Friday, April 19, 2024

Nearly a year ago a supermajority on our City Council adopted the Affordable Housing Overlay. This pioneering policy tool is already creating more permanently affordable homes for Cambridge residents and families. The AHO expedites zoning approval for developments in which 100 percent of homes are permanently affordable, allowing somewhat higher density and lower setbacks to help affordable housing compete for scarce resources and sites.

We have already seen the AHO shift the national policy conversation around zoning for more equitable housing, especially in high-cost cities such as Cambridge – from Boston and Somerville to Berkeley, California, advocates, planners and policymakers are considering similar measures. Today, we want to celebrate the incredible successes we’ve seen since the overlay was passed. Thanks to the leadership of a coalition of affordable housing advocates (including A Better Cambridge) and dedicated and courageous city councillors, this pro-housing zoning reform has already added more than 350 additional permanently affordable homes to Cambridge’s development pipeline. This means that more than 350 more families can find safe, stable housing near the jobs, education, transit and countless other benefits of our well-resourced city.

The first four AHO projects highlight the policy’s potential. At the Jefferson Park Federal site on Rindge Avenue, the overlay is allowing the Cambridge Housing Authority to modernize 175 1950s-era public housing units, including 57 that have been off-line due to disrepair. As part of this redevelopment, the overlay allows the Authority to add approximately 100 additional permanently affordable homes to the site without sidelining the project for months (or years!) while the plan navigates an extended approval process. (You can learn more about this project here.) At a time public housing authorities face substantial constraints in building public homes and maintaining existing ones – and when more than 21,000 households are waiting for Authority housing – every home added and maintained makes a world of difference for its future residents. The Authority has long distinguished itself as a creative and innovative public agency, and it is already showing that the overlay gives it one more vital tool in its policy toolbox for housing Cambridge families.

A second project, at Walden Square, proposes more than 100 additional affordable homes to an existing affordable housing development just steps from Danehy Park and the Peabody School and a short walk from public transit. We are particularly encouraged to see that many of the new homes on this site will have three or four bedrooms, perfect for the many families who have been unable to find affordable housing in Cambridge or are crowded into smaller market-rate units to keep their kids in our public schools. It is more challenging to finance larger units and having a finite amount of square footage to work with often means that affordable housing developers compromise between overall unit count and creating family-size apartments. Without enough funding earmarked for family housing (and affordable housing generally), many cities are experiencing a shortfall in deeply affordable homes for families with children. The overlay allows developers to deliver more of these larger homes without sacrificing the number of affordable homes they can provide overall.

At New Street next to the Fresh Pond Mall, Just-A-Start – one of our community’s leading nonprofit housing developers – is proposing 107 homes, replacing existing surface parking and a one-story gym with 100 percent affordable homes and 4,000 feet of ground-floor retail and community space. This development demonstrates that Cambridge values people over parking, and is an important example of the benefits that zoning reform can provide, replacing an underutilized space with urgently needed housing.

Finally, Preservation of Affordable Housing and Urban Spaces are proposing to renovate the former Sacred Heart rectory, school and convent buildings on Sixth Street in East Cambridge. While preserving the interior and exterior historic character of the buildings and site, the adaptive reuse of these vacant structures will produce about 46 units of high-quality affordable housing.

We know that clear-cut successes are uncommon in public policy. For a policy to go from idea to debate to passage to implementation, making concrete positive impacts on people’s lives in the span of a few years, is exceptional. When we see such a success, it is vital to elevate it, demonstrating that there is always more we can do to address our region’s affordable housing crisis. The overlay is a small, creative step in that direction, helping Cambridge show real commitment to affordable housing and its long-term benefits to our community. It also begins to dismantle an unfortunate history of using zoning to exclude based on race and wealth.

We are inspired by the committed coalition of housing advocates and experts, city staff and councillors and engaged residents who saw the potential for housing equity in this powerful zoning reform, and we are proud to have spent much of our careers making affordable housing a reality in Cambridge.

Teresa Cardosi, Elaine DeRosa, Margaret Drury, Esther Hanig, Jean Hannon, George Metzger, Susan Schlesinger, James Stockard, David Sullivan, Bill Tibbs