The Affordable Housing Overlay: A first-year report
Authors of an opinion piece on the Affordable Housing Overlay (“The Affordable Housing Overlay is generating 350 new homes less than a year after passage,” Aug. 13) address perceived successes over the past year but omit key details, such as where the 350 units are, their initiation dates or related impacts. The ordinance itself requires no annual review, leaving this up to others. While the Cambridge Citizens Coalition along with many residents opposed the overlay’s passage, once it was ordained we were eager to see and potentially support its outcomes.
Below is our overview of the overlay’s successes and the questions it raised in this initial period.
Overlay pluses include that the overlay made some Cambridge residents think more seriously about housing affordability, and it made Cambridge itself begin to address this issue citywide.
Finding AHO-specific examples that meet stated goals is harder to do, but it is not hard to guess what sites are cited by proponents as successes:
Jefferson Park: Plans call for demolishing all 11 buildings, a six-story residence and a group of three- to four-story “low-rise” buildings, then rebuilding to rehouse tenants while adding some 114 to 120 units, bringing this public housing site to 289 units from the current 175 or so. Many of the mature trees that gave Jefferson Park its name will be lost. Had state permitting known as the “40B” law been used, fewer trees would go.
New Street: This 107-unit project was well underway when the City Council voted in the summer of 2019 – before the overlay – not to support more storage units with a scattering of affordable units as sweetener. Eventually the owner transformed the use to affordable units. While not an AHO goal-based project per se, New Street represents a positive outcome.
Walden Square: This proposed 103-unit project expands Winn Properties’ existing Walden Square affordable housing development onto a parking lot, simply adding more density to an existing affordable housing development. Nonprofit developers are not competing here with market-rate investors, but the project further segregates affordable housing residents, leaving them with few amenities.
Other current affordable housing projects are also important to this overview:
2072 Massachusetts Ave.: Plans for this proposed 49-unit development have not been finalized. This project employed not the overlay, but instead the long-available Massachusetts Chapter 40B comprehensive permitting. Had overlay guidelines been used, some neighborhood opposition might be dissipated.
Rindge Tower Apartments: The expansion of Rindge Tower Apartments, like Jefferson Park, was planned before the overlay and proceeds outside its scope. The developers are adding height and density on an existing affordable housing site to be managed by private entities, segregating affordable housing tenants from other city residents.
Frost Terrace and Finch Cambridge: These homes are complete – respectively, 40 created by for-profit Capstone Properties near Porter Square and 98 by Homeowners Rehab Inc. on Concord Avenue across from the Fresh Pond Reservoir. Neither was built using the overlay.
None of the above examples represents viable overlay “success stories,” created through the AHO or achieved as it intended: by providing nonprofit developers a means to compete with market-rate investors to buy sites citywide in wealthier neighborhoods.
Nonetheless, we can learn much about the overlay’s results to date and its current and potential impacts:
- The overlay has done nothing to address ongoing gentrification and the loss of long-term residents due to escalating housing costs.
- It has done nothing to address our growing city housing unit vacancy concerns, with vacancies rising from 3,259 (6.9 percent) in 2010 to 4,343 (8.1 percent) in 2020, an increase of 1,084 over the decade (33 percent) according to the 2020 Census.
- Overlay units remain extraordinarily expensive to build – at more than $500,000 to $750,000 each, these are funds that could have been used more wisely to build housing units on city-owned land.
- While overlay proponents argue correctly that every unit “counts,” in truth state and federal overlay funding requirements mean only about 70 percent of our affordable housing units go to applicants who were city residents. Our waitlist of around 20,000 people is long because people from every municipality, even from out of state, are eligible to apply for Cambridge affordable housing. If we spent city money rather than seeking state and federal funding, all the units could go to Cambridge residents. The approach taken by the town of Lincoln is one such model for that.
- The AHO has done nothing to encourage our city government to build on its own land and create units without outside funding, which would enable our affordable housing to: designate units for Cambridge residents only or certain groups of city employees, such as teachers, firefighters and police officers. This is what Lincoln has been able to do.
- Instead, by funding overlay developments through state and federal funds, if someone’s child returns home to live or a resident gets a promotion, the resident may lose the unit.
- The overlay promotes a significant densification of existing affordable housing developments, segregating tenants – too often without core amenities such as parking, green spaces, shade trees and nearby grocery stores, adding to environmental injustice and health disparity concerns such as asthma.
- Since overlay developments are now “as of right,” the kind of project-improving critique from neighborhood residents and judiciary boards is missing.
- Because the overlay does not require annual review, the city will not have an opportunity to redress issues that arise early on around these developments.
To be fair, some people, among them then-city councillor Craig Kelley, did anticipate these likely outcomes, but proponents of the overlay and city staff advocating for the ordinance simply overlooked the concerns and feared problems. The Cambridge Citizens Coalition supports a far more wholistic and result-driven approach to housing affordability questions than the overlay has offered to date.
The coalition’s key concerns about the overlay remain: the lack of independent project design review, since the overlay removed Planning Board oversight; that previously existing tools could be and still are used, notably state 40B laws, to consolidate affordable housing project development; the lack of viable neighborhood input on design; allowing nonporous surfaces such as porches and roof decks to count as “open space”; the frequent removal of green spaces and mature trees in overlay developments, raising issues of environmental equity; issues of resident parking for those needing cars to get to work; lack of transparency and potential conflicts of interest in the selection and funding of overlay developers; that units funded in part by state and federal resources must include non-Cambridge resident applicants (with roughly 30 percent of units going to these nonresidents), making it harder for locals to find housing; and the lack of built-in regular accountability through annual reporting for overlay projects. For the most part, these concerns were on target.
Suzanne Preston Blier is writing to represent the Cambridge Citizens Coalition