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Click on the above image to read a PDF of a city-released report on “inclusionary housing” rules affecting affordable housing.

After years of controversy over the language determining how much housing gets set aside as “affordable,” the city is starting talks to reset that figure – potentially to 17 percent to 20 percent of certain projects – with language less open to interpretation.

City councillors said the conversation was just beginning and would be undertaken in depth in their Housing Committee, where they hoped to find the right target that would encourage more construction of housing for lower-income residents in a city thronged by the wealthy and beset by real estate speculators, rather than discourage any construction.

Adopting the highest amount would raise the amount of “inclusionary” affordable housing now called for by 74 percent.

“We have to find that sweet spot,” vice mayor Marc McGovern said, “how high we can get without shooting ourselves in the foot.”

City Manager Richard C. Rossi said real estate developers and affordable-housing advocates were already being contacted to advise the deliberations, drawing a warning from councillor Nadeem Mazen to gauge all input carefully, including from industry professionals who might see the requirement to build lower-income units as a drag on their investment.

The study discussed Monday said the higher percent of affordable housing “would have a financial impact, but would not necessarily render developments economically problematic.”

Big demand, larger issue

“This is something developers will do without flinching whether or not they kick and scream in the meantime. They are going to come here, they’re going to tell us it’s not doable, and then it’s going to be very easy for them to do it anyway,” said Mazen, advocating for the 20 percent figure. “I’ve seen several cycles of that. I just want to make sure that as that all happens, it doesn’t distract us from the real five- to 10-years’ work of confronting a crisis.”

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“We really do need to achieve an equitable outcome or else the economy will suffer, the city will suffer, the diversity, culture and other things,” Mazen said, proposing that Cambridge work with other communities on what he called another vital part of the solution: lobbying the federal government for a new approach to solve growing housing conflicts nationwide.

The rules in place in Cambridge since 1998 have kept its affordable housing stock at roughly the same 15 percent of total units in place at the start, said Clifford Cook, planning information manager for the Community Development Department – although about 40 percent of the city’s total household population dating back to the 1990 Census was low- and moderate-income and would have benefited from cheaper housing. Since then, market pressures have forced out more lower-income earners, especially among renters, according to city studies.

Public comment

Among public speakers, only Chamber of Commerce representative Sarah Kennedy urged the City Council to “think about other levers” than bigger inclusionary housing requirements, because the chamber’s developer members were “concerned by the multitude of requirements.”

But the 20 percent figure won support not just from Jesse Kanson-Benanav, founder and chairman of the smart-growth group A Better Cambridge, but from Nancy Ryan, president of the Cambridge Residents Alliance. The groups are often opposed on development issues.

More public comment was welcomed by Mayor E. Denise Simmons and McGovern at three upcoming Housing Committee meetings to be scheduled – the first purely for civic participation; the second to bring in authors of the latest inclusionary housing study to explain their data and findings; and the third for committee members to debate and vote.

The final amount of affordable units in any given new building of 10 or more units has already been a topic of conversation – as well as how to keep developers from gaming the system by building just below the threshold that triggers the rules.

Some “confusion”

The Inclusionary Housing Study City introduced by Rossi on Monday, written by David Paul Rosen & Associates and in the works since 2014, acknowledges the the previous set of rules “has on occasion caused confusion about the expected number of affordable units in new buildings” and therefore refers to the figures as a percent “of total units” or, in Rossi’s introduction, as a percent “of the total of newly built units.”

The previous setting of inclusionary housing percentages, prepared by Stockard & Engler & Brigham in February 1998, had no such language, leading to a failed attempt in 2011 to change the language to “preclude misinterpretations that have apparently become common.”

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What was the confusion? The Stockard report described the city’s “existing stock” of affordable housing at 15 percent of the city’s total, and spoke of the “ability to attain its goal of preserving the economic diversity of the city’s population by maintaining a stock of 15 percent affordable housing” – but after being voted in by the City Council, that looked different in application: It applied the 15 percent standard to a real estate developer’s “base” plans, giving that developer a “bonus” to build more. The end result: Often, affordable housing units wound up as 11.5 percent of the total.

Rationale for a ratio

The Stockard report was referred to by Robert W. Healy, the city manager at the time, as the “rationale study” supporting a recommendation for the inclusionary housing policy, which itself as written in 1997 by the consultants Peter Werwath & Associates. “This study will provide the basis for recommending the exact percentage of the affordable requirement in the policy,” Healy said of the Stockard report.

As Cotter explained it, Stockard named 15 percent as an existing figure and goal as only one component of the city’s overall affordable housing efforts, including “linkage” from developers of office and lab space, the work of the Cambridge Housing Authority and others – its writers just didn’t happen to show that math.

“What the ordinance has produced, whatever number that is, compared to whatever ratio, is supplemented by all affordable dwellings being built around the city,” Cotter said.

If there was 15 percent going in nearly two decades ago and there is still roughly 15 percent of affordable housing stock – suggesting the inclusionary zoning worked as intended maintaining the city’s economic balance by building only 11.5 percent affordable housing after bonus density – why is the suggested figure now as high as 20 percent “of the total of newly built units”?

Cotter explained:

“It’s not apples to apples because this is looking forward, while the Stockard report was looking at what it was [then]. That’s what the ratio in the community was; if we were looking at it today, that 15 percent is still there but we’re looking at continuing increases in housing demand, continuing need, and we’re trying to expand to meet that.”

“It gets into what are our goals? Where is the need? What are we trying to be as a community? And that’s something we’ll talk about at the City Council, but we still get passed an order looking to add another 1,000 affordable units in the next four or five years, and that’s certainly something we can’t do without strengthening our tools … that’s really asking for us to expand, not to just maintain, but to expand affordable options. And we’re talking about middle-income households; that’s not something we had done a lot of over the years, but it’s a need we’re now beginning to deal with.”

Considering past confusion, it’s a goal councillors were already careful to note Monday.

“We have to be really clear when we talk about this … there’s net percentage, right, the percentage you actually get, and the gross percentage,” McGovern said. “What we’re talking about here is going from, in terms of net percentage, 11.5 percent to 20 percent.”