A tale of two cities in Cambridge
Four communities show the uneven recovery since the recession ended in June 2009
CAMBRIDGE — Rob Thomas doesn’t know how long he and his wife will be able to live in Central Square. But every week, it seems, they see Central Square residents forced to go elsewhere as rents skyrocket and landlords sell buildings at once unthinkably high prices.
“We’re happy here and don’t want to move,” said Thomas, who has rented in the neighborhood for nearly a decade and worked at Cheapo Records on Massachusetts Avenue for 17 years. “But if the rent is jacked up or the place is sold, we might have to think of moving elsewhere. Cambridge has just gotten so expensive.”
Thomas and many other long-time residents of Central Square are paying the price for a booming economy that has brought new companies, employees, and residents to this city of 105,000 people along the Charles River. The boom is largely driven by Cambridge’s rapidly growing life sciences and software sectors, centered in Kendall Square but spilling into other neighborhoods, including nearby Central Square.
The post-recession resurgence has pushed Cambridge’s unemployment rate to just 3.4 percent, compared with a state average of more than 5 percent and a recession high of 6.4 percent. But it is also sharpening the divide between the two Cambridges — the highly paid professionals prospering in the city’s technology clusters and people working in retail, service, and other industries who are getting squeezed by rapidly rising housing and other costs.
Visible from the heart of Central Square, on the fringes of the MIT campus, are the steel girders and gleaming glass exterior of the new $600 million research complex under construction for the Swiss drug maker Novartis SA. It is part of a building boom that totals billions of dollars, including a $300 million research facility for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., a $340 million expansion of the Broad Institute, a biomedical research center, and the new $500 million Alexandria Center that will serve as headquarters for Biogen Idec, the Cambridge biotechnology firm.
In Central Square, a slew of firms have opened offices in the neighborhood. Voice recognition firm Nuance Communications Inc. located its new mobile innovation center on Prospect Street last year. In the same building, Workbar LLC last year took over 13,000 square feet of office space that it’s leasing out to small tech companies, in a shared-space arrangement similar to the Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square.
About 150 people from 100 different small firms now use Workbar’s Central Square space on any given day, said Bill Jacobson, chief executive of Workbar.
“The job market in Cambridge is really pretty good,” said Deborah Ruhe, executive director of Just-A-Start Corp., a Cambridge nonprofit that develops and manages affordable housing units in the city and helps train biomedical workers for the city’s fast-growing life sciences sector. “People are getting jobs. That’s good news.”
The mostly young tech workers also are spending money in local shops, restaurants, and other venues all over the city, including Central Square, long viewed as the hardscrabble cousin to nearby Harvard Square.
“We have customers from all over the world who are now coming to Central Square to work — Russians, Asians, Europeans,” said John Buster, owner of Bedworks Inc., a store specializing in hand-crafted bed frames and platforms at 15 Western Ave. “The street life has definitely picked up in Central Square, especially during weekend nights. Educated, white-collar workers are everywhere.”
But that has come at a price. Cambridge’s red-hot housing market is pushing the cost of homes beyond the reach of many middle- and working-class families. The median price for single-family homes has skyrocketed to nearly $900,000, more than 30 percent above $667,500 peak reached in the last housing boom. And apartment rents have jumped 30 percent and higher in recent years, real estate officials say.
In Central Square, two-bedroom apartments are listed at anywhere from $2,400 per month to $3,500 a month, according to Deborah Heffernan, an agent at Avenue 3 Real Estate in Cambridge.
Sam Quinn, a sales clerk at Cheapo Records and a Cambridge resident, said he recently had to move out of a Lechmere-area apartment that he shared with friends after the property was sold and the rent was boosted $1,000 to $3,200 a month. He now lives in a single-locked bedroom “boarding-house-like” property in Lechmere, sharing a kitchen and bathrooms.
“Most of my friends can’t afford Cambridge anymore and they’re being forced out,” said Quinn, 29, a freelance photographer on the side. “It’s been rough.”
Even a nonprofit established to help residents find affordable housing has found Cambridge too expensive. Two years ago, Cambridge and Somerville Cooperative Apartment Projects, Inc., or CASCAP, moved out of its longtime offices in Central Square to Somerville, partly because CASCAP learned its rent might be increased by 20 to 30 percent.
“It was something we just couldn’t afford,” said Michael Haran, chief executive for CASCAP. “Yes, the economy of Central Square has gotten better because the Kendall Square expansion is pushing into Central Square. But that’s put added pressures on Central Square.”