Planning Board members worry what would happen to the city’s “architectural and historical integrity” with the end of single-family zoning. Shown is a single-family home on Garden Terrace, famous in the 1980s and 1990s, at Peik Irgens Larsen Square in Neighborhood 9. (Photo: Marc Levy)

If the goal of eliminating single-family zoning in Cambridge is to right decades of racial injustice and inequity, the Planning Board was unconvinced Tuesday that the city was anywhere close to a way to achieve that.

A presentation by the Community Development Department seemed to leave some members of the board almost shaken by what would result by ending single- and dual-family zoning without a plan for affordability in a city where – as assistant city manager for community development Iram Farooq put it – real estate prices have “just been progressive if not exponential, and certainly on a steep trajectory in recent decades.”

The discussion comes to the board from the City Council, where a December 2020 policy order sparked committee hearings and a request for Planning Board input. But members’ reaction may not be what councillors hoped to hear.

There was universal interest among members in finding ways to balance out the city’s east-west divide, in which multifamily buildings and density are clustered in the east. (West Cambridge, meanwhile, includes the historically protected single-family homes of Brattle Street.) They also agreed on general principles such as changing requirements within districts, rather than changing the borders of zoning districts themselves. But more agreement was found that, in the words of member Lou Bacci, “this is a very complicated issue, and to just skim over it and throw a few proposals out there would be a mistake. This thing needs to go the long route.” Member Hugh Russell thought a concrete advisory for the council might be achievable by the end of the year – and this was the first meeting of 2022.

“Fairness and equity is something the city should be striving for. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about it and can find no justification anywhere for single- and two-family districts,” member H Theodore Cohen said. “Doing nothing, it seems to me, is not really an option if we’re trying to address this issue. But I agree there are lots of difficult questions.”

Trickle-down affordability

A brute undoing of current zoning might result in what Farooq described as “just overall increasing the supply of housing in the city, [with] a microeconomic impact on cost – not necessarily to reduce the cost, but certainly to flatten the increase.” Cohen too looked at real estate pricing and saw the possibility that “Maybe it will rise slightly slower if we increase the number of housing units.”

Ashley Tan, an associate member of the board, wondered if supporters had a “trickle-down theory.”

“If the goal is affordable housing or even middle-income housing, it’s placing a lot of hope and relying on that, at some point, we’ll get there,” Tan said.

The council wanted more, saying in notes from an August committee hearing that changing the law was a means to an end: “dismantling the systemic racism of zoning” in place in modified form since 1943.

Dismantling without gentrification

What the board puzzled over was how to do that when “every new unit created in the City of Cambridge is currently selling in the neighborhood of $1,000 per foot,” member Steven Cohen said. (No relation to the other Cohen.) “What are these things going to sell for, who is going to buy them or lease them, and how does that relate to the aspirations and goals that originally motivated you to make the change?”

This is “more units for wealthy people,” Steven Cohen said.

Changing single-family homes to multifamily homes – increasing the amount of buildings or units on a lot – just raises value. “You take one place that used to have a single and make it a three, they sell all three. And here the selling prices are enormous,” Bacci said.

Parking and yards offered further complication, and board members worried about compromising the “architectural and historical integrity” of Cambridge homes.

“The sharks are out there circling”

Developers are waiting for zoning changes in Cambridge that they can take advantage of for profit, Bacci said, noting that as the sole longtime homeowner on his block in the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood, “Right now my mailbox is stuffed with proposals every day, and my phone never stops ringing for people trying to invest. If we don’t think that’s going to increase, we’re making a mistake … the sharks are out there circling.”

The “missing middle” zoning rejected 5-3 in May was also described by some as a way to end racist zoning but had the same perceived flaw: no guarantee of affordability that would prevent more gentrification. And city solicitor Nancy Glowa went into detail with city councillors in August on the problems of requiring “inclusionary” affordable units at smaller scales of construction: Courts look at whether a requirement is so burdensome that it becomes an uncompensated taking of private property, which would be considered unconstitutional. Compensation for including affordable units in the form of construction bonuses would change the scale of what was built, and any move in this direction would require a “nexus” study like the one in place for the city’s larger-scale residential developers.

Public comment

To public commenters in favor of ending single-family zoning, board members’ fears seemed overblown because allowing more units on a lot – and smaller units in general – would see per-unit prices go down. That made the goals of equity and of simply building more housing, even without an affordability guarantee, more aligned that board members thought. Another suggestion was that units could have fewer “amenities.”

“I don’t think we should make people who can’t afford a house not be able to buy in Cambridge because they can’t afford the extra $100,000 for a garden,” resident Christopher Schmidt said.

“Everyone who wants to live in Cambridge should be able to,” Schmidt said. “Anyone should be able to live here. And what kind of people will they be? Well, they’ll be the people who work in the city, and 67 percent of the people who work in the city work in professional roles. So when you say that people buying houses will be professionals, yes, that’s what our workforce is.”

Schmidt also said he understood that “we need to help people who can’t afford to live in Cambridge as well,” but argued that there would be “better tools to do that in a city of professionals, and we shouldn’t force those people to kick out poor people to buy their houses.”

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