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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Haters are out for Envision Cambridge: Why and how we're going to support it

YIMBYs were outnumbered 2:5 at the latest Envision Cambridge Housing working group meeting on Thursday, Oct. 11.

The Envision Cambridge housing map.

Why do I care about Envision Cambridge again?

You care because this group is generally smart, fact-based and pro-density. More to the point, it's currently in charge of the affordable housing overlay proposal — a new set of laws that will make it easier to build more units of affordable housing in certain areas. That is, IF we come out in force to get the City Council to vote for it in March

The group's housing goals for 2030 are to:
  • increase the housing supply in Cambridge by 12,500 new units — that's a 23% housing stock increase
  • increase the share of affordable units within the housing supply to over 16%
  • have at least 25% of new construction be affordable
  • increase Cambridge's investment in affordable housing by 5% each year — from $13M today to $24M
  • maintain the number of households with children at at least 18% 
  • maintain the number of low-income households + grow the number of middle-income households
  • reduce the number of evictions by a number TBD at the next Envision meeting on Mon, 10/29

Solid Goals. So what are NIMBYs saying against them?

They're already out in force against the overlay.

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Haters, watch out: We're gonna make the affordable housing overlay happen this March

The idea for an affordable housing overlay — which would change zoning rules to make it easier to build affordable housing in Cambridge — has been in the works since October 2014. Now, it looks like a City Council vote to make it happen could be nearing: by early March 2019, according to the Cambridge Day

Why hasn't Cambridge made it easier to build affordable housing already?

The affordable housing overlay process faced a recent hurdle when it became part of Envision Cambridge, a 3-year development "master plan" process, wrapping up this year. So said City Councilor E. Denise Simmons, according to the same article.

The result of decades of inaction is the map below. The white areas — irony intended? — indicate where Cambridge has no affordable housing. As you can see, there's a big hole from West Cambridge to Harvard Sq. where affordable housing seems to have gone missing. 

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Nice Job Demolishing Your City-Seized Vacant Building, But ...

Good job, Cambridge, for seizing "Vail Court," a vacant property in a prime Central Sq. location (3-min walk from T). In the eminent domain proceeding, the City said it would redevelop the property for affordable housing. 

Now, the City's about to demolish the building, with work expected to be finished before Halloween, according to city councilor Craig Kelley's newsletter. (That's over two years after the council approved the taking, in September 2016). 

Two problems, though:

  1. The former property owners are suing Cambridge for taking the property, so Craig "thinks." This means the City is incurring risk as it moves toward ultimately developing the property. 
  2. Probably relatedly, Craig's email implies that there are no immediate plans for proceeding further. (The City's Vail Court micro-site doesn't say anything about likely next steps after demolition.) Sadly, it looks like it's going to be a while before people start moving into affordable homes at this site. 

What to do: 

The next public meeting to discuss this site will be well-worth attending. Let's make a point of going together, and pressing for movement on this project. And for height, as many units as possible, and even for some ground floor retail. It's right off of that Prospect St thoroughfare North of Mass Ave. Seems like a perfect place to introduce some dynamic street life. 

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[Updated] Dreaming Big for New 5-Acre Development at Kendall

[Update - 10/4] The developers apparently want to build an 8-story office building on the 5-acre site in Kendall. They'll be asking City Council for a zoning change. They're holding the first public meeting tonight — we'll see how the public receives this plan. 

* * * 

Damn. This would be a great place for some Cambridge housing, but that doesn't seem to be in the cards.

Plans are afoot to develop a 5-acre site at 325 Binney St, a tantalizing mere 10-minute walk from the Kendall t-stop. 

Right now, all I know is that Alexandria Real Estate is behind the proposal. Alexandria focuses on developing lab and research space, so it seems likely that that will be the use. (The East Cambridge Planning Committee examined ARE's plans in late September, but I don't know anyone who attended.)

As someone who used to walk past the site -- formerly occupied by Metropolitan Pipe -- I can report that it has definitely been a large dead zone on Binney. I'm hopeful something exciting and dynamic will replace it, even if it's not residences. 

If you have any info about the plans for this site, please email me at or hit us up on twitter @BetterPAC