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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
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 =&0=& 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.