Cambridge is embroiled in a heated debate over the 100% Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO)—a city-wide up-zoning plan to allow large housing developments citywide, four stories (45’) tall in all residential areas and seven stories (80’) tall on major corridors.
Although absent from Cambridge’s 2019 Envision new city planning report, the AHO is being advanced by the city’s Mayor and Housing Committee (Councilors Simmons, Mallon, Siddiqui and Toomey) ahead of other key Envision goals, overlooking more promising, less risky proposals to address housing affordability. A local developer-linked political PAC, A Better Cambridge Action Fund, allied with Mayor McGovern and many AHO-supporting councilors, is promoting the overlay in local newspapers and may use this issue against opponents in the November election.
This proposal is deeply flawed. It reduces the Planning Board’s current design oversight to advisory-only status, shifting final decision making to the unelected city manager’s staff and AHO developers. If passed, this AHO will alter current design criteria, encouraging tall, box-like structures two to five times larger than currently allowed in many districts. The AHO diminishes current zoning requirements for open (green) spaces, building set-backs, heights, and allowable density, increasing the latter two to 10 times current allowances. Worse, decisions would be “as-of-right,” limiting current citizen ability for legal appeal.
The AHO also could cause serious environmental damage by allowing mature tree removal and reducing green spaces where trees can flourish. Lack of on-site parking, coupled with higher building density, may cause further harm, since many AHO residents working nights or outside the city must circle neighborhoods in search of parking, adding to our carbon footprint. Sizable impacts on local infrastructure and property value shifts are also likely.
The AHO will encourage tear-downs of still-viable housing and tenant displacement (including critical local businesses) and will alter neighborhood livability. Moreover, the AHO relies not on a mixed-income inclusionary housing format but on the deeply problematic and outdated model of economically separated housing that counters Cambridge equity and inclusiveness goals.
The AHO carries major risks. No comparable plan is enacted elsewhere, much less a deeply historical urban center like Cambridge (founded in 1630) with its rich architectural legacy. Ranked one of the top five densest US cities with a population over 100,000 (far denser than Boston), we have a miniscule 6.4-square-mile land area and cannot house every person or company wanting to move here.
Most AHO opponents are strong advocates of affordable housing, but also want to address core causes. Among these is the recent arrival of property investors and business groups who pay outrageous sums for property. New highly paid biotech and digital employees can pay far higher rental and mortgage prices that drive out poorer, working, and middle-income residents. These employers and our universities must provide more affordable housing for all income groups.
Affordable housing is important. Cambridge has far surpassed existing state mandates. Additional initiatives are underway. The Cambridge Housing Authority recently announced new Section 8 subsidies to encourage more low-income rents in every neighborhood—a tactic that does not necessitate building anything. Ending single family zoning and adding tenant protections may also help. With an affordable housing waitlist reaching approximately 19,000 strong, this problem will not be solved overnight—and we need a regional metropolitan approach that does not simply rely on Cambridge.
The current AHO plan was driven by nonprofit (and for-profit) affordable housing developers who benefit from the overlay and had FAR too much involvement in its writing. We (the residents) must push for a more efficient and less risky affordable housing solution. AHO opposition is gaining across broad constituencies: neighborhood groups, the local business advocacy board, and a property owners’ association. Several progressive city councilors and candidates for City Council also have voiced opposition.
“Flawed,” “unready,” and “harmful” is how professionals describe this plan (CCCoalition.org). For an excellent overview see Vice Mayor Jan Devereux’s posts: jandevereux.com.
Sept 9 and 23 is when City Council will vote on the AHO unless they allow it to expire.
We urge all city residents to make your voices heard and tell Mayor McGovern and city councilors to let this flawed proposal expire and sit down with local stakeholders to design a better means to achieve affordable housing goals.
Suzanne Preston Blier, a founding member of Cambridge Citizens Coalition, is an art and architectural historian.
Read the other side of this debate, Counterpoint: Progressives Against Progress at: https://digboston.com/counterpoint-progressives-against-progress/.
8/23/19 update: the author asked DigBoston to run the following image and link in response to an image run with the digital version of the other side of this debate: