Friday, July 12, 2024

The proposed new affordable housing building at 2072 Massachusetts Ave., North Cambridge, has created a familiar pattern: Some neighbors have voiced an array of objections, perhaps hoping to downsize, delay or even stop the project in its tracks. A recent study by political scientists at Boston University shows that people who participate in public hearings about new housing developments are on average older, whiter and richer than their communities, and that they overwhelmingly oppose the developments. (In fact, a book about this study, “Neighborhood Defenders,” begins with a story about a zoning hearing in our own little town.)

Zoning boards are used to hearing from neighbors who oppose new housing, especially affordable housing projects, in their neighborhoods. But in the case of 2072 Massachusetts Ave. there’s a wrinkle: A bunch of us neighbors have come forward to say that we want this beautiful new building in our neighborhood. More than 300 neighbors have signed a petition in favor of the project. (If you live in Cambridge you can sign as well – the petition is here.)

Many of the petition signers, myself included, are the stereotypical opponents of affordable housing – older, white, prosperous homeowners in the neighborhood. We have come to recognize that if nothing is done, Cambridge will soon become a city only for the rich, the Massachusetts version of Palo Alto, the super-wealthy enclave surrounding Stanford University in California. As Kendall Square booms, Cambridge has been adding new, highly paid jobs at a ferocious rate, but the city is not building enough housing for all the new workers who fill these jobs, driving prices skyward. The building proposed for 2072 Massachusetts Ave. represents just one small step in addressing this problem, but for 48 families it will be a lifeline, providing them convenient, well-designed homes in our community.

I am heartened that so many of us in the neighborhood have signed the petition supporting 2072 Massachusetts Ave., and that some of us will be speaking in favor of the project at a crucial May 20 meeting with the Board of Zoning Appeal. But our participation doesn’t solve the biggest problem with the politics of housing in Cambridge: Those whose interests are most at stake are rarely heard from. I’m referring to the thousands of non-rich people who want to stay in Cambridge but are being pushed out by relentlessly rising rents. (If you think “thousands” is an exaggeration, try getting on the waiting list for one of the few affordable housing projects moving forward in Cambridge.) In all the arguments about traffic, parking, aesthetics and other concerns, their interests typically go unrepresented.

Neighbors deserve a chance to speak about this building, but should our voices be so much louder than those whose lives are most directly affected by the zoning board’s decision? I hope that as they weigh the merits of 2072 Massachusetts Ave., zoning board members keep in mind that their decision will help determine who gets to live in our city – and who is turned away.

Tom Burke, Buena Vista Park