Harwell Homes

Harwell Homes

Cambridge’s First and Only Low to Middle-Income Cooperative

In 1966, the need for affordable housing in Cambridge was just as much of a concern, and consternation, as it is today. In that decade, a group of approximately 15 residents who lived in the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood formed the citizen action group, the Wellington-Harrington Development Corporation. The residents were advised to do so, by a City Council that could not come to a unanimous vote on a development plan called the Donnelly Field Urban Renewal Project. Sound familiar?

The mission of the WHDC and the Cambridge Corporation – a nonprofit Community Development Corporation funded by Harvard, M.I.T and major businesses, was to reach a consensus on how to transform a plot of wasted land into affordable housing opportunities. It was not easy. There were disagreements in the neighborhood about whether or not to build a federally subsidized ownership cooperative, which some considered a “socialist scheme” – therefore, preferring a more conventional single-owner development. But there were certain stipulations that everyone could agree upon, and the needs and wants of yesterday’s residents echo Cambridge’s modern day desires: small-scale, detached buildings, no high-rises, open space, nothing that resembled a “project,” and most importantly – basements.

After many long nights, testy talks, and guidance from the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (which made the site affordable and available to the WHDC), the volunteers and city organizers came to an agreement. With a blueprint in hand, $50,000 in seed money from the Cambridge Corporation, a financial deal with strict guidelines from HUD, and a FHA Mortgage, construction began in the fall of 1971. The result: Harwell Homes, 56 units of low to moderate-income cooperative housing, with several Section 8 units. It would be the first of its kind in Cambridge and remains the only such kind today.
In the spring of 1972, the project was completed and the first owners of Harwell Homes made an equity buy-in of approximately $247, and paid monthly “carrying charges” ranging from $151-$196. In today’s market, an equity buy-in would be roughly $2100, and carrying charges for one bedroom: $700; four bedrooms: $1050.

The most important lesson is that we found we could work together for a common and often difficult objective. We argued; we disagreed. But in the end, we had a great belief in each other and our individual interests and motives. It has been a very self-fulfilling experience.” Mrs. Louis Nicoloro, Clerk of the Wellington-Harrington Development Corporation.

Harwell Homes is located on two acres of land encompassed by Cambridge, Columbia, Windsor, and Lincoln Streets; centered right between Harvard and M.I.T. The site once housed the Wellington School, a soap factory, a junkyard and a trucking company, all of which sounds like the beginning of a zoning laws joke.
The name “Harwell” is an amalgamation of the HARringtion (now the King Open) and the WELLington public schools.

Harwell Homes is not related to Cambridge’s limited equity or subsidized housing projects. It is a separate entity and a brochure for the cooperative states that, “A cooperative is a business owned and operated equally by the people who use it.” There is one mortgage for the development, so when you buy in, you do not go through a bank, you go through the board. You are sole owner of the unit, but have no liability on the mortgage. And other than phone service, the co-op pays for all the utilities and upkeep on the exterior property.
In 2012, Harwell Homes reached a milestone by paying off their mortgage. And besides the organization of a well-deserved celebration, the owners had a big decision to make. Should they continue to be a co-op, go condo, or own outright? They decided to keep everything the way it was, but do a major renovation of all the units – something that had never been done before. They met with the city to see about financing, but decided not to get tangled up with all that bureaucracy, and instead hired a consultant to help them get a bank loan.

Due to the size of the loan being applied for, the bank did a history of the property and because of its sullied past, decided to evaluate the soil. They hired a company to do the testing, but it was up to Harwell Homes to pay the cost. A Bobcat and an engineer with four tubes showed up. The first three tubes went down about 4 feet and hit nothing but sand and dirt – sand and dirt. But when they pulled up the fourth tube, Sue Scalesse, vice president on the board of Harwell Homes said, “The engineer looked at the spot that was dark and he grabbed it, and he smelled it, and I said, Oh, what is that? He said, ‘Petroleum.’”

When you strike oil in Cambridge, you won’t get rich; you’ll have to pay.

In June of 1970, the soil had been tested for contaminates and the records show that the site was deemed habitable. So how and why, petroleum and various other minerals are now being detected is a very expense question for Harwell Homes - $25,000 to be exact, not including the $1900 it took to repair a water main that the testing company hit, even while the Dig Safe flags were waving.
Protocol for such a discovery requires a call to the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s the law, and you have within 120 days to send them a report, which Harwell Homes has done. They also found out that there are grants available to help facilitate the cleaning of your soil - if the tests come back with “unacceptable levels.”
It all adds up to a less than stellar way to observe an incredible highlight in Cambridge history. But Scalesse feels confident that the second round of testing will find a result of “what is borderline acceptable.” And if they have to clean the soil, they will clean the soil. But it won’t stop the spring or summertime celebration, or the joy, of paying off their mortgage.

As is happening today in Cambridge, 41 years ago, people like Scalesse who were born and raised in this town and hold the city’s history in their minds and hearts, are being squeezed out by transient newcomers with big bucks and no bonds. It is the longevity of generations that make a true neighborhood, and Harwell Homes deserves a round of applause for keeping the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood, just that: an old fashion neighborhood – for the people, by the people.

Interview: Susan Scalesse
Harwell Homes News Release/Anatomy of a Housing Development (1972)
Harwell Homes Brochure
Harwell Homes: Articles of Organization


Thanks for the history lesson and for the current status of Harwell Homes.

I disagree with just one point, namely that "the needs and wants of yesterday’s residents echo Cambridge’s modern day desires: small-scale, detached buildings, no high-rises...."

A lot has changed since Harwell Homes were constructed. Back then, there were lots of sites that could be considered "wasted land" with few people interested in developing them. The opposite is true today - fewer parcels and much higher land costs. There were also no condominiums back then, and now there's a very competitive market for both condominiums and rental housing. The typical home-buyer in Cambridge now looks toward buying a good "unit" in a building that most likely will be considerably more dense than the more suburban-style structures of Harwell Homes. Though I personally don't like living in anything bigger than a triple-decker, I know that my sentiments are not typical of those now seeking homes in Cambridge.

There are thousands of people who would be thrilled to find any kind of decent housing in Cambridge. One of the things we can do via zoning is to accommodate most of these people close to transit options in higher-density buildings. By preserving the lower density in areas away from transit and permitting higher density choices close to transit, we can meet much of the demand while still preserving a broad range of choices in type and density of housing.

This is a fantastic well told piece of Cambridge history.

I'm with Robert in believing that Cambridge's "modern day desires" are not necessarily the suburban vision of "small-scale, detached buildings, no high-rises, open space". Indeed, the higher you rise, the denser you build, the more open space you leave behind. And many Cambridge residents, for a variety of reasons, want to live in dense urban spaces. One of the most important reasons is ecological. Dense urban developments - smart growth - minimize carbon footprints.

Also, many scholars have looked carefuly at urban population trends and none have been able to document the intuitive feeling that wealthy transients displace long term residents. Instead, successive waves of transients get wealthier and wealthier, and that, when long term residents decide to leave, they may get replaced by wealthier people. And, where that's happened on my block, the entrepeneurs and investment bankers aren't transients. They're planting roots, raising kids, and developing bonds and continuing what's always been a true neighborhood.