Why is Cambridge afraid of affordable housing?
When Cambridge city staff decided to use the city’s zoning code to incentivize the creation of affordable housing, they faced a choice. They could, like generations of planners before them, trace old zoning and neighborhood boundaries, but those boundaries are the echoes of past racism and classism. It’s no coincidence that a map of Cambridge’s wealthier neighborhoods and poorer neighborhoods look uncomfortably like old redlining maps, the maps banks used to decide which neighborhoods were “safe” for investment. So Cambridge did something else. They circled the entire city and said that this, all of Cambridge, was the affordable housing district. If you wanted to build housing that was 100% affordable forever, you get to build a little taller, because height is money. And, as long as you stay within limits of zoning, the neighbors can’t sue to stop you. If you think Cambridge rose up and thanked the city for this rejection of structural inequities, well, you haven’t been paying attention to Cambridge’s hyperinflated real estate market and its homeowners who now have small fortunes to protect.
The Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO) is tightly constructed. It allows only the construction of housing that is deed-restricted to be 100% affordable in perpetuity, with rents or home ownership costs tied to percentages of income. There are no loopholes, nothing to be exploited by bad actors. Thus, opponents are left with finding ways to portray additional affordable housing as, somehow, bad.
For some residents, the fear is that it will bring the wrong kind of people to the city. A guest column in the Cambridge Chronicle asked if the purpose was to make Cambridge “more like the most-crowded sections of, say, The Bronx, just for dubious claimed theoretical benefits of ‘equality’ and ‘fairness?’” Rather than distancing themselves from obvious racism, the newly formed Cambridge Citizens Coalition, which opposes the AHO, features further thoughts from its author on its web site.
To make housing affordable, developers need to piece together upward of a dozen different funding sources beyond tenant rent. The AHO doesn’t change that. Yet some on the City Council have argued that it will cause an affordable housing boom, overrunning the city. Thus, the council considered, and rejected, a number of schemes to limit production. Most bizarrely, the Council also considered, and rejected, strong tenant protections for market-rate tenants some worry will be displaced by affordable housing.
Some residents worry that affordable housing will show up in the “wrong” places. It is the point of the ordinance that, as a matter of policy, there are no wrong places. Yet, as a letter on the Cambridge Citizens Coalition website warns:
A half-acre lot that has a large single or two-family home today could turn into an apartment containing 45 two-bedroom units.
Most would consider this, as a matter of housing and environmental policies, a good outcome, but not this resident of a neighborhood of half-acre lots that currently has little affordable housing.
The most intense criticism comes from people who say that housing created under the AHO will offend their aesthetic sensibilities. Forget that the Cambridge Community Development department has been showing a gallery of affordable projects that are indistinguishable from any other new construction. Opponents would have you believe that the modest increase in height allowed will result in these buildings being monstrosities, and they are happy to display their nightmares for all to see. Consider the image in the flyer from the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association accompanying this article. Besides not being an image of Cambridge, it depicts a building that couldn’t be built under the AHO and not just because the gap into which a newly tall building has been placed is only eight feet wide. While this image has disappeared down the memory hole, it has consistently been replaced by others that are even more misleading.
Cambridge’s aesthetics are currently enforced by its unelected, undemocratic Planning Board. Because Planning Board decisions can be appealed in court, they are a tool used by opponents to derail the construction of affordable housing. The AHO limits the Planning Board role to one of giving advice, a change opponents have described, in an Orwellian twist of language, as violating their civil rights. Many of those adopting this position will tell you that they consider housing a human right. Apparently, that right stops the moment someone considers a building not to their taste.
It is unclear at this point whether the AHO will pass. While City Council discussions would suggest that it has a solid five-vote majority, that isn’t enough: Because zoning is about protecting the entrenched interests of property owners, a super majority of six councilors is required to change it.
In Cambridge, we’re supposed to say that everybody is in favor of affordable housing. Those in the trenches of this fight know that’s never been true. Everybody gives it lip service, but some also end up opposing many actual affordable housing initiatives. The Affordable Housing Overlay is as close to a true litmus test of support that one can conceive. If you oppose it, you’ve lost the right to call yourself a progressive supporter of affordable housing.
Saul Tannenbaum, a longtime Cambridge homeowner, is an activist working on housing, broadband, and media. He’s a board member of the Massachusetts Media Fund, the nonprofit sponsor of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Read the other side of this debate, Point: Yes to Affordable Housing, No the the Citywide Overlay at: https://digboston.com/point-yes-to-affordable-housing-no-to-the-citywide-overlay/ .