Sunday, May 19, 2024

Carl Nagy-Koechlin, executive director of the affordable-housing developer Just-A-Start, seen at a January event. (Photo: Just-A-Start via Facebook)

The reintroduced Affordable Housing Overlay Zoning Petition moved to a second reading Monday, continuing its smoother passage to enactment compared with a first version tabled a year ago after months of controversy and divisiveness.

The zoning, intended to eliminate design limits and hurdles for developers putting up buildings of 100 percent affordable housing – including in parts of the city dominated by single-family homes and lacking in affordable units – was brought back in February after a municipal election changed the City Council’s voting dynamics. On Monday, it moved onward with a 7-2 vote.

How effective the zoning will be in producing affordable housing remains in doubt.

One of the city’s two nonprofit developers, Just-A-Start, endorsed the zoning Monday by saying it would provide “a very important tool” in competing with private, market-rate developers for space to build on.

“We just started looking at two very promising development opportunities. We don’t know how they’re going to go. But we do know that without the overlay, we we will not be able to compete,” said Carl Nagy-Koechlin, executive director of Just-A-Start.

Not much enthusiasm

Councillor E. Denise Simmons called it “a very important day” because of the vote, and vice mayor Alanna Mallon said it was “an incredible tool.”

“It has taken a lot of airtime, and I look forward to voting for this and moving on to other pressing needs in our community to address and make sure that housing is fundamental and equitable,” Mallon said.

The zoning also arrived before the council with “strong support … in concept” from members of the Planning Board, which voted 7-1 for it on Aug. 4 while acknowledging in a memo that it “might not be perfect.”

In general, enthusiasm for the zoning was low. Councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, whose election in November was widely seen as the guarantee the zoning would pass, said merely that “in addition to the AHO there are a million things we need to do with regard to affordable housing in Cambridge, and that, frankly, we should have done already … but the fact that we haven’t done those things is not a reason to not support this one small step.”

“Sunk costs”

The votes against included Dennis Carlone, who noted his own work advocating for affordable housing to underline why he couldn’t support this zoning: a lack of specificity in its language and design guidelines as well as the lack of an overall city housing vision or plan, which made the overlay “the result of much frustration and desperation.” The zoning came out of a three-year, $6 million master planning exercise called Envision Cambridge that was finished a year ago but has not received a serious look by the council, and various officials have despaired that the AHO was what the city chose to focus on out of various proposals; Carlone renewed complaints Monday that the city has taken no steps to build affordable housing on its own parking lots or even provided a list of city property where housing could go up, despite more than six years of asking.

Councillor Patty Nolan echoed Carlone’s complaints and also voted no, saying she was disappointed that improvements introduced in previous debate over the zoning – including her proposal that some units be set aside for middle-income residents – weren’t in this version.

“I remain unconvinced that as written it will be a game changer,” Nolan said. “It’s difficult to imagine whether this ordinance will change this equation in Cambridge enough to justify all the energy and concern. [But] I recognize our sunk costs. We will be moving on.”

Another weary condemnation came from councillor Quinton Zondervan, despite him voting in favor: “It remains a neoliberal policy [that is] the best that we’re going to get.”