No action on increase in affordable housing by City Council committee; protest follows
The City Council failed to produce a recommendation on an increase in affordable housing at its meeting Tuesday (video), keeping the matter in committee. The meeting was to be the fifth and final hearing on the proposed increase to 20 percent from 11.5 percent, but while some progress was made, the council declined to forward the issue to the Ordinance Committee for the next step in the legislative process. A sixth meeting is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Sept. 8.
On the heels of the council’s slow progress, the Black Lives Matter Cambridge group redirected a planned “pre-work speak-out rally” Wednesday from Lafayette Square to City Hall, taking up housing affordability as a rallying cry. Working with the Cambridge Residents’ Alliance, the protesters demanded 25 percent affordable housing; asked for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to house more of its graduate students and postdoctoral researchers; called for city parking lots and other properties to be used for affordable housing; and asked for the city to establish more pathways to homeownership for low-income residents.
There was little overlap between the protest and the prior evening’s meeting. Only Nancy Ryan and Lee Farris, chairwoman and vice-chairwoman of the Residents Alliance, seemed to appear at both.
Mailing “poisoned” discussion
With no published agenda beyond “continue the public discussion,” it was perhaps inevitable that Tuesday’s meeting would go slowly.
No materials were made available in advance, although city staff handed out four documents as the meeting progressed. The council has often complained about last-minute materials they are not able to review in advance of meetings.
Mayor E. Denise Simmons began the meeting by noting that local property owners had received an anonymous mailing requesting they contact the council and “demand the City Council not mess with their land values.”
“To the anonymous person or persons who poured money, resources into the mailing in order to poison the discussion and this process,” Simmons said, “I just have one message: Shame on you. I think this is deplorable, deceitful, and I truly regret that someone in Cambridge … would stoop to that level.
“People have a right to disagree, they have a right to stand up and testify or make statements around the way this discussion may be going. They have a right to voice their opinion and their ideas. But I think it’s truly sad when people stoop to scare tactics and intentionally try to muddy the waters in order to derail an important community conversation,” Simmons said.
Vice mayor Marc McGovern called the mailing “cowardly and misleading.”
“When people don’t put their names on things and then put out lies, I really have very little tolerance or respect for that,” McGovern said.
City staff distributed a nine-point Q&A memo responding to the mailing.
Updates from Chamber, developers
One reason the process has slowed is pressure from the development community, which commissioned Landwise Advisors to run a competing analysis of the feasibility of a 20 percent inclusionary rate. The prior meeting of the Housing Committee was devoted to the Landwise analysis.
Top city planner Iram Farooq told the council that her staff had met with Landwise and had a “productive discussion.”
“Our sense is they are generally comfortable with the methodology that was used and with the assumptions as of today, but the big concern was: ‘What about the future?’” Farooq said. “What happens if there are changes in the future that result in a less robust housing market?”
“I know they will be bringing forward some thoughts related to that,” Farooq said, but that did not happen at Tuesday’s meeting.
The Chamber’s director of government affairs, Sarah Kennedy, said before quickly departing to another engagement that there had been “good early conversations about a potential phase-in or a stepped approach to an increase,” but did not offer any specifics. Similarly, she referred to continuing work on a “robust three-bedroom incentive” that might produce more family units – as well as to “continuing our conversations” with council and staff – but offered no details.
The development community has also been asked repeatedly to bring forth ideas for other zoning to make the 20 percent attainable, but has not responded over several public hearings.
“We’ve mentioned it to them,” Farooq said. “So has the mayor. That would be good for them to bring forward.”
How developments already in the pipeline might be subject to the increased inclusionary percentage has been a question throughout the hearing process.
City Solicitor Nancy E. Glowa gave the council a fairly definitive memo and answer Tuesday: “If you already have a building permit or a special permit you have acted upon, you are safe from any zoning amendment,” she said.
That includes special permits for large areas known as Planned Unit Developments, or PUDs, such as the 5 million square foot NorthPoint development, with eight residential buildings planned in addition to the five commercial buildings expected; MIT’s five-building development in Kendall Square; or Alexandria’s developments in East Cambridge. Future residential buildings in those development projects would not be subject to the increased inclusionary percentage.
“But,” Glowa said, “if they came in to seek an amendment to the special permit, any such amendment would be subject to [new] provisions.”
Tom Sullivan, DivcoWest’s president of development, warned the council that “If the proposed increase in the inclusionary requirement were to apply to NorthPoint, it would be devastating to the project … A change from 11.5 to 20 percent would reduce the value of our residential land nearly 40 percent … This proposal has already slowed development of NorthPoint.”
Sullivan was not able to explain why the increase was an issue for NorthPoint, given that construction has begun under NorthPoint’s existing special permit. “I can’t comment on what we might or might not do in the future,” he said.
On the other hand, since initially granted the special permit in 2003, the NorthPoint project has been returned for amendments to its special permit six times, most recently in June. Given that the project is expected to continue for many more years, additional amendments do not seem far-fetched. DivcoWest might try to avoid requesting more that could effectively raise NorthPoint’s inclusionary requirement.
Mayor’s decision matrix
After taking public comment and hearing from staff, the council’s discussion began an hour into the meeting, and councillors expressed frustration with the speed of the process. In addition to Simmons and McGovern, councillors Dennis Carlone, Jan Devereux, David Maher and Nadeem Mazen were present. (Craig Kelley appeared at the beginning of the meeting, but soon left to run his 6:30 p.m. meeting of a neighborhood resiliency committee)
“I feel a little bit like it’s Groundhog Day,” Devereux said. “I was impatient [at the July 11 meeting] to get this topic out of the Housing Committee and over to Ordinance where we can really hash it out. And I remain so.”
Devereux feared it might take nearly another year to adopt an ordinance, while Simmons said she hoped it could be accomplished before City Manager Richard C. Rossi retires at the end of September. It was unclear if there was any agreed-upon timeline, and Devereux said she thought the “best-case scenario” was adoption by Dec. 31.
Simmons distributed a handout at this point intended to help guide the council through the remaining decisions before reaching the Ordinance Committee. It outlined 14 questions in six categories that could be used to direct city staff in drafting a formal zoning petition. The memo’s language came from the Affordable Housing Trust, Simmons said.
But discussion bogged down in the first category: the change to 20 percent from 11.5 percent, known formally as the “inclusionary housing set-side ratio.” That consumed most of the rest of the meeting, limited by rule to two hours, although it ran over by 30 minutes.
Most of that conversation was about how fast to phase in a change to 20 percent. Simmons said she had heard requests for three and five years, but after talking to colleagues, “I think three years is a nonstarter. I think two years for the majority of the council is a non-starter.”
McGovern proposed what most councillors seemed to accept: start at 13 percent when the ordinance is enacted, move to 15 percent in six months and to 20 percent at one year.
But the speech took place on eggshells, with councillors reluctant to commit and offer alternatives. There were a lot of pauses and silence.
Simmons proposed that the committee go through the remaining 11 questions in the remaining five minutes. The councillors essentially said “Yes” to the remaining questions without meaningful discussion:
Set-aside ratio: Allow developers the option of contributing 20 percent of the gross floor area being built instead of 20 percent of the units going up; require developers to contribute cash where the math of a 20 percent contribution would result in “fractional units.”
Income: Increase the income-eligibility limit for ownership units to 100 percent of area median income, but keep the limit at 80 percent for rental units.
Bonuses: Maintain the current 30 percent “density bonus” that compensates developers for inclusionary units by allowing them to build more market-rate units.
Family units: Allow developers to build more larger family-sized units, which the city believes it needs most, in exchange for fewer total units. Also consider limits on how these mechanisms might work, especially in buildings geared toward single-occupancy units.
Thresholds: Continue to exempt projects of fewer than 10 units from the requirement. Eliminate the requirement to get a special permit for small projects that volunteer to include inclusionary units. Apply the inclusionary requirement to renovations of existing buildings, but only if the building has been fully vacant for at least two years.
The nonviolent housing protest led by Black Lives Matter Cambridge began early Wednesday with four interlocked demonstrators attaching themselves to the handles of the front doors to City Hall with bicycle U-locks; about 50 people chanted and demonstrated on the lawn in front, and Rossi stood in front of City Hall for several hours observing. Police and city personnel removed the door handles from the inside just before 8 a.m. and relocated the protesters beside the doors to allow others access into and out of the building.
“City Hall is a civic space where ideas, proposals and citizen grievances are discussed,” the city said in a statement. “The public has a right to peacefully gather. The Cambridge Police and Fire Departments will work to ensure that both employees and visitors at City Hall have a safe environment to conduct their business.”
Ultimately the protesters escalated by expressing their intention to depart midday, but instead moved back in front of the doors, according to Stephanie Guirand, one of the group’s leaders.
After giving the protesters two hours to move from the doors, police arrested the two adult and two minor protesters who blocked the doors, said Jeremy Warnick, a spokesman for the Cambridge Police. The remaining protesters dispersed by 3 p.m.
All four arrested protesters were released by 7 p.m. Wednesday, Warnick said Thursday.