Saturday, April 20, 2024

In a recent op-ed, vice mayor Jan Devereux took aim at the pro-housing slate of City Council candidates endorsed by the A Better Cambridge Action Fund, claiming that addressing our housing crisis by building homes reflects an “addiction to growth.” Although she isn’t running for reelection, her preferred strategy – reject all reforms, resist any zoning changes, offer no solutions and pray the city will somehow stay the way it is – is unfortunately shared by many of the candidates hoping to join City Council in her place. The problem with this fundamentally conservative strategy is it seeks to maintain a decadeslong status quo that has failed us. And if we don’t change course, it will continue to fail us.

Since the downzonings of the 1970s and 1980s, Cambridge has, as a matter of policy, made it essentially illegal to build any significant amount of housing without a negotiated special permit. (Today, two-thirds of buildings in Cambridge are denser than allowed under current zoning rules.) This has severely crippled our housing stock’s ability to keep pace with the booming Greater Boston job market. Since 2013, the region has added a quarter-million jobs, 25,000 of which were in Cambridge, but Cambridge only added 3,000 housing units. Cambridge is creating only about half as many homes per capita as Boston, which itself trails almost every major city in the United States. It’s little wonder that we’ve seen waves of displacement, as all these new workers bid up the rents and prices of existing homes. And it’s obvious what’s required: more housing.

The vice mayor argues against this solution, claiming that more residential development would require even more commercial growth, which would further increase the demand for more housing. She goes so far as to say that proposals to zone for more housing – even affordable housing! – should be resisted, on the grounds that they will “pave the way” for commercial upzonings. But this is framing a choice the city has made as if it were a law of nature. While it is true that developers of large mixed-use projects in East Cambridge and Alewife often insist on including commercial land uses for the sake of their balance sheets, by allowing for modest residential growth everywhere else in the city we can reduce our dependence on these megaprojects and go into negotiations with a stronger footing. And while the city manager has claimed repeatedly that Cambridge must build additional commercial property to avoid a “dramatic” increase in tax bills, a closer look at the numbers reveals that this is simply fear-mongering; we have room for many thousands more residential units without any risk of tax consequences. We have the power to undo our housing shortage, if only we have the courage to act.

Listening to many of the candidates for City Council this election season, it’s not clear we will have that courage. Some claim that Cambridge is “full,” despite the long stretches of Massachusetts Avenue with far too many one-story buildings, despite the practically suburban density of West Cambridge (a mere six housing units per acre). Some cry that building more housing will disrupt the “neighborhood character” of Cambridge, as if the character of a neighborhood’s buildings were more important than the character of its inhabitants, as if the sight of a four-story building next to a three-story building were more concerning than the inability of middle-income earners to move here. Some note, correctly, that “building alone will not ensure housing stability,” but use it as an excuse not to build at all rather than as a call to strengthen tenant protections. These are the kinds of things people say when they are addicted to the status quo.

By contrast, the pro-housing platform offers a way forward. It calls for allowing triple-deckers in all parts of the city, because excluding this traditional, affordable style of housing from certain neighborhoods is inequitable. It calls for passing the Affordable Housing Overlay, which would offer density bonuses to 100 percent affordable housing projects, because the fact that Just-A-Start (a nonprofit affordable housing developer) has not been able to acquire a new site in seven years is unsustainable. It calls for stronger tenant protections, such as a new condo conversion ordinance and establishing an Office of Housing Stability, because we must help longtime members of our community stay here alongside newcomers; leaving vulnerable tenants at the mercy of exploitative landlords and building tear-downs is inequitable. It calls for an end to the requirement that new residential units include parking spaces, because wasting precious land to deepen our dependency on cars is unsustainable. More broadly, it calls for more funding for the Affordable Housing Trust, and it calls for allowing more density near transit hubs. In short, it calls for meaningful reform to address our housing crisis, rather than empty words and criticisms.

Devereux, and those running with her message, seem to believe that if we stop building here, Cambridge’s housing crisis will go away. But we don’t live in a bubble. The entire Boston area is booming, not just because of commercial development in Cambridge, but because of job growth throughout the region. Freezing Cambridge’s housing stock would be fine for those who are secure in their housing – homeowners and the wealthy – but demand would continue to rise, and displacement would continue unchecked for everybody else. If we want the rewards of our “boomtown” status to go to everyone, we can’t bury our heads in the sand. We must make more room for more people in the places where people want to live. 

I’m proud to support nine pro-housing candidates – Burhan Azeem, Alanna Mallon, Marc McGovern, Risa Mednick, Adriane Musgrave, Sumbul Siddiqui, E. Denise Simmons, Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler and Tim Toomey – who know this can be done.

Allan Sadun, Pleasant Place

Allan Sadun is a renter in Cambridgeport and a member of the communications team at the all-volunteer A Better Cambridge Action Fund.