s. In the story, which is largely appreciative of the project, the author seems unquestioningly to accept that public authorities will be “chronically underfunded and freighted by bureaucracy.” Not once does the critic point out that private developers have been able to renovate and manage the property — and make a profit doing so — only because of the generous public investment available to them through RAD financing; nor does he note that this investment was not available to the city’s public housing authority, whose role has been limited to oversight. 67

The chronic underfunding of public housing is unquestionable, as is the bureaucratic freighting. But these are not inevitable; these problems are the result of powerful political forces that for half a century have financialized and privatized the system. Over decades, one program after another — Section 8, LIHTC, HOPE VI, Moving to Work, Section 18, RAD — has been launched, each claiming to fix the problems of the previous program only to introduce new problems that will need to be fixed by the next program. In striking contrast, the sustained achievements of the Cambridge Housing Authority, its adroit negotiation of a misbegotten system, underscore the potential for public authorities to be crucial drivers of the future of housing — and to extend their purview to encompass not only the low-income households they have traditionally served but also the growing ranks of middle-class people who struggle to make rent in our current gilded age.

Authors' Note

We are grateful to James Stockard and Margaret Moran for patiently explaining the history and realities of the Cambridge Housing Authority to us in multiple conversations and site visits. We would also like to thank Kerry Dietz and Lee Morrissette at Dietz & Company Architects; Tim Smith and Clara Fraden at the CHA; Jennifer Crampton at Wells Fargo; Taneisha Gerdin and colleagues at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and Millers River residents Charles Prater and Mac McLaren for their perspectives. For their close review of the text, special thanks go to Juliette Spertus, Jonathan Tarleton, and Lawrence Vale.

  1. Lawrence Vale, Purging the Poorest: Public Housing and the Design Politics of Twice-Cleared Communities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 1.
  2. In many municipalities and counties, housing authorities are, in legal terms, independent public-benefit corporations, not municipal departments (like police or education). For how this distinction emerged, see Gail Radford, The Rise of the Public Authority: Statebuilding and Economic Development in Twentieth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); and Chapter 4, “Housing by Authority: Postwar State Interventions in the ‘Anglosphere,’” 92–140, in Miles Glendinning, Mass Housing: Modern Architecture and State Power: A Global History (London: Bloomsbury, 2021).
  3. Mike Davis, “Gentrifying Disaster,” Mother Jones, October 25, 2005. See also National Housing Law Project, False HOPE: A Critical Assessment of the HOPE VI Public Housing Redevelopment Program, June 2002. [Editors’ note: all websites were accessed just prior to publication on December 15, 2022.]
  4. For a comprehensive overview of U.S, housing programs, see Alex F. Schwartz, Housing Policy in the United States, 4th edition (New York: Routledge, 2021).
  5. U.S. Housing Act of 1937, amended version.
  6. Rachel Garshick Kleit, “Public Housing Authorities as Social Enterprises?” 207–219, in Katrin B. Anacker, Mai Thi Nguyen, and David P. Varady, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Housing Policy and Planning (New York: Routledge, 2020), 215.
  7. Peter Dreier, “Why America Needs More Social Housing,” The American Prospect, April 16, 2018.
  8. To date there has been little to no scholarship on the Cambridge Housing Authority, except for a handful of master theses. This is a gap, especially in comparison to the New York City Housing Authority and the Chicago Housing Authority, which have been the focus of much study.
  9. The literature on the “failure” of public housing is enormous, comprising those who wish to dismantle the narrative of failure and those who wish to confirm it. For a sampling, see Katherine G. Bristol, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 44, no. 3 (1991): 163–171; Nicholas D. Bloom, Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Edward G. Goetz, New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice, and Public Housing Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); and Nicholas D. Bloom, Fritz Umbach, and Lawrence J. Vale, editors, Public Housing Myths: Perception, Reality, and Social Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015). Research that, at least rhetorically, builds on a diagnosis of failure includes D. Bradford Hunt, Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). For more on the paradox of deploying public funding to support the private development of income-restricted housing, see Susanne Schindler, “The Paradox at the Heart of the Fires,” Urban Omnibus, March 3, 2022.
  10. Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, The State of the Nation’s Housing 2022, 6.
  11. Peter Marcuse and David Madden, In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis (New York: Verso, 2016), Introduction (e-book).
  12. We use the term “public good” even though it is contested, in particular in relation to housing. In political theory, key criteria for defining “public goods” are their “joint consumability” or “non-rivalry,” as well as “non-exclusiveness” or “non-excludability”: that is, public goods are resources that can be consumed and enjoyed by all without diminishing their availability to others. It can be difficult to apply these criteria to housing, precisely because one person’s “consumption” of an apartment (i.e., choosing to rent it) diminishes the potential benefit to others. See, for example, Julian Reiss, “Public Goods,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Archive, Edward N. Zalta, editor, Fall 2021. As an example of efforts to create this new narrative, see “Public Housing: A New Conversation,” a project of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, launched in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
  13. For more on such “turnkey” projects, as these are defined by HUD, see Buying from Developers: A Guide to the “Turnkey” Method of Public Housing Construction, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1967.
  14. “New face to replace Hovnanian at CHA,” Cambridge Chronicle, January 17, 1974, 1, 6. “CHA’s shoddy management, poor planning, venality, ‘unparalleled’ throughout Mass., says state report,” Cambridge Chronicle, January 9, 1975, 1, 2.
  15. These are descriptions we repeatedly encountered in speaking about the Cambridge Housing Authority with architects, associated partners, and federal officials.
  16. Cambridge Housing Authority, Annual Plan 2022. See “CHA Housing and Demographic Information,” A11. For comparison, the Boston Housing Authority serves about double the number of households in a city more than five times the population of Cambridge.
  17. James Stockard, Zoom-based interview with the authors, July 26, 2021. All subsequent information attributed to Stockard is from this interview.
  18. Jeffery N. Gell, “Woman Storms, Takes Over Ceremony,” Harvard Crimson, June 6, 1995. Saundra Graham became a prominent local activist and politician, founding a community development corporation and serving as an elected member of the Cambridge City Council, and, for eight terms, the Massachusetts House of Representatives. For further discussion of Graham’s activism (and fantastic archival material), see Henry N. Lear and Benjy Wall-Feng, “Treeland: The High-Rises Harvard Never Built,” Harvard Crimson, October 6, 2022.
  19. In its annual report for 1980, the CHA describes a “mid-point” in the process. The “reform board” in Cambridge had a local precedent: in 1969, a “tenant-oriented majority board” took control at the Boston Housing Authority. For a history of the BHA, see Lawrence J. Vale, From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).
  20. Cambridge Housing Authority, Annual Report 2003, Introduction.
  21. Lewis Clayton, “Roosevelt Towers Burns While Bureaucrats Fiddle,” Harvard Crimson, September 17, 1973.  See also Lewis Clayton, “14 Roosevelt Towers Residents To Aid in Renovation Planning,” Harvard Crimson, September 21, 1973.
  22. See Cambridge Community Development Department, Wellington-Harrington Neighborhood Study, 1996, 44.
  23. Cambridge Housing Authority, Annual Report 1980, “Goals,” n.p. The renovation of Washington Elms, begun in 1980 and designed by Bruner Cott Architects, was the first CHA renovation covered in the architectural press; in 2019, Jefferson Park State Apartments, by Abacus Architects + Planners, received an AIA Housing Award. See Mildred Schmertz, “Making it Work,” Architectural Record, November 1988, 100–103, and American Institute of Architects, Jefferson Park Apartments. At Washington Elms and elsewhere, the CHA adopted ideas from Oscar Newman’s influential Defensible Space, which made the case for “crime prevention through urban design.” This meant ensuring that private and public spaces were clearly delineated (for example, that yards were accessible only to tenants) and that housing projects were scaled to fit the larger urban context. See Oscar Newman, Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design (New York: Macmillan, 1973).
  24. Cambridge Housing Authority, Report, January 1975 to June 1976, Supplement to the Cambridge Chronicle, August 26, 1976, 2.
  25. Cambridge Housing Authority, The Mid-Point: An Accounting to the Cambridge Community on the Status of Public Housing in Cambridge Today, 1980; see “In the Midst of Reform.”
  26. In the 1980s, the Cambridge Housing Authority expanded its portfolio by 148 units: 32 federal public housing family units, 108 state public housing elderly units, and eight special needs units. In the 1990s, it expanded its portfolio by 79 units: 20 federal public housing family units, 25 state public housing family units, and eight special needs units. Margaret Moran, Zoom-based interview with the authors, July 23, 2021.
  27. As the federal government’s commitment to housing waned, the state did little to help. Although Massachusetts is one of few states with a public housing program, it has funded housing at even lower levels than HUD; by 2000, roughly 50,000 units required major repair. See Protecting the Commonwealth’s Investment: Securing the Future of State-Aided Public Housing, a report prepared for the Boston and Cambridge Housing Authorities in partnership with Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, funded by Harvard University, Housing Innovation Program, June 2001. Moreover, in 1993, a state referendum prohibited rent control, which in Cambridge led to additional demand for CHA housing, especially by the elderly.
  28. Margaret Moran, Zoom-based interview with the authors, July 23, 2021. All subsequent quotes from Moran are from this interview.
  29. See U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Moving to Work Demonstration Program. The CHA’s current MTW approval runs through 2028. Not all housing authorities were as well positioned as the CHA to use the flexibility of MTW, and lack of oversight and evaluation on the part of HUD has allowed some authorities to divert funds in problematic ways. See Michael D. Webb, Kirstin P. Frescoln, and William M. Rohe, “Innovation in US Public Housing: A Critique of the Moving to Work Demonstration,” International Journal of Housing Policy, vol. 16, no. 1 (2016): 111–124.
  30. Lawrence Vale, “Housing Chicago: Cabrini-Green to Parkside Old Town,” Places Journal, February 2012; The promotional literature about HOPE VI in Atlanta and Chicago claimed that the program would produce equal parts low-income (public), affordable, and market-rate housing. After assessing 260 projects, Vale and Shomon Shamsuddin showed that these percentages varied widely. See “All Mixed Up: Making Sense of Mixed-Income Housing Developments,” Journal of the American Planning Association, vol. 83, no. 1 (2017): 56–67;
  31. Cambridge Housing Authority, 2003 Annual Report, “Growth/Elderly Housing.”
  32. Over 75% of households who receive assistance from the CHA earn below 30% of the area median income. Cambridge Housing Authority, 2022 Annual Plan, A14. In 2022, this equates to a two-person household earning less than $33,650 and a four-person household earning less than $42,250. See Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, 2022 Income and Rent Limits, 2. It’s notable that projects funded via the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program typically target households earning 50% to 80% of the area median.
  33. “Fair Market Rents” are HUD-estimated calculations of the 40th percentile of gross rents for “standard quality units” in a given metropolitan region. See HUD Office of Policy Development and Research, “Fair Market Rents (40th Percentile Rents).”
  34. See Will Fischer, Sonya Acosta, and Erik Gartland, More Housing Vouchers: Most Important Step to Help More People Afford Stable Homes, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, May 13, 2021. Teresa Wiltz, “Getting a Section 8 Voucher Is Hard. Finding a Landlord Willing to Accept It Is Harder,” Stateline, via Pew Charitable Trusts, August 31, 2018. For a discussion of housing vouchers and “high-poverty” and “higher-opportunity” neighborhoods, see Federal Policy Changes Can Help More Families with Housing Vouchers Live in Higher-Opportunity Areas, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, September 4, 2018. For critical assessments of the voucher program, see Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, “How Wealthy Towns Keep People with Housing Vouchers Out,” ProPublica and The Connecticut Mirror, January 9, 2020. For a report of current problems with housing vouchers in Cambridge, see Elias J. Schisgall, “Cambridge’s Affordable Housing Waitlist is Over 20,000 Names Long. How Did the City Get Here?,” Harvard Crimson, May 26, 2022.
  35. The CHA has allotted slightly more than half its vouchers to properties in Cambridge, the rest to properties outside the city. One rationale for this approach is the high cost of local real estate, which makes Cambridge a “high-opportunity” area in which voucher holders would struggle to find affordable apartments at the HUD-approved “Fair Market Rent.” For demographic information on who the CHA serves in its various programs in and outside of Cambridge, see Cambridge Housing Authority, 2022 Annual Plan, A14.
  36. Cambridge Housing Authority, 2003 Annual Report, “Growth/Project-Based Units.” See also Cambridge Housing Authority, 2022 Annual Plan, B8.
  37. Cambridge Housing Authority, Annual Report 2003, “Growth/CHA Affiliates.” See also Cambridge Housing Authority, “Non-Profit Affiliates.”
  38. Currently, the Cambridge Affordable Housing Corporation owns roughly 100 units outright; it also serves as “Managing Member” to several limited-liability corporations that contain legacy public housing units or units the nonprofit has purchased or developed beyond the public housing program; for example, with low-income housing tax credits. Two other significant nonprofit affiliates are Essex Street Management, Inc., founded in 1990, and Kennedy Management, Inc., founded in 1991. We learned from Margaret Moran that these affiliates played key roles in the renovations of John F. Kennedy Apartments and Millers River Apartments. Thanks to its affiliates, from 1999 to 2015, the CHA added 391 units to its portfolio, including 69 for assisted living and 112 for skilled nursing.
  39. The strategy of creating nominally independent subsidiaries or affiliates is not unique to the CHA; it is used by about one-third of housing authorities “in fulfillment of [their] central mission.” See Rachel Garshick Kleit, Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, and Anaid Yerena, “Public Housing Authorities in the Private Market,” Housing Policy Debate, 29:4 (2019), 670–692, quoted, 677; 10.1080/10511482.2019.1582548.
  40. In the official announcement from then-HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, RAD aims “to demonstrate that public-private partnerships can help preserve our nation’s affordable housing.” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “HUD Launches Groundbreaking Rental Assistance Demonstration to Preserve and Strengthen Public, Other HUD-Assisted Housing,” January 10, 2013. For a critique of the program, see Josh Cohen, “Does RAD Privatize Public Housing?Shelterforce, February 10, 2022.
  41. Margaret Moran detailed the opportunities created by RAD, which the CHA has been able to use through its nonprofit affiliates. The first involves funding: housing authorities receive annual capital and operating funds from HUD; but these funds face the threat of annual cuts. In contrast, RAD projects can convert their funds into 20-year contracts paid through Section 8 vouchers (equal in value to the capital and operating funds), provided that vouchers are used only at projects that have been “disposed” from public housing and converted to non-profit or private ownership. The ownership shift, plus the zero net increase in funding, has enhanced RAD’s political viability, and an initial cap on RAD (60,000 units in 2012) was increased to 455,000 in 2018. See Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, “Lifting the RAD Cap.” Second: RAD enables a property, now under nonprofit or private ownership, to be used as collateral on a loan, say, for capital improvements. (A public authority, in contrast, cannot borrow against its real estate assets.) Third: a RAD disposition allows the nonprofit or private owner of a formerly public property to hold large capital and operating reserves, or rainy-day funds (a public authority, in contrast, can only hold reserves up to 30 or 60 days). This facilitates the long-term financial solvency of a property and bolsters its ability to secure loans and equity commitments from tax-credit investors.
  42. An exception was Millers River, where the renovation costs exceeded the amount of funding that RAD could provide.
  43. To ensure the fiscal responsibility and physical health of projects funded via the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program, the tax credits are granted to investors over the course of ten years (starting when construction is completed and a building is occupied); over the next five years, a project must continue to comply with affordability requirements. During these fifteen years, the tax-credit investor owns 99.99 percent and the developer, usually a nonprofit, owns 0.01 percent of the partnership. At “year fifteen,” the investor “exits” the project, having gained its benefits. Then, to become sole owner, the non-investor partner claims a “right of first refusal” to purchase the project by paying outstanding debt and so-called “exit taxes.” While this has become standard procedure for transferring ownership, it has been challenged by LIHTC investors seeking to retain ownership and gain financially by flipping projects to market rate. For a detailed explanation of exit taxes, see footnote 50. For reporting on the perils of not planning for LIHTC “exit taxes,” see Peter J. Reilly, “Settlement in A Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Year 15 Appeal,” Forbes, August 15, 2022; and Beth Healy, “Affordable housing case settled in Michigan reverberates in Massachusetts,” WBUR, August 22, 2022.
  44. The complexities of public-private financing are so dry and complicated that they are often glossed over in the literature of housing, even by scholars. See, for instance, Rachel Garshick Kleit, “Public Housing Authorities as Social Enterprises?”
  45. Kohl Neal, “How Bad Bureaucracy Sabotages Democracy,” Current Affairs, December 16, 2020. For more on how perception of the public sector as “inefficient” has been constructed over the past half century, see Mariana Mazzucato, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (New York: Public Affairs, 2018), in particular “Chapter 8: Undervaluing the Public Sector.”
  46. While RAD provides housing authorities with secure federal funding commitments through long-term voucher contracts (which can then leverage debt and loans and attract LIHTC equity), it does not provide for any increase in the direct public funding available to a project. See also footnote 41.
  47. See “Demolition/Disposition,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. With “demo/dispo,” public authorities must prove “obsolescence,” through a lengthy evidentiary process that shows that rehabilitation costs will exceed roughly 60 percent of HUD-calculated “Total Development Costs.” (These TDCs are calibrated to specific markets, building types, and unit sizes. For example, the 2022 TDCs for a two-bedroom and three-bedroom unit in an elevator building in Boston are $314,633 and $419,511, respectively. “2022 Unit Total Development Cost Limits,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.) Section 18 is “high-risk, high-reward” because while the process is arduous, it provides an authority with high-value vouchers (pegged to local Fair Market Rents) and allows it to remove a property from its roster without replacing it. Crucially, Section 18 also allows an authority to retain its “Faircloth authority,” or the maximum number or units it is allowed to own. Thus an authority can dispose of one public housing unit and build a new unit in its place; if the unit is transferred to an affiliate, as in the case of Millers River, this can effectively double its number of units. In contrast, with RAD, each unit removed from public housing forever lowers the total number of units that can be directly owned by a housing authority. In addition, with Section 18, vouchers are valued at FMR (because tenants displaced due to “obsolescence” need new housing, unlike RAD tenants, who have experienced only an ownership change); RAD vouchers, which are linked to operating and capital public subsidies, are usually insufficient to finance either capital improvements or daily operations.
  48. Because of its Moving to Work status, the CHA was allowed to raise rent subsidies to 110% of FMR; and because Cambridge is a high-priced market and vouchers are indexed to market rents, the rental revenue was significantly larger. To be specific: when Millers River was public housing, HUD had provided the CHA with about $850 per unit in capital and operational funding; when it became private housing under Section 18, the subsidy surged to roughly $1,800. (On top of that, the project could now secure a larger private loan and LIHTC equity because HUD and tax code regulations do not allow public housing to be used as collateral for the loans that are often needed to supplement the equity.) It is worth noting that $850 per unit would have been the same amount received through a RAD contract, which did not cover capital and operating costs, and, as James Stockard told us, had never been calculated to do so.
  49. See Cambridge Housing Authority, Comprehensive Permit Application: The Revitalization of Millers River, June 2018. The cover letter details the scope of work. See also Cambridge Housing Authority, 2022 Annual Plan, A30-A31. The document reports a “$114 million construction contract” for Millers River,” and continues: “Funding includes $71 million in LIHTC equity, including bond financing during construction through a conduit issuance by Mass Housing and subordinate financing from the Cambridge Housing Authority. A $49.7 million permanent loan is being supported by project-based vouchers provided by the Cambridge Housing Authority. The interim period was designed to allow the CHA to secure tax-credit equity (4%) and both short-term and long-term private debt.” As Moran explained, renovation was preferable to new construction, since current zoning does not allow comparable density and would have entailed relocating almost 300 residents.
  50. Corianne Payton Scally, Amanda Gold, and Nicole DuBois, “The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit: How It Works and Who It Serves,” Urban Institute, July 2018, 1. At Millers River, the partnership deal was made yet more complex because the CHA chose to package the rental apartments into condominiums. The decision was motivated in part because doing so would make the property more attractive to investors: LIHTC rules stipulate that investors can benefit from tax credits only when a project is finished — and condo-izing the units allowed for phased construction and faster completion. (Phased construction also allowed for phased relocation of tenants.) The decision also gave the CHA the option (allowed under Section 18) of creating new public housing on the site, and splitting the projects into condominiums would limit the power of the LIHTC investor to reject or impede this process.
  51. Cambridge Housing Authority, Comprehensive Permit Application: The Revitalization of Millers River, June 2018; from the cover letter. At Millers River, the financing partnership resembled those of the CHA’s RAD conversions: the project was 99.99% owned by the LIHTC investor, and 0.01% owned by the CHA’s nonprofit affiliate. The majority stake would give the investor tax-credit benefits; the minority position would allow the nonprofit to benefit from LIHTC equity and then retain sole ownership of the property after the investor’s exit from the partnership (typically, in fifteen years). Meanwhile, the nonprofit would hire the CHA to manage the property so that tenant protections would remain. (This is unusual; in many public-to-private conversions, the housing authority is removed from such responsibilities.) In addition, at Millers River, the CHA would provide the partnership with access to the land through a ground lease rather than outright sale, thus enabling the CHA to regain complete ownership of building and land after the investor’s exit.
  52. Kerry Dietz, Zoom-based interview with the authors, August 5, 2021.
  53. Elizabeth Kneebone and Carolina K. Reid, The Complexity of Financing Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Housing in the United States, Terner Center for Housing Innovation, UC Berkeley, April 2021, 2.
  54. In LIHTC projects involving renovations, acquisition costs can be included in the eligible basis, thus increasing the value of tax credits. However, the eligible basis must be approved by the state (in this case, by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development). To maximize the credits’ value and enhance their appeal to investors, the CHA chose to sell Millers River at its highest assessed market value (about $30 million). Once the building was sold and the value of the tax credits further optimized, the next step was to sell the credits to an investor (either a corporation, financial institution, or syndicate). In theory, investors benefit by lowering their tax liability. In reality, this exchange is driven by a market for tax credits. When investor demand is high, developers benefit from high equity pricing, which can change dramatically, depending on the tax code or overall economy. (According to Novogradac, the average price of LIHTC before the 2016 Tax Reform Act was $1.05; $0.92 shortly after.) More importantly, investors can also benefit (often more profitably) by claiming losses from depreciation. Understanding such concerns, the CHA thus made the deal more attractive to attract higher up-front pricing for tax credits: this meant adding more debt to Millers River by increasing the interest rates on secondary loans as well as prolonging payments on the CHA-controlled ground lease. Providing the CHA could pay its debts over the long term, the only drawback was the “exit tax” from the LIHTC partnership, after the fifteen-year period (see footnote 43). But there was a risk: the investor could make the CHA liable for the exit tax (projected to be, at Millers River, about $17 million). In essence, the CHA’s efforts to attract an investor by increasing profitable losses introduced an insupportable tax liability. But the CHA decided to gamble. In exchange for structuring a deal that would produce a higher return, it would ask the investor to eliminate the CHA’s responsibility for the tax. While some investors rejected the proposal, others agreed and even submitted unexpectedly high offers. Ultimately, the CHA and Wells Fargo brokered an agreement for $71 million in equity priced at $1.07 per dollar of tax credit.
  55. See, for instance, “Public Housing Procurement Training: Ethics in Public Contracting,” HUD Exchange. The standards to which public authorities are held come at a price: most quantifiably, the obligation to pay state-mandated minimum wages and adhere to procurement processes that can increase project costs by 20 to 25 percent. In a recent op-ed on affordable housing in Los Angeles, Ezra Klein wrote that project costs involved a 20 percent increase in wages. Ezra Klein, “The Way Los Angeles Is Trying To Solve Homelessness is ‘Absolutely Insane,’” New York Times, October 23, 2022. At a public meeting of the Cambridge Planning Board in late 2021, Margaret Moran noted that wage and procurement requirements can add at least 25% to CHA project costs. She was referring specifically to Jefferson Park Federal, for which the projected demolition and construction costs are roughly $900,000 per apartment. Sue Reinert, “Remaking Jefferson Park Federal will cost $252M despite favorable zoning; pandemic played a role,” Cambridge Day, November 12, 2021.
  56. Cambridge Housing Authority, Comprehensive Permit Application: The Revitalization of Millers River, June 2018, 4.
  57. The Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust, which receives capital from state and municipal sources, as well as linkage fees assessed on commercial real estate, provides loans and grants to the city’s affordable housing nonprofits and to the CHA. The Affordable Housing Overlay allows developers of 100%, permanently affordable housing to build at higher densities, as of right, anywhere in the city. These tools often work together to fund housing in Cambridge, where rents are among the highest in the country. Tom Acitelli, “Cambridge’s average apartment rent highest among small U.S. cities east of the Rockies, report says,” Curbed, July 18, 2019. The high rents translate into high-value FMR vouchers that the CHA can access through Section 18 to fund its redevelopment projects.
  58. The applicability of the CHA’s strategies for other housing authorities has an important limit: the CHA’s “secret sauce” — Moran’s term for their leveraging of the market towards non-market ends, while maintaining control of the development process — works best in high-priced markets like Cambridge. At Millers River, for instance, the Section 18 “disposition” made financial sense only because Section 8 vouchers in Cambridge substantially increased the building’s rental revenue. Less expensive cities, like New Bedford or Springfield, MA, do not have this advantage, although construction and labor costs are comparable.
  59. Reinhold Martin et al, “The Housing Question, Places Journal, June 2012;
  60. In his study of two housing authorities (Tacoma, Washington, in addition to Cambridge), Gabriel Silberblatt argues that their successes are the result of their embrace of private-sector business practices; he describes RAD as a “unique opportunity to fundamentally restructure business going forward.” Yet he acknowledges the contradictions: “The All-In RAD approach presents a bit of a puzzle: the strategy constitutes the most meaningful effort to keep authority over public assets in the hands of public entities, yet has simultaneous unearthed new pressure on those agencies to internalize private-sector strategies in their organization and business practice.” Gabriel Silberblatt, Keeping the Authority Public, MIT Thesis, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, 2016: 65–66. In our view, the CHA shows that it is possible for a public-sector entity to create a superior product; but this is despite, not because of its engagement with the private sector.
  61. Catherine Bauer, Modern Housing (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 243.
  62. Barbara Penner, “The (Still) Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing, Places Journal, October 2018;
  63. Matthew Gordon Lasner, “The Case for Public Housing,” The Nation, May 6, 2016.
  64. Gianpaolo Baiocchi and H. Jacob Carlson with Marnie Brady, Ned Crowley, and Sara Duvisac, The Case for a Social Housing Development Authority, Urban Democracy Lab, New York University, November 2020, 4.
  65. California Legislature, Social Housing Act of 2021. The bill, AB 2053, was introduced by State Assembly member Alex Lee, Democrat of San Jose. This past spring, it passed both the State Assembly and Senate, and was referred to the Appropriations Committee for review. See “California Social Housing Act Advances to Senate,” East County Today, May 27, 2022.
  66. Oksana Mironova, Samuel Stein, Celeste Hornbach, Jacob Udell, “Pathways to Social Housing in New York: 20 policies to shift from private profit to public good,” Community Service Society, November 2022, 1.
  67. Michael Kimmelman, “A Rebirth in the Bronx,” New York Times, August 19, 2021.
Susanne Schindler & Chris Moyer, “The Case for Truly Public Housing,” Places Journal, December 2022. Accessed 20 Mar 2023. <>

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