Preventing conversion of multifamily homes could be a start on easing our housing crisis
Over the past couple of years the Cambridge City Council has taken a number of steps to address the housing crisis in the city, including the adoption of an Affordable Housing Overlay. A number of other proposals are being considered.
One relatively simple step, while by no means a solution to this complex issue, does not seem to have been considered: First, do no harm. In the context of housing, this would mean that the number of units in a building could not be reduced – for example, converting a three-family into a single-family. Perhaps there should be an exception if the number of units were replaced with an equivalent number of units.
Consider what has occurred on one block on my street, Lexington Avenue, over the past few years. When I moved into the street almost 50 years ago, this block was a mixture of single-families, two- and three-families and a scattering of apartment buildings. While the number of units in the apartment buildings have remained unchanged, many of the two- and three-family homes have been converted into single-family homes. In fact, as I write this letter, another two-family is being converted. And a year or so ago, there was even an attempt to demolish a three-family and combine it with a single-family that used to be a three-family.
The result: a combined loss of five units. Fortunately, and somewhat unusually, the Historical Commission stepped in and prevented the demolition. I’m glad to say that the demolition also received considerable opposition from the neighborhood.
The conversation of two- and three-family homes into single-family homes is not limited to Lexington Avenue. It is happening throughout Cambridge. While an ordinance that prohibited such conversation would not solve the city’s housing crisis, it will prevent a slow, somewhat imperceptible and, in my view, completely unnecessary reduction in the city’s current housing stock.
Peter Sturges, Lexington Avenue
These down conversions would not be able to compete with other offers on property without the city’s absurd zoning laws which are intended to promote exactly this.
In general I support less restrictions on private property and more free market solutions. These down conversion projects being economically viable are byproducts of the zoning codes restriction on multi family housing.
Again this is all by design and our zoning needs to be completely overhauled sooner rather than later
The above comment gets it 100% right.
Lexington Avenue is zoned B. That means two-families are allowed, but no more units. The minimum 2500 square feet of land per dwelling unit, setbacks, and height limit don’t help.
A new small apartment building or even a triple-decker would be ILLEGAL today.
It’s even worse around the block on Lakeview, which is zoned A-1. No two-families, and minimum 6000 sq ft lot.
We should make it easier to build small apartment buildings, like the nicest neighborhoods have because they used to be allowed. And we should make it easier to subdivide or develop basements into additional units.
It’s time to upzone the whole city, and not just for so-called affordable developments.
How would the City enforce this legally? Rent control allowed a similar regime and essentially forced landlords to rent their non-exempt property, but that was repealed nearly thirty years ago. Why do people think that everyone is motivated by money rather than living somewhere under conditions that they like? The so-called free market will not necessarily cram as much building and as many dwelling units on a lot as you think it will, because there are people who can afford and want a single family. Some people have souls, not cash registers.
Boohoo! Someone is living in an apartment near my single family home! oh the humanity!
I would love to know if this idea is possible legally – I know that in San Francisco they ban downconversions without a special permit.
When A Better Cambridge proposed their Missing Middle Housing petition a few years ago, one of their proposals was to ban downconversions of nonconforming dwellings – which isn’t quite the same thing as a full ban on all downconversions, but would help and may be on more stable legal footing. https://www.cambridgema.gov/-/media/Files/CDD/ZoningDevel/Amendments/2021/missingmiddle/zngamend_missingmiddle_revisedsubmission_20210504.pdf
But we should also fight the economic incentives for these downconversions. On Lexington Ave the problem may be downconversions, but on Pearl Street we keep missing out on potential multi-family housing because developers opt for large, expensive single-family homes in new construction scenarios. I spoke with one such developer a few weeks ago and he mentioned two factors: (1) building code is less stringent for single-family homes, and (2) current zoning gives free basement FAR to single- and two-family homes but not to multifamily housing.
We need to reverse the incentives and make it more desireable for developers to build multi-family housing.
A better solution than stretching the limits of historical landmarking would be something g like requiring a special permit from the Planning Board for down-conversion renovations.