Tuesday, April 23, 2024

To address the housing shortage plaguing our state, in January the state Legislature passed and the governor signed a package of legislation encouraging municipalities to allow more homes to be built.

As part of that new law, the 175 MBTA communities in Eastern Massachusetts, including Cambridge, must establish a district in which multifamily housing can be built near transit as of right. The law also provides for site plan review, striking a reasonable balance between encouraging homebuilding and providing for local input.

Cambridge has felt the costly and continued impacts of this local housing crisis. As rents have continued to skyrocket, Cambridge families have struggled to keep up. Rising housing costs drive increased homelessness and displacement, with the most severe impacts on those who can least afford it – and who must spend as much as half of their income on housing to remain housed in Cambridge. Failing to ameliorate housing costs also has a disparate impact by race in Cambridge and Greater Boston.

Our City Council has already admitted that exclusionary zoning is a terrible relic of the past that we need to end – and tasked the Planning Board and Community Development Department with coming up with a plan to end it. But the board and CDD need more guidance from our elected officials to design such a plan and move it forward.

In existing Cambridge neighborhoods that already meet the 15-homes-per-acre metric, such as The Port and Wellington-Harrington, we have a variety of triple-deckers, townhouses and other forms of small multifamily buildings. This multifamily housing is an essential part of Cambridge’s walkability and community – part of what makes it such a wonderful place to live. Unfortunately, our zoning would not permit that level of density for new homes built today in the very same neighborhoods.

Cambridge must treat this new law as an opportunity to lead the region and address the needs of our own residents. It would be unfair to just declare an existing neighborhood as Cambridge’s multifamily district and rezone it accordingly, though. That would simply reinforce the existing exclusionary zoning that has perpetuated residential segregation in Cambridge. Instead, we should establish a Cambridgewide multifamily district overlay at the state-required, 15-homes-per-acre density and zone for much more than that minimum amount near our six MBTA subway stations and the new Union Square station. A citywide multifamily district is the most equitable way to comply with state law and support sustainable, transit-oriented development patterns.

To the extent that we fail to take the equitable approach (allowing multifamily homes citywide), we must at minimum avoid gamesmanship such as including areas subject to institutional use in our multifamily district. Pointing to Harvard or Massachusetts Institute of Technology dorms as part of our required multifamily housing is clearly outside the spirit of the law, if not an outright violation. Further, we should not include properties subject to historic preservation or neighborhood conservation in our multifamily district. These designations limit building new homes as of right, contrary to the law. Instead, we need to set the strongest possible example for other MBTA communities to follow.

Our need to comply with the MBTA Communities law requirements presents a perfect opportunity to set a fair and reasonable citywide standard, increase our MBTA-adjacent housing, and reestablish our progressive regional leadership in meeting our community’s housing needs.

Justin Saif, Hurley Street