Thursday, June 20, 2024

An affordable housing project at Frost Terrace in the Baldwin neighborhood under construction Sept. 29, 2020. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A forced pause on a motion meant to bring more affordable housing to Cambridge means city councillors must try to compromise on a compromise.

Councillor Patty Nolan used her “charter right” on Monday to stop conversation until the next regular meeting – a week later – on a proposed change to Affordable Housing Overlay zoning.

The policy order being debated asked staff to write zoning language allowing 100-percent-affordable buildings to rise to 12 stories along the city’s main corridors and to 15 stories in the squares. It was introduced by councillor E. Denise Simmons in a confusing rush at the end of an April 12 committee hearing.

It lowers another proposal that buildings go as high as 13 stories along major corridors and up to 25 stories in some of the city’s squares. In the existing AHO, buildings of six to seven stories are allowed, though some of the half-dozen projects proposed under it have caused concerns at the Planning Board.

For affordable housing only

The zoning was adopted by the council Oct. 5, 2020, to lower barriers for affordable housing and spread it more equitably citywide, but those calling for changes – including the city’s nonprofit builders of affordable homes – say more is needed to allow projects to go forward.

“We believe that this additional flexibility will allow us to be more competitive with market-rate developers and provide more homes for those struggling to afford to live in Cambridge,” the affordable-housing developers said in a note read into the record Monday. “We also want to address a concern we have heard that if this passes, Cambridge quarters will become canyons of tall buildings. The truth is that limited funding and property acquisition opportunities and our own capacity will not allow for that.”

At best, the developers said, there will be four or five AHO buildings spread out around the city over the next decade or longer. 

Councillor Marc McGovern also underlined that, because the point of the changes was to give an advantage to builders of affordable housing, the heights would not just become a precedent for builders of market-rate housing to match. “That would defeat the whole purpose,” McGovern said.

Planning and zoning board members do, however, look at existing buildings when considering project height. No law prevents them from doing so for market-rate buildings.

No more changes needed

Still, the current proposal by Simmons is a compromise that responds to criticisms of previous proposals, said McGovern and other supporters. “I was fine with the higher heights. But that made people uncomfortable. And so we tried to respond to that,” McGovern said. “We also heard from folks that they wanted the Community Development Department to take a look at this, so that’s what this policy order calls for.”

Councillor Quinton Zondervan said he hoped the proposal would pass that night. “I’m really disappointed that we are reducing these heights, but I can accept it as a compromise,” Zondervan said.

In a prognostication to match McGovern’s, councillor Burhan Azeem said the changes would mean not having to revisit the AHO again. “They do a really strong job of adding so much reasonable strength to the Affordable Housing Overlay that we don’t need to revisit it again in the future, which I think would save us all a lot of stress,” Azeem said.

A proposed substitute from councillor Paul Toner called for an even more thorough look by the Community Development at the nonprofits’ problems with the existing AHO, since the department had done “no substantive work” to assess any amendments. He too noted that there was time built in for a study because the developers agreed “it’s not like there’s a project sitting there waiting to be done.”

Unwilling to wait

Despite agreeing there was neither money nor properties available for more affordable projects, McGovern called a process by CDD “still more more of a delay that, quite frankly, I’m just not willing to wait for anymore.”

Nolan, though, called Toner’s order “exactly what is needed.” 

“I’m frustrated that we’ve been discussing this. There’s a built-in five-year review to the AHO, which was passed three years ago,” Nolan said. “Many of us have said a small, minor amendment to the AHO may be appropriate.” Simmons’ order wasn’t it, Nolan said.

She charter-righted Simmons’ order to work with other councillors and “see if we can reconcile some of these differences over the next week.”

After Nolan’s use of the charter right, Toner withdrew his substitute order. The debate is expected to return Monday.