Tuesday, April 16, 2024

In a recent letter to the editor about proposed affordable housing overlay zoning, citizens Becca Schofield and Alexandra Markiewicz lay out concerns about the zoning they believe to be misconceptions.

First it is important to correct the very premise of the letter, namely that the overlay will “make affordable housing development simpler and more cost effective.” Their letter itself compounds misconceptions. While the overlay may try to simplify things for developers, it actually makes zoning overall more complex by adding another layer of zoning that could lead to dramatic changes in land values as well as radically different regulations for property owners and developers, a significant imbalance in power privileging the latter.

Schofield and Markiewicz are members of the group A Better Cambridge, which supports ongoing new housing construction in this city. Key among the goals of its mission statement is a desire to “expand affordable and market-rate home development throughout the city” and “encourage building new homes in all of Cambridge’s neighborhoods.” The vast increase in luxury (market-rate) homebuilding is one of the reasons we find ourselves needing more affordable housing. The push to focus only on homebuilding, rather than restoring and enhancing existing homes, puts ABC goals in direct conflict with addressing in real terms affordable housing concerns and our need to preserve and enhance mature trees and green spaces. Its sister organization, the A Better Cambridge Action Fund, supports the same goals.

Here we ask – starting with language from Schofield and Markiewicz themselves – if each so-called myth is actually fact.

Myth? “Buildings allowed under the overlay will be substantially taller than surrounding structures and homogenous in style.”

Fact: The heights may indeed be substantially taller than now. If the adjacent residence is two and a half stories (a story is about 10 feet), a four-story building is tall and a seven-story building on an adjacent avenue is huge. If sunlight is important to you, and you live on the north side of a corridor close to the property line, four stories next door may affect substantially whether you want to rent or own nearby. Each situation is different and should, as now, be looked at within the specific context of a site. Current Planning Board review allows tailoring, with real resident input. The overlay does not. The style of a building will also affect the impact of massing. Since this would be “as of right,” developers can choose the style or design they want, ignoring abutters – and will generally look for the least expensive way to build. 

Myth? “The overlay will encourage developers to tear down existing buildings currently affordable for Cambridge’s middle class.” 

Fact: The overlay will encourage demolition of Cambridge existing buildings – affordable and not. The basic rule is that developers may alter or reconstruct existing buildings to comply with the overlay. Incentives to preserve existing structures are modest (for example, waiving off-street parking for units in existing buildings). This approach won’t withstand the major economic incentives to tear down buildings to take advantage of relaxed height and setbacks and to get better financial returns squeezing more units in. In the process Cambridge may lose many historic structures reflecting the city’s history and architectural legacy even if they are not appropriate for “landmark” status. The overlay’s incentives to preserve the legacy are few and modest – halving their open space requirements, for example. A key goal of the urban form working group from the Envision Cambridge planning process is to preserve our historic architecture. This should be ours as well, so we need to promote the use of the existing stock of homes for new affordable housing.

Myth? “‘As-of-right’ means no design review or community input for these projects.” 

Fact: “As-of-right” means that the city would remove current design review with meaningful community input and replace it with a foreshortened  process that removes the citizen Planning Board as final arbiter (with significant resident input) and hands the decision instead to the city manager. A developer would not be constrained to follow specific guidelines that require a building conform more closely with best design practices or local context. The current system has worked well. Cities around the country that use form-based models of design created extensive design guidelines – often involving years of work and community input. The overlay does not.

Myth? “The overlay won’t add any more affordable housing.”

Fact: The overlay would likely bring few more units than those already being constructed each year according to Community Development staff speaking at an April 9 roundtable of the City Council’s Housing Committee. They tried to defend an estimate of up to only 100 added units a year, a small number given the high price of ignoring other city interests and the low cost of better alternatives. They overlook the massive rush by developers to build or convert ever more luxury units in Cambridge, forcing out longtime residents and making the need for affordable housing even more grave. We are in a vicious circle. 

Myth? “One hundred percent affordable developments threaten trees and open space.”

Fact: The overlay, with its considerably reduced setbacks, will remove vital green spaces and mature trees. The overlay requires no green space or landscaping and does not require existing mature trees to be preserved. Indeed, the overlay allows developers to remove mature trees and green spaces so they can build the largest possible structures on the lot. The overlay’s laudable objectives force its new projects into competition with the tree canopy. In addition, the overlay implicitly removes explicit tree protections in some areas, including the zoning areas known as Res C2-B, Bus A, Bus-1 and Bus-2. 

Cambridge’s vital need to preserve mature trees, which sequester much more carbon than young trees, is one more reason to retain and rehab current buildings. Too often developers will seek to remove mature trees to facilitate building. Green spaces should be commensurate with the number of people living in a structure. Roof areas should not be included as open spaces because they do not support tree growth and do not enhance the streetscape, but the overlay allows up to 50 percent of open space to be on roofs. Bike sheds also should not be a replacement for greenspaces or trees, but rather for vehicular parking. 

Myth? “Reducing/eliminating parking minimums means no parking allowed. New projects without parking will worsen traffic.”

Fact: This misstates the concern greatly. The proposal doesn’t prohibit parking – it leaves much of the decision to developer designs and the property. The overlay sets a modest 0.4 of a space per unit, then excludes various situations such as buildings existing now, buildings in which four or fewer spaces are required or buildings within a half-mile of a train or subway stop or a quarter-mile of a bus stop. This exempts a lot of Cambridge. 

The developer will decide what and where to build based on relative net costs of parking and more units. Cambridge designed its policy to reduce parking to encourage people to switch to mass transit, but not everyone has close access to public transit at both ends of their journey. Some people – particularly with lower incomes – need to get to jobs at times of the day when public transport is not working or where public transport does not reach. So affordable housing residents near a T stop may still need a car if they work outside Cambridge. They will compete for street parking space, adding congestion. 

Myth? “Developers are all the same, and affordable housing development will just make them more money!”

Fact: Obviously some developers are for-profit, others are nonprofit. Nothing in the zoning proposal prevents for-profits from developing affordable housing in the overlay. And indeed, several for-profit firms are among the group interested in doing just this. But it is important to distinguish between developers and investors: The latter definitely expect to make money; the former also do, if they are for-profits. 

Myth? “The overlay does not support the middle class; it encourages segregation by promoting 100 percent affordable buildings.”

Fact: Eighty percent of project renters must be at or below 80 percent of average income. The remaining 20 percent of renters may have incomes up to average. The overlay does not require the developer to take either middle-income renters or those who are truly low-income. For one person, 80 percent of the average is $56,800; for a family of four, $81,100. It is unlikely that anyone making less than half ($28,400 for one person, or $40,550 for four) would enjoy these units, although Community Development and others say most would qualify.  They would need a subsidy. Their long wait to get Cambridge’s subsidy will lead a landlord to take the middle-low rather than lowest. We need a policy to support both the poorest residents and the middle-income who are also priced out by spiraling upward prices. Some at-risk families will lose their homes when their units are bought to build affordable housing. 

Similar problems confound overlay proposals for purchase. The city should propose a way to support middle-income ownership with down payments, shared equity or other means. Owners would return the units to the city when they leave. The city must provide a means so that people can move from one income level to another through the acquisition of homes within these or other units. The problem now is that people cannot accept better-paying jobs or they will lose their housing. 

Myth? “Developers will pretend their units will be affordable to get the density boost, then make them market rate.”

Fact: This may be true; it depends on the city’s enforcement practices. Some say it’s lax now and will continue to be so. After a developer builds, will the city really be willing to require them to tear down a building if someone pleads the need for extra money from market rate units in a structure to make a project financially viable? Is the city anticipating adding extra staff to administer and enforce the overlay? 

Myth? “This process is moving too quickly!”

Fact: Community Development staff included few neighborhoods in their discussions until late 2018 and spring 2019, and mainly the participants seem to be supporters of this particular model of affordable housing. Moreover, the overlay and Envision plans have been changed dramatically over the past month. Too few in the city are aware of the plan – much less its many changes. Thus, for many, the process is seen to have started recently and to be moving too fast. Community Development started presenting the plan to neighborhoods late in 2018, saying nothing was set, but many residents had heard nothing of this initiative into 2019 and all had to wait until March 5 to see the first public draft. Residents had at best a couple days to read these documents fast and almost no time to prepare thoughtful comments to the Housing Committee at the supposedly final March 28 meeting to discuss the overlay.

This problematic rush is for a proposal that changes Cambridge zoning radically, from based on floor-area ratio to being form-based, used by only 1 percent of U.S. cities. The overlay proposal cherry picks elements of form-based zoning, ignoring essentials such as the role of neighborhoods. Residents have had almost no time to evaluate the switch, and even then, form-based planning itself is a problem in this context. Its value is to do cohesive planning for a whole neighborhood – including design style, green spaces and amenities such as grocery stores. This application is like doing surgery to add an artificial hip without addressing the larger skeletal and musculature system with which it is supposed to function.

In conclusion: Residents do not know how the overlay will affect existing zoning practices or be affected by the practices. City councillors probably also do not know. Community Development hasn’t released this information and may not have it. 

One example illustrates the problem. Zoning law distinguishes between construction in setbacks above grade (normally the ground floor up) and below grade (normally the basement). What happens on a hill, where a basement in the front of a building is above ground in back? In some districts, zoning law says setbacks to a rear property line apply above and below ground. This is important, for example, for abutters on Green Street between Putnam Avenue and Central Square, where Massachusetts Avenue is often two stories higher. Zoning now says setbacks apply above and below grade; the overlay addresses setbacks but does not say they apply above and below grade. Silence means construction could go to the rear property line despite the apparent back setback. The city should specify above and below, and reveal to the public the other situations in which law and practice will affect the overlay proposals. 

It is vital that the Planning Board retain its current role in design oversight, a task that includes looking closely at the specific context of each neighborhood. It is also vital that residents continue their roles in helping to guide the board in its decisions, and that no developer be allowed to build across the city “as of right” without the current avenues of oversight. Better ways exist to increase affordable housing faster. All of us should help Cambridge put them in place.

Phil Wellons, Riverside
Madeleine Aster, North Cambridge
Suzanne Preston Blier, Harvard Square
Dena Brody, Riverside
Fritz Donovan, Mid-Cambridge
Elizabeth Gombosi, Mid-Cambridge
Peter Glick, Observatory Hill
Chris Mackin, Harvard Square
Marilee Meyer, Mid-Cambridge
Marie Saccaccio, East Cambridge