Don’t be too impressed by councillor action on housing: little, late, leaves much undone
It’s good that Cambridge has finally updated and raised its developer “linkage” fees, which puts money into affordable housing in a city with out-of-control real estate prices and as many as 7,385 people waiting for a welcome letter from the Cambridge Housing Authority.
There was a common theme of congratulation heard around the vote, as well as remarks on how the council was taking a “dramatic step of almost tripling the fee” to go to $12 a square foot from $4.58, as councillor Leland Cheung put it. His congratulations included councillor E. Denise Simmons “very thoughtfully” adding a requirement to look every three years at the fee for further adjustment.
Reality check: The same schedule of reevaluation Simmons “very thoughtfully” added is exactly what the city is supposed to have been doing already – it’s just never followed through. And the reason the vote was a dramatic near-tripling of the fee is because of a council failure.
Despite the rhetoric year after year, the council hasn’t been effective in addressing a housing crisis.
“It shouldn’t have happened that way”
It’s true that going to $12 per square foot is an increase of 162 percent; but it would be a far less “dramatic” jump of 53 percent if the council had addressed a study 13 years ago that suggested setting the level at $7.83. By failing to act, the council lost $3.9 million for building affordable housing, which is estimated at being between eight and 13 units.
One argument in favor of building the Mass+Main tower in Central Square was that, in a housing crunch such as the one afflicting Cambridge, every little bit of affordable housing helps. If that’s true for Mass+Main, it’s true for linkage, but that wasn’t the thinking of Mayor David Maher in 2003 when he co-chaired the committee responsible for it. He let the fee proposal disappear, saying he preferred smaller fees applied to a larger percentage of development. That is, he let $3.9 million go saying he wanted more money; he let as many as 13 units of affordable housing go undeveloped saying he wanted more units – and, in an echo of why a higher linkage fee was rejected Monday, because he was “concerned that Cambridge may be making the barriers to commercial development so high that developers will choose other locations,” according to the 2003 meeting minutes. In today’s dollars, $7.83 is $10.14, nearly two dollars less than he voted to approve Monday.
It wasn’t just Maher who let that happen more than a decade ago. Simmons and Tim Toomey were also on the council.
“It shouldn’t have happened that way, and we can talk about that all night long, but we’re fixing that,” said councillor Marc McGovern on Monday. He’s another member of the seven-incumbent Unity Slate up for reelection.
The developer “bonus”
Another thing heard a lot during debate is that linkage (also called incentive zoning) is just one way the city helps retain lower-income residents. Another method is the “inclusionary housing” provision for developers of residential property: Putting up 10 or more new housing units (or more than 10,000 square feet) and setting aside 15 percent of the units to be affordable brings a “bonus” to build even bigger.
But the council has long known and frequently discussed how an interpretation of those figures blessed by the city lets those figures fall to, often, 11.5 percent of units.
By one way of thinking, every apartment that escapes when the city lets developers take advantage this way needs a whole new building to go in. Example: Because Boston Properties is being allowed to add 10 affordable units fewer on its Ames Street project than the full 15 percent it should, the city will have to get an entirely different, roughly 85-unit building somewhere to hold those 10. The city is always losing on this bad math.
Addressing the issue
The council and Community Development Department abrogated their responsibilities by letting a citizen propose a correction to the problem. Called the Andrews petition after first signer Linda Andrews of Churchill Avenue, the August 2011 citizen proposal aimed to “preclude misinterpretations” by restating the zoning.
What happened with this simple fix? Nothing.
Council-appointed city manager Robert C. Healy passed on negative opinions on the petition but ignored a council request for more information, so members asked for a report Dec. 5, 2011, and, still hearing nothing, again July 30, 2012.
The council also took action on its own, sort of: Its members voted unanimously for their Housing Committee to look at inclusionary housing. It didn’t, though, not for three years.
Healy left office with a June 2013 request that the slate of unfinished business be wiped clean for his successor, longtime deputy Richard C. Rossi, and the council accepted it, killing once and for all its own request for information stemming from the already expired Andrews petition.
Members of the council at that time included Cheung, Maher, Simmons, Toomey and Craig Kelley.
All of those incumbents are on the Unity Slate with McGovern and vice mayor Dennis Benzan, talking about their direction and commitment to work together on tackling tough issues to lead the city. But sometimes those reassuring words sound like this: “It shouldn’t have happened that way, and we can talk about that all night long, but we’re fixing that.”