Waitlist Success Q&A Series – Billy Burke: ‘CHA Came Through For Me; I Get To Be Back In The Neighborhood I Grew Up In’

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In 2021, the Cambridge Housing Authority released its “Can’t Wait List: Who Are The 21,000?” original publication to help humanize the many issues surrounding the affordable housing crisis seen on the national stage and, specifically, the steep demand for low affordable housing inventory across Massachusetts.

The list has now grown to more than 22,000 people in need. Meanwhile, Cambridge remains one of the most expensive real estate and rental markets in the country.

This resource proved to be a valuable tool, as real people from the CHA’s actual waiting lists were able to appeal to readers in their own words as to what a successful outcome after years-long wait times would mean to them.

After almost six years on the waiting list, Cambridge native and Vietnam War veteran, Billy Burke, is back in his childhood stomping grounds in historic East Cambridge.

CHA: Billy, first off, congratulations on your new home. How does it feel to live in East Cambridge again?

Billy: “Thank you. Lots of great memories here. Cambridge was a little different back then. So many of the people I grew up with have left to other places because of how expensive it is now. Cambridge is in an ideal location, and I believe the growth of the universities and big companies around us have made it difficult for people who grew up here to afford it anymore. People want to be here, it’s the place to be.

I used to go outside and there would be kids everywhere. Literally on every block or corner, playing in the street. We were always outdoors. My brother and I would have so much fun interacting with each of the groups. I attribute that ability to my father sending us to summer camps and learning how to be around different people, that was very valuable.

We also always took care of our neighborhood dogs who would roam freely, they knew everybody, and would know how to go back home. So to me, it’s the little things like that which make it feel different. Today’s world is very different.

But it’s certainly a full-circle moment for me to be back where it all started.”

CHA: We are happy you have come full-circle. Do you remember getting the call offering you an apartment?

Billy: “I remember everything going through my sister because she was helping me out at the time. I spent nearly six years on the waiting list and the timing was actually great.

We all used to live in my parents house in East Cambridge, but then they put it on the market and I had to stay with my sister in a nearby city. I needed a place of my own. When the CHA called, I was so happy. Everyone had been telling me for years that my housing would be well taken care of because I’m a veteran. That didn’t end up being the case. CHA came through for me.

I would have taken anywhere in Cambridge, and it just so happens to be that I get to be back in the neighborhood I grew up in.

I don’t believe in fate, but it’s hard not to feel nostalgic, and of course, fortunate. Interestingly enough, my grandma used to live in this very same building.”

CHA: Now that is very interesting. Do you remember visiting this property while growing up?

Billy: “I don’t remember too many details except for the time I spent with her. My grandma was old-fashioned Irish. But from what I do remember, it’s hard not to look at the parallels.

When I first walked into my apartment to see it for the first time, I couldn’t help to notice that the view outside the window was the same one she had, just maybe one floor off, but otherwise the same. I get to see some of the neighborhood and into neighboring Somerville. It’s a nice view. I positioned my desk so that I can work on my computer next to the window.”

CHA: That’s great. It seems you came in already with a sense of home and belonging. Is that a fair assessment?

Billy: “Yes, I love where I live. It’s very community-oriented. There is a regular group of folks who hang out in the common areas from time to time and have meals together or engage in good conversation. Upon moving in, they were great about including me and making me feel welcome.

I don’t get out much anymore and have been working on myself these past few years. Getting to interact and break bread with people in my living community has made an immediate difference for me. The property is also clean and quiet, and I just feel like I’m in a winning situation now.”

CHA: What would your message be to the more than 22,000 people on the CHA’s waiting lists?

Billy: “Hang in there. I wish I had applied to CHA earlier, but I encourage you to apply everywhere. Don’t just wait on one application. You have to do what is best for you and your family. When the right thing comes, your heart will know when it’s right.”