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. 

There should also be lots of affordable housing around each of our subway stops. But that's not the case. Except for Central, the stations are mostly devoid of the stuff — with Harvard the most blatantly so, but Porter, Kendall and Lechmere little better. 

Today's zoning quashes new affordable housing

In the past few years, the City has tried to get 50 possible sites developed for affordable housing, working with nonprofit developers Homeowners Rehab and Just-A-Start. How many of those have moved forward? Only 3 or 4, according to CDD housing director Chris Cotter. 

The problem is that zoning in many Cambridge neighborhoods has changed in the last few decades so that fewer people can build there.  

Thus, it's almost impossible to put up even a mid-rise, multifamily building that looks just like the rest of neighborhoods like, say, Cambridgeport, because of those zoning changes, according to the article. About 70% of the buildings there now couldn't be built today — and that means any affordable project built today can't make its money back.

For example, a few months ago, Just-A-Start gave up on a project to turn former Episcopal Divinity School property near Harvard Sq. into a mixed-income homeownership project. Because current zoning creates a "significant risk associated with what would likely be a difficult permitting process, given the density needed to make the project feasible," it went to Lesley University, the article stated, quoting Assistant City Manager for Community Development Iram Farooq

How would the affordable housing overlay work in practice?

In a nutshell, the program would allow for bigger buildings with more units in particular areas: along Mass. Ave and Cambridge Street, in the Cambridge Highlands (near Fresh Pond), Cambridgeport (South of Mass Ave) and East Cambridge. (Here's a handy map.)

For example: in areas where current zoning only allows two units on two stories, the overlay would allow seven units on three stories, or (better) eight units on four stories

On large parcels, current zoning allows only one unit on two stories. With the overlay, that could go all the way up to 17 units on three stories or (better!) 23 units on four stories. That's pretty exciting!

The overlay would "enable us to be competitive," said Homeowners Rehab Executive Director Peter Daly, as quoted in the article. "We would have been able to grab some more of those [50] properties" because the zoning changes would reduce the cost by $50k - $100k per unit. 

Of course this is only for affordable housing. Cambridge's zoning for market-rate development will continue to create sprawl, exacerbating our environmental and equity problems. Still, the overlay would be an improvement.  

What should we do to make sure the overlay is enacted?

Show up. The overlay has already generated tremendous push-back among the opposing crowd, which tends to be wealthier, older and whiter than the average resident

The article reported that some public commenters had said they believed "poor people bring rats" and that "people will linger at the door," which the article described as "blatantly classist."

Other opponents are more nuanced — though the outcome is the same if we don't oppose them. The article cites Councilor Quinton Zondervan as saying staying out of West Cambridge in favor of building on Mass. Ave./Cambridge St. is worth considering because it might mean hanging on to more trees and green space. 

Similarly, it quotes a resident as saying she didn't want to see older buildings and mature trees torn down in "a rush to add affordable housing."

But, of course, there will be no "rush" even if the overlay becomes law.

"It will not open the floodgates by any means," said Farooq. And: "This is not going to be the tsunami of affordable housing some of us hope for," said Daly. It's just "a tool" that could help.

In Conclusion:

ABC Action Fund doesn't want to see historic buildings torn down, either. Luckily, Cambridge has strong historic preservation institutions — thank goodness. So we don't have to worry about it too much.

We also don't want to lose mature trees. But if one tree goes down here in Cambridge to add 23 units on one plot of land — saving 22 plots of land elsewhere from losing their trees — we think it's the right move, environment-wise. 

Side note: building densely in cities preserves the environment and helps fight climate change. It prevents sprawl and limits polluting car trips. But advocating for trees and open space is a way of hiding NIMBY-ism behind a veneer of faux-environmental concern. 

What Cambridge doesn't have is enough affordable housing (or enough housing, period). In that context, concerns about trees and history strike me as being a whole lot of pretext that we must meet with robust calling-out.

We'll be tracking all the opportunities for public comment on this issue. The best way to follow our alerts on this issue is to check out our Twitter page here: @ABetterCAF. 

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