Affordable-housing amendment could be last, backer says, but it preempts a five-year review
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.
There’s no need to wait for a 5 year review when you can see what projects are currently built/proposed/under construction and when we can see which projects were rejected. Cambridge has long been a poor contributer to the regions housing supply and this PO is a good start to improve that. It’s no surprise that the same people who oppose this also opposed the original AHO(as well as pretty much all policies to increase housing).
Interesting that the current AHO amendment proposal was published and promoted by its key ABC proponents in a March article in the developers’ and investors’ journal https://bankerandtradesman.com/cambridge-seeks-to-take-overlay-to-higher-level/. One of these authors has also led the fight to gut historic preservation in the city. This AHO effort is more about investments and builders’ interests than helping Cambridge residents in need. Thank you Councillors Toner and Nolan (and their council member supporters). We need to evaluate specific issues in the current AHO on an individual basis and also focus on current city residents in need rather than seeking to tear down and build up more and more of the city. We should not be encouraging policies that seeks primarily to address everyone in need who wants to live or invest in Cambridge. Housing is an area and national issue. We are already the 6th most dense city in the country. Some here have lost sight of the importance of livability.
I’m trying really hard to find any reason to believe what the proponents of the giant buildings say, since things they’ve passed allegedly in the name of affordable housing have quickly been extended to every type of housing. It’s almost as though they use the claim of affordable housing as a way of enriching all developers and, no doubt purely coincidentally, thereby making 100 percent affordable housing more and more expensive to build. And when one thinks back on previous bad ideas that were allegedly supposed to make housing more affordable, they tipped their hand and admitted that their goal was actually to provide housing for well-paid people (100% AMI and up), not the people who need the affordable housing.
I also have a hard time believing that “four or five AHO buildings spread out around the city over the next decade or longer” will stem the CRISIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and quench the lust for MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE. The whole lot of them do not have a track record of doing what they say is the purpose of making these various changes.
I believe there are ways we can build more housing in Cambridge, and a good bit of it could be below-market, but letting big real estate money dictate our laws isn’t how to do it.
“I believe there are ways we can build more housing in Cambridge, and a good bit of it could be below-market, but letting big real estate money dictate our laws isn’t how to do it.”
What, specifically, are those ways? If AHO is not the way to do it, then could you please give substantive policy suggestions? Because what I think is that you’re coming up with vague excuses to obfuscate public policy.
12 -15 stories (regardless of how you measure a story) is “giant.”
As architect Susan Cory pointed out in her comments before the City Council on Monday, this proposal is an open invitation for market rate developers and demands serious review as proposed by Councillors Toner and Nolan.
Yes we need affordable housing in Cambridge but this is not the strategy, do the research and do it right.
In combination with the possible gutting of our historical districts this plan would turn Cambridge into just another high-priced, high-rise suburb of a major American city. Let’s see, something like the Dallas-Fort Worth area or a suburb of San Jose, California.
Some of our Councillors seems to be paying too much attention to the developers and not enough to the Cambridge citizens who elect them?
The classism amongst the anti-housing people is disgusting.
So it’s “classism” to support building affordable housing in ways that evolve, not disregard, the essential physical character that’s part of what makes this city a desirable place to live?
Cambridge prides itself as being in the forefront of addressing societal issues in smart, empathetic, and well-considered ways. Why is there such resistance to showing other cities (and ourselves) how to meet affordable housing needs in ways that harmonize with the character of the city?
Thanks for asking. Yes, denying people affordable housing because of your aesthetics is pretty much the definition of classism, elitism, and NIMBYism.
There is a severe housing shortage that can only be addressed with more housing. People need homes. But let’s not give people homes because you like the character of the city as it is.
“I dislike anyone or anything that threatens to change my neighborhood from what it was like the day I moved here. Any change that happened up until that moment is totally cool, though, and should be given historic preservation protection in perpetuity.”