Monday, May 20, 2024

Just A Start’s 52 New St. is being built under the current Affordable Housing Overlay. (Image: Just A Start)

Waiting a week didn’t change much about a policy order meant to bring more affordable housing to Cambridge: After Monday’s meeting of the City Council, the order still suggests allowing 100-percent-affordable buildings to rise to 12 stories along the city’s main corridors and to 15 stories in the squares, which is taller than current zoning allows but shorter than the 13-story and 25-story buildings originally proposed as a change.

An amendment brings the Community Development Department into the work, though, calling for it to consult with the city’s nonprofit affordable-housing developers and come up with recommendations to present to the council by June 1.

Timing has been a cause for tension, starting with some members of the council objecting to the Affordable Housing Overlay zoning being tweaked now at all, when it was adopted by the council Oct. 5, 2020, with a review built in for 2025. “As has been said many, many times,” councillor Patty Nolan said.

When the underlying order about amendments voted by the council was introduced a week ago, then stopped for one meeting by Nolan invoking her “charter right,” it was with an acknowledgment that there were no projects waiting for the changes – that neither money nor properties are available for more affordable projects. 

Delaying new zoning doesn’t delay new housing, Nolan and others said.

“A pretty transparent attempt”

A substitute order by councillor Paul Toner also returned from a week ago suggested that Community Development get to the five-year review early, starting in September, but come back to the council with height suggestions by June 26.

The council takes the months of July and August off from regular meetings; it holds just one special summer meeting in the middle of the break.

“Really what we’re talking about is September, because someone can charter right it” from June 26 to the summer special meeting, councillor Marc McGovern said. “We’re not going to deal with it at the summer meeting and make any major decisions, because then people will say ‘You’re doing this in the summer when nobody’s paying attention.’’

If you file a zoning petition in the fall, the standard timeline “means it won’t get voted on until the next term. So this is a pretty transparent attempt to delay this into the next term,” councillor Quinton Zondervan said.

Not trying to delay

Backers of a process in which Community Development and the nonprofit builders came up with proposals, rather than responded to councilor’s specific suggestions, rejected the accusation.

“What we’re trying to do here tonight is not delay, but to start the process in a way that I think we could all feel comfortable moving forward with,” vice mayor Alanna Mallon said.

While it was true the affordable-housing developers and at least one poverty-aid organization supported councillor E. Denise Simmons’ proposal for 12-story or 15-story buildings in certain areas, “it is very hard” for them not to support any offering of more flexibility, Mallon said. But on specifics, “I just haven’t heard that articulated, and I really want them to have a thoughtful conversation with CDD.”

The council, however, had a communication from developers saying clearly that they supported the current proposal, McGovern said, and it seemed unfair to say both that the developers hadn’t weighed in fully and to criticize supporters of the amendments for getting with developers to get their thoughts. “God forbid we actually talk to the people who build affordable housing,” he said.

Election-year math

What Zondervan alluded to is that this is an election year, and the original AHO failed in a first attempt at passage in 2019 then got enacted the next year with a shakeup of councillors that brought on a pivotal vote in Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler.

This is so far a quiet election year. In 2021, the first council challenger declared in February; two years earlier, the first began running in mid-March; in the 2017 elections, the first declaration of a challenge came the previous November. Though no candidate has declared publicly, challenger Joe McGuirk said in January that he planned a second run for a seat after an attempt two years ago.

Reliably, one incumbent on the nine-member council will opt not to run or lose a bid for reelection. But it’s not clear that would change the math on an AHO update.

Toner’s substitute order failed on a 4-5 vote, with only him and Nolan, Mallon and councillor Dennis Carlone in favor. 

The order by Simmons, with some tweaks by Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, passed 5-3-1, with the substitute order’s “yea” votes now in the “nay” position save for Carlone, who voted “present.”