No good alternatives to Affordable Housing Overlay in Cambridge

A former City Councillor explains why a plethora of alternate housing proposals — some valuable, some intended to head off the prospect of affordable housing in the proponents’ neighborhoods — can’t replace the Overlay.

Since serving five City Council terms years ago, I have not commented publicly on the many issues facing Cambridge. But, as someone who has fought for affordable housing throughout my career, I am writing now in strong support of the proposed Affordable Housing Overlay zoning ordinance, because it will mean so much for the future of Cambridge.

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Cambridge has everything to gain from the Affordable Housing Overlay

The Overlay will contribute to a virtuous cycle of greater income and racial diversity; lower greenhouse gas emissions; beautiful, green new buildings; and a more vibrant, exciting City for everyone.

Cambridge residents are clamoring for one thing: lower housing costs.

Asked what “affects you and your family the most?” 35% of surveyed residents in 2018 answered housing/affordable housing (up 5% since 2016). Only 6% mentioned the next biggest concern (traffic). The City’s own needs assessment also put affordable housing as its top priority.

Is City Council working on anything to answer this urgent need?

There’s only one major housing proposal on the docket in 2019: the Affordable Housing Overlay.

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While Cambridge residents worry about affording to live here, Neighborhood Associations ask “How Big Is Too Big?”

Instead, let’s ask how we can regain our vanishing middle class

For most Cambridge residents, housing tops the worry list — by a lot. Affordable housing is the “dominant issue on people’s minds,” with 30% volunteering it as the City’s top problem, according to the most recent poll, from 2016. It also topped Cambridge’s 2017 Needs Assessment.

Contrast that with the issues raised at a recent gathering of Cambridge Neighborhood Associations. The event — which caused a stir by drawing over 150 people, including five city councilors, and by featuring comedian-turned-political candidate Jimmy Tingle — relegated housing concerns to the “officially third-tier,” to quote the Cambridge Day.

Above: Terrible event photo by co-author Eugenia; co-author Burhan stands second from right. 

So what ranks highest for Neighborhood Associations? One clue is the event’s title: “How Big Is Too Big?” Another is its list of top three concerns, as presented by event organizers:

  1. “Climate: environment, trees, parks.”
  2. “over development (too tall, too much)”
  3. “Quality of life: parks, open spaces, light and noise, garbage, drugs on the streets, homelessness, arts, diversity, Schools (sic)”

“How Big Is Too Big?” is not representative of the average Cambridge resident’s concerns

See full article on our Medium page — 5-min read.

Above: The event poster.


Why we keep saying US zoning laws are the legacy of racism

The Color of Law on zoning — Richard Rothstein’s jaw-dropping “Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

When you say zoning has a racist legacy, people just don’t believe you. Some of our most liberal towns have restrictive zoning — and they can’t be racist, right?

Well … you’d be surprised.

Where’s the proof, though?

We at ABC AF have been convinced by the research of law professor Richard Rothstein, who our sister-org A Better Cambridge invited to speak in May 2018, drawing a crowd of 500+. (Stream his remarks + panel talk here.)

See the full article on Medium — 3-min read.

Rothstein’s larger thesis debunks the idea, sadly embraced by our Supreme Court, that residential segregation “just happened.” He explains the many insidious ways in which our government, at all levels, engineered it.

Mayor slams "racist" zoning laws in Cambridge State of the City address

"While we oppose walls and gated-communities elsewhere, our zoning code has created these communities here in Cambridge."

Cambridge is lucky to have a mayor in Marc McGovern who doesn't just sprinkle the word "equity" in his speeches — he also makes the tough choices so that our Cambridge policies really do advance that lofty goal.

This is particularly true of that ultimate equity issue: housing aka "where people can live." 

His State of the City address from Dec. 12 bore this out. The entire speech is here, but we excerpted the housing piece for you (and added emphasis in bold):   

Addressing the housing crisis is the most pressing matter before this Council. It is time that we act boldly to ensure that equal opportunity exists for people across the economic spectrum to bind their voice, and their spirit, to the story of our city.

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Let’s make an Affordable Housing Overlay the law in Cambridge!

The City Council will consider a change to zoning laws that would make affordable projects much easier to build in 2019, after the Envision Cambridge Plan's policy recommendations have been reviewed and published. Fierce opposition to the proposal is already gathering.

If you believe in the overlay, tell your councilors!

Below are some talking points for you to take or adapt.

  • We simply are not building enough affordable housing. In the past few years, only three or four sites have been developed, a fraction of what we should be building. For a city that claims to be a beacon of progressivism, this is an embarrassment. That certain neighborhoods have no affordable housing is disgraceful. The affordable housing overlay is an important tool for addressing this injustice.
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Our "YIMBY Socialist" State Rep Mike Connolly answers our housing questions: we like it

He's a YIMBY Socialist, and a state rep for Cambridge/Sommerville. He frequently attends A Better Cambridge educational meetings, and he shows up on transit matters, too.

We're delighted Mike Connolly put so much effort into his answers to our four housing questions, and overall we like what we see here. (Just look at #4.)

His complete post is below + some highlights for the comments, but go to his original Facebook post for the full flavor.

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