Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Everyone agrees that Cambridge has a housing affordability crisis. Biotech labs worsen that housing crisis by increasing displacement and outcompeting the new housing that our city so desperately needs. This is why we, a diverse group of residents of Cambridge, have proposed the Callender et al. zoning petition to regulate excessive biotech expansion and strike a better balance between commercial and residential development in places such as Central Square, Cambridge Street, Broadway in The Port, and North Massachusetts Avenue. We hope you’ll agree with our reasonable direction and urge the City Council to act before it is too late.

Cambridge renters must earn anywhere between three and four times the current Massachusetts minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment, and there are more than 20,000 names on our affordable-housing waitlist. To address this crisis, Cambridge needs to invest substantial public funds to expand its affordable and social housing supply, and allow more market-rate multifamily units to be built. Biotech labs are simply more profitable per square foot than other uses, including three to five times more profitable per square foot than multifamily housing. Cambridge’s zoning allows this use as-of-right in every one of our squares and commercial districts. This means that labs outcompete housing as a use in many areas.

This lab profitability has had very real consequences around Cambridge. On Cambridge Street, the Mayflower Poultry building was considered by Just-A-Start and Homeowner’s Rehab Inc. for affordable housing but deemed infeasible. It is now being developed into an office and lab building. In contrast, due to the current moratorium on new laboratory and office development in the Alewife Quadrangle, the single story lab building at 735-755 Concord Ave. is now likely going to be developed into 130 to 200 units of housing, including at least 26 units of inclusionary affordable housing, instead of a lab. Finally, The Garage in Harvard Square, which might have been an ideal spot for new, affordable housing, has been approved for demolition to make way for a commercial facility that could include biotech.

Especially in the absence of simultaneously increasing housing supply, biotech labs bring substantial high-income jobs that contribute to gentrification. Cambridge’s linkage fee, meant to counterbalance the effect of commercial development on housing, does not take into account the displacing effect of market-rate renters brought by commercial development. This further exacerbates Cambridge’s affordability crisis.

Despite these important drawbacks of continued biotech expansion, we recognize and are proud of Cambridge as a hub of innovation. We love science, and appreciate the amazing work that Cambridge labs do for our community and our world. Under our zoning petition, existing labs would not be affected, and new labs would continue to be allowed in the industrial-zoned districts such as the Kendall Square area, the eastern part of Cambridgeport and parts of Alewife.

We also appreciate that labs are incredibly diverse in the type of research that they do, their profitability and in their size and footprint. We want to engage with all of the relevant stakeholders, including the broad Cambridge community, the city, the universities and the existing labs to best refine our definition of intensive lab use and strike a balance between the economic and scientific upsides of biotech development with our goals of more housing and lively squares and business corridors.

We have heard an array of voices from around Cambridge all speak in favor of this petition at recent public hearings, including scientists who work in labs, low-income tenants, younger renters and older homeowners. The proposal will next be discussed at a 3 p.m. Feb. 7 joint committee hearing, with our group of residents at the table for the discussion. We hope to work with councillors and other stakeholders at that meeting to make significant progress on language that enables us to achieve our shared goals.

We want to work toward a Cambridge where residents and locally owned, independent businesses are able to thrive in vibrant and affordable squares and corridors, shielded from further displacement pressures from many sources, including continued biotech expansion. We believe that passage of this petition would be an important step in that direction, and we are prepared to put in the work necessary to get it done.

If you would like to support the lab regulation zoning petition, sign here for updates and information.

Annamay Bourdon, Duane Callender, Lee Farris, Charles Franklin and Kavish Gandhi