From The Ground Up

Just-A-StartGerry Zipser and Noah Sawyer of Just-A-Start. Photo by Sasha Pedro.

For 50 years, East Cambridge–based affordable housing developer Just-A-Start has been quite literally building space for low-income residents from the ground up. And that’s just one of the ways they’ve been fighting income inequality in the increasingly divided city. 

Last month, Just-A-Start purchased a 43,800 square foot property at 52 New St. in North Cambridge. The organization, which hopes to build approximately 100 units at the site, acquired the property in what has become their trademark hands-on approach, says Real Estate Director Noah Sawyer: “We have to hustle, we have to sell people on our mission.”

According to Sawyer, 52 New St. had been a development project that didn’t work out. After its plans initially fell through, Just-A-Start began “aggressively” pursuing the property—working with the City of Cambridge to ensure the nonprofit acquired it, and ultimately receiving a large portion of the financing from the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust.

Competing with luxury developers and deep-pocketed universities and tech companies has forced the organization to pursue a number of creative measures in its search for space to make Cambridge affordable. 

One new source of benefactors is longtime Cambridge residents, who are looking to preserve Cambridge’s inclusive character; in the last six months, two have approached Just-A-Start with the intention of handing over their homes for affordable housing in their wills, according to Executive Director Carl Nagy-Koechlin. 

Nagy-Koechlin sees these gifts as a fruitful avenue for the organization to create new pockets of affordability throughout the city’s neighborhoods. However, despite the New Street acquisition and Just-A-Start’s other ongoing projects, he stresses that the affordability crisis in Cambridge continues to grow.

“We’re in a prolific phase, with about 215 [units] queued up, but even that’s a drop in the bucket,” he says. “We’re working hard to help people thrive in Cambridge, and that means a stable place to live and a sustaining career. We’d like to be more comprehensive and holistic in terms of how we serve people.”

Just-A-Start property
Photo courtesy of Just-A-Start.

Gerry Zipser, Just-A-Start’s director of housing, echoes Nagy-Koechlin’s belief regarding the need for conversations about affordability to move beyond just housing. 

“When you’re low-income, you’re subject to so many more crises that you may not be able to deal with financially,” she mentions. “When we did our first food pantry at our Rindge property … we found that 18 percent of [the residents] were food insecure. Sometimes, you’ve got to start with basic necessities.”

From Zipser’s perspective, Just-A-Start and similar organizations working to make Cambridge more equitable must address a wide range of structural barriers to help low- and moderate-income families truly thrive.

“We have a longstanding biomedical careers training program,” Zipser explains. “The idea is to take folks in Cambridge who may not have a college degree or might have credentials from their home country that haven’t translated and get them into the biomedical field, and the income stream that comes with that.” 

Likewise, Nagy-Koechlin sees Cambridge’s biotech industry, often maligned for skyrocketing prices in the city, as an opportunity to reconnect the city’s prosperity with its residents.

“These companies are struggling to find talent and fill positions, so we’re in a moment where we can persuade them to think a little outside the box,” he notes. “There’s data that candidates from the most prestigious universities might not stay in the area long, so we’re able to make an argument that the people we’re training in our life sciences training program and in our IT program are really good matches for those positions.”

Prioritizing opportunities for local residents in Cambridge’s booming economy, however, is only one step in building a more connected community. Zipser emphasizes that many of Just-A-Start’s current residents work directly in the city’s local institutions and neighborhoods.

“We need housing for people you already know … who work in our public schools, [or] are home health aides,” she underlines. 

“The goal is to bring in families who contribute to their neighborhoods,” Sawyer adds. “We’re probably your neighbors already, and we think we’re pretty good neighbors.”

Just-A-Start is located at 1035 Cambridge St. #12. To learn more, visit www.justastart.org.

This story appears in the March/April print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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