Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A City Council committee that I chair will meet Wednesday to evaluate the most dramatic zoning proposal I have seen in my career: allowing 13- to 25-story high-rise towers throughout Cambridge to expand our supply of affordable housing. Supporters and opponents are gearing up to argue this proposal, continuing contentious debates.

When the council’s Housing Committee met two weeks ago to discuss the proposal, we emerged with a list of basic questions that still need to be answered: What evidence underlies the proposed increase to 13- to 25-story building heights? How much do newly built affordable units cost now? How much money does the city have for affordable-housing programs in total?

There is a lot we don’t know yet about the basis and implications of this proposal. But there is one thing I know for sure: Our current approach to affordable housing is a dysfunctional, lose-lose situation for all of us. Affordable-housing proponents are aggressively pursuing individual projects and policy solutions without a coherent plan or goal. These generate opposition and polarization, slowing progress on the issue. We need to fundamentally change our approach.

First, we need to clarify our goals and recommit to a vision of our future as a vibrant, diverse, inclusive innovation city. The goals defined by Envision Cambridge, including the creation of 3,175 new affordable housing units by 2030, provide a strong foundation.=

Second, we need to recognize that achieving our goals will require a proactive, coordinated effort. We need a sustained, focused and systematic approach – championed by city government with support and involvement across all neighborhoods and stakeholders. The city should develop an affordable-housing strategy and implementation plan that lays out detailed options for siting, design and financing of increased affordable-housing stocks to meet our goal. This plan could be developed with the guidance and input of an affordable-housing task force representing key stakeholders: affordable-housing residents; builders; experts in design, policy and finance; and local government and neighborhoods. This type of plan and task force are established best practices used in other cities to define and build broad-based support for a citywide strategy on affordable housing.

Cambridge’s affordable housing plan should be ambitious, innovative and well-designed. It should define clear options for siting and sizing of construction that will meet our agreed goals. And it should lay out multiple actions the city can take to achieve those goals, including:

  • Substantially increase funding for affordable housing through real estate taxes and transfer fees;
  • Proactively secure sites for affordable housing through buying and leasing new lots; converting city-owned properties; and using eminent domain to add housing along key corridors;
  • Leverage existing city resources to prioritize affordable-housing access across relevant funds and programs, with public reporting of progress toward our goal.

We have a choice about how we build the future of our city. Do we want to reach our 3,000-unit goal by building 12 high-rise buildings like Rindge Towers? Or by developing 50 six-story buildings above ground-floor retail designed to transform major avenues into vibrant, pedestrian and bike-friendly boulevards – building economic diversity into the backbone of our neighborhoods for the long term? Or will we remain mired in debate and allow the forces of a technology-driven boom to drive inequality, gentrification and displacement to extreme levels like we have seen in San Francisco?

We have a choice about how to build the city’s future, and it is up to us.

  • Proposals to revise the Affordable Housing Overlay will be discussed at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in a meeting of the City Council’s committee on neighborhood and long-term planning, public facilities, arts and celebrations. Information is here.

Dennis Carlone is a Cambridge city councillor.