Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The cover to Jean-François Batellier’s 1978 cartoon collection, “No Deposit, No Return.”

That poor proverbial frog boiling slowly to death in gently heating water could be the new city mascot. For Cambridge, it’s not a stovetop that’s doing the damage, it’s unrestrained development, project by project, choking the life out of neighborhoods and displacing longtime residents.

A recently published essay argued for massive development by citing “change.” (“Conservation district ordinance hinders Cambridge from meeting its needs,” Oct. 7.) Seventeenth century Native Americans were forced out by relentless colonizers, the author notes, so today’s Cantabrigians shouldn’t be surprised that they too may well be displaced.

As part of the campaign to bulldoze its opposition, the “build, baby, build” advocates claim that anyone standing in their way – no matter their background – is racist, nativist and elitist. They could argue the merits of their case, but personal attacks obscure the facts better. For example, according to the U.S. Census, Cambridge’s population grew by 13 percent in the past decade. Housing accommodated at 14 percent. Who lost? For the three decades leading to 2010, the African American share of population declined. As the total population grew in 2020, the low African American share stayed put. Clearly the cheerleaders of mindless growth aren’t paying attention to the real impact of their policies.

Let’s consider what the keenest observers of the Cambridge real estate market have to say. One prominent real estate broker specifically cited Google and Facebook as driving demand in an interview with the Financial Times: “These industries are bringing highly skilled workers to Cambridge, and that’s driving home sales higher.” Another observed, “Condos are selling at higher price points in this market, and buyers who rent them out as investments are seeing strong returns.” She added, “We field almost as many phone calls from Asian and European buyers as we do from Americans. Many of the calls come from parents who want to buy apartments for their kids rather than renting, because rents are high and housing prices are steadily increasing.” Demand is global.

Cambridge is not going to stop growing. Those of us advocating for balanced growth (falsely labeled as anti-growth) expect the city to add more than 10,000 people in this decade. We strongly support building housing units to match that growth – especially affordable and middle-income housing. We do object to the idea, clearly implied by the build-it-all lobby, that Cambridge must double its population.

A Cambridge with a population of more than 200,000 – up from our current 118,000 – sounds nightmarish to most people. Not to the folks behind A Better Cambridge, whose mantra is that everyone who wants to live in Cambridge should be able to do so.

People want to live here for many reasons. One is to avoid the commute. Let’s look just at that reason. As a job center, Cambridge now has about 112,000 commuters who live elsewhere. If just 25 percent of them want to live here with their families, we need about 28,000 new housing units and our population jumps to over 200,000. Just commuters.

As Maya Angelou wisely said, “When someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time.” We should show some respect for ABC and its allies by believing them. And we shouldn’t be surprised that developers are one of their main sources of financial support, nor that ABC-backed council candidates have received a stunning 95 percent of total donations by the real estate industry.

Eastern Massachusetts needs more housing. Cambridge should be held up as a model for what is possible. We’re one of the most densely populated cities in America and still a wonderful place to live. But we can’t shoulder the burden of growth alone. If we tear down double- and triple-deckers, fill in all setbacks and scrub the city of its architectural past, too much will be lost, including the people who will be priced out of the shiny new glass and steel buildings beloved by the development addicts in our midst.

Take a stand for sanity Nov. 2. Research the candidates. Go beyond the platitudes and think about what doubling the housing units on your block would mean. Remember who those units would really be built for. And learn from that doomed frog to hop the other way if someone tells you, “Come on in – the water’s fine!”

Phil Wellons is a member of the Cambridge Citizens Coalition.