Developer’s donations to councillors creates unease

Developers with recent donations to City Council candidates are looking for a zoning change to allow small “workforce housing” basement units, and city politics watchers are concerned.

“When the petitioner himself has made maximum donations to sitting councillors, we have a failure of the smell test,” said Mark Jaquith, an East Cambridge resident and Cambridge Community Television blogger.

On Monday, the nine-member council referred the matter — a bid to “allow for the creation of reasonably priced studio or one-bedroom apartment units in appropriate unused basement space,” according to the petition — to its Ordinance Committee and to the Planning Board for a hearing and report.

A search of state databases by the name of the developer, Chestnut Hill Realty, shows $4,000 going to city councillor Ken Reeves and $1,000 to councillor Marjorie Decker during their runs for reelection, all by employees making the maximum donation of $500. But that amount and the total $12,150 recorded by the state’s Office of Campaign & Political Finance doesn’t tell the whole story; several people associated with the firm gave but didn’t identify themselves as being associated with the firm, and people at the same home addresses — spouses of employees, for instance — gave as well.

A cursory look finds $6,000 made its way to Decker from employees or others associated with Chestnut Hill Realty, and another $5,000 to Reeves.

Robert Winters’ website has more detail on the current proposal:

They propose to modify the zoning ordinance to allow basements in large (30-plus units) multifamily buildings to be converted to one-bedroom apartments, and they characterize this as “Workforce Housing” … trying to add value to their existing rental properties (within 1,200 feet of Mass. Ave., according to the petition).

Like Jaquith, Winters is unhappy with the idea — with the proposal itself and the financial relationship between the developers and city councillors.

“This promises to be very controversial and it should be,” Winters writes. “With such ‘generosity,’ it is inevitable that some residents will look for evidence of a ‘quid pro quo’ among the recipients of this political generosity.”

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