Talk of raising affordable housing to 35% from 11.5%, but study missing after a year
There was talk Monday of setting a goal for big developers to make up to 35 percent of their new units affordable for low- or middle-income families, even as city councillors acknowledged again that the current goal of 15 percent falls short – typically landing at around 11.5 percent of units being built.
A 25 percent goal was also mentioned, growing councillors’ hopes from a bump up to 18 percent during the last big projects they approved, both in Kendall Square. But a residential tower on Ames Street will have only about 13 percent of its units available for rent to low- and middle-income residents, according to the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority.
Meeting the goals allows developers to build bigger.
“We throw around numbers sometimes, but the reason there isn’t a number in here about raising it to 25 percent is because I don’t think any of us really know what that number is,” said councillor Marc McGovern, referring to a policy order from him, Mayor David Maher and vice mayor Dennis Benzan asking the city manager for an update on what his staff was doing on the matter. “I want to raise it as high as we can raise it to maximize the number of affordable units, but you can’t raise it so much that you then make it a disincentive for people to build and get nothing. So it could be 25 percent, it could be 30, it could be 35. I just don’t know.”
The 35 percent figure corresponds with a suggestion by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to keep neighboring Somerville affordable to households across a variety of income levels.
A year since order
That answer about a perfect percentage could come from a variety of places, McGovern, councillor Nadeem Mazen and others said, but the discussion about so-called inclusionary housing came about as a call for an update on an order on affordable housing made some 16 months ago in May 2013, along with an admission that the current zoning was failing in its intent.
A similar council admission and request had been made six months before that.
But the May 2013 discussion brought a call for the first “nexus” study since a 1989 adoption specifically to see how much inclusionary housing the market could bear, despite Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development, agreeing the council was not obliged to follow a nexus study’s recommendations.
The $75,000 needed for the study was approved by the city’s Affordable Housing Trust four months later, in late September 2013.
“We do very much agree with the importance and sense of urgency on this,” Murphy said in November, six months after the need for a nexus study was discussed. “We have a draft [request for proposals] that’s working its way through the process that we’re trying to get done as soon as possible.”
The dates on the bids are May 29, or more than a year since councillors asked for it.
“The impetus is that we’re anticipating a lot of development in Cambridge within the next couple of years. We certainly don’t want to be caught having this come out after that development is on the way,” said councillor Leland Cheung at the time – 16 months ago. (Cheung came in second in a primary Tuesday in a bid for lieutenant governor. After being endorsed for the position by The Boston Globe, Cheung got 29 percent of the vote to Stephen Kerrigan’s 51 percent of the vote. Mike Lake got 20 percent.)
“Where is the nexus study?”
Councillors also expressed uncertainty Monday over the status of of zoning and design proposals for Kendall and Central squares, whose most recent mentions were in December and long after public processes ended, but unlike the K2C2 work, dismay over the housing study lag time was made explicit during debate. It also loomed large in debate over the failed Carlone petition aiming to give the council added control over some of the city’s largest developments.
“Where is the nexus study? I don’t think it even went for an RFP. I haven’t seen it,” councillor Dennis Carlone said during debate about the zoning petition named after him.
Meanwhile, Carlone said, “People are driven out by spiraling housing prices.”
He proposed getting advice on a new percentage for inclusionary housing from city nonprofits such as Just-A-Start that deal with affordable housing. Mazen wanted to make sure there were concrete examples included to show people the effect of various inclusionary proposals.
But E. Denise Simmons, who leads the council’s Housing Committee, said she didn’t want to complicate the original order in such a way that would slow a response, leading to Mazen making it a separate motion.
“I’m concerned: Will this slow down getting a report back from Community Development?” Simmons asked. “We’ve already asked them for some information, and I don’t want them to stall that.”
This post was updated Sept. 12, 2014, to note the origin of the 35 percent proposal for affordable-housing levels,