There’s urgent need for an office of compliance in Cambridge
Before the 2017 municipal election, I wrote a letter to the editor “Candidates offer transformative changes,” urging that Cambridge must be brought into the 21st century by bringing about reforms to improve its processes and accountability. Four years later, I am writing yet again to urge the City Council candidates to support the creation of an office of compliance to achieve that goal.
The 2019 council election was a de facto referendum of the 100 percent Affordable Housing Overlay zoning amendment, which was tabled just before the election after a year of prolonged and heated debates. After two councillors who stood against the amendment departed, the new council adopted the zoning quickly.
In 2018, Capstone Communities and Hope Real Estate Enterprises acquired 2072 Massachusetts Ave. at 2.8 times the current assessed value and worked with the city but without community input to build an eight-story, 49-unit building with 100 percent affordable housing under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable housing statute.
The companies revealed their plans for the first time at a virtual community meeting Sept. 29, 2020, as almost a fait accompli, as they barely budged on the number of units during a nearly yearlong debate before withdrawing their comprehensive permit application to the Board of Zoning Appeal.
This project was fraught with violations of the state’s 40B guidelines, not only by the applicant, but by Cambridge. On March 22, I submitted a public record request for the 30-day review notice from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development for the project; a project eligibility application; and correspondence from the city in response to this letter to document the violations.
According to the Guide to the Massachusetts Public Records Law, a “records access officer” must “at reasonable times and without unreasonable delay” furnish a copy of any public record no later than 10 business days after getting a request. It took six months and an appeal to the supervisor of records to get the records I requested.
I want to make it clear that I am not blaming the records access officer for the delay; rather, I lay the blame squarely on the steps of the City Hall.
The response showed that Cambridge did not respond to a 30-day project review notice as required by the Chapter 40B Handbook for Zoning Boards of Appeal. It did not conduct a public review for the project. And it did not submit a response to the 30-day notice. Most importantly, the city did not submit voluminous public comments, pro and con, to the DHCD. And four councillors who should have known of these violations declared that this project “meets all the city’s major goals, and it should be applauded, not dissected” in a published essay.
No one, not the councillors nor the city, is above the law, and the end doesn’t justify the means.
Cambridge needs an office of compliance to ensure all federal, state and city statutes, regulations and guidelines are followed strictly and to investigate allegations of noncompliance. Any city officials, whether elected officials or employees, who receives communication outside their area of responsibility should refer it to the office to be directed to the right person to respond. Anyone found to be deliberately noncompliant should face serious consequences, and repeated flouting of the law should be grounds for resignation or termination.
The urgency of this is to prevent any attempt to amend the Affordable Housing Overlay to squeeze in much denser and higher buildings at locations such as 2072 Massachusetts Ave. without following all the procedures and guidelines and full participation of the community, including the renters of abutting properties, not just the property owners.
I urge all City Council candidates to pledge to support creating this office and to abide by its findings.
Young Kim, Norris Street