Thursday, June 13, 2024

As a group of legislators deeply committed to tackling the housing crisis in Cambridge, we want to emphasize the importance of the Affordable Housing Overlay – a pivotal piece of legislation that has garnered extensive discussion. The AHO is not a policy for us; it represents our personal commitment to creating a more inclusive and equitable city for all residents.

We recognize the urgency of addressing the demand for affordable housing; we meet daily with people in desperate need of it. These people range from those who are unhoused to single parents to young families. The waiting list managed by the Cambridge Housing Authority currently includes 21,000 people, with 6,500 of them living and working in our beloved city. They are members of our community. They represent people who work in our local businesses, who teach our children and who work for our city. Each number on that list represents a person or a family struggling to find a stable and affordable place to call home.

Over the past 25 years, our city has faced a housing shortage, resulting in many unrealized building projects. This is precisely why we need the AHO amendments: to breathe life into these projects and create affordable-housing opportunities that were previously unattainable. It is important to note that the overlay includes strict design guidelines and community engagement requirements, ensuring transparency and giving residents a voice in shaping their neighborhoods.

Some have raised questions about why the city doesn’t buy land to address the crisis. We want to make it clear that acquiring city land is a strategy we fully support – in fact, all the co-sponsors of the AHO amendment stood united in advocating for increased funding for the Affordable Housing Trust. It is disheartening that councillors opposing the overlay voted against allocating additional funds, which hampers our ability to acquire land and build more housing.

The AHO is not a stand-alone measure; it aligns with our citywide plan. We have actively listened to the concerns voiced during previous debates about the overlay, expanding our vision to include transit-oriented development in squares and corridors. By adopting a holistic approach, we aim to address the housing crisis comprehensively, ensuring no neighborhood is left behind. It is crucial to understand that the overlay is one of several tools we employ to build more affordable units in the city; it is not a silver bullet solution to the housing crisis.

The high cost of housing construction poses significant challenges. Factors such as inflation, escalating labor costs and the cost of land contribute to these expenses. The AHO offers a solution by streamlining the approval process, reducing delays and avoiding costly legal battles, though. By creating a more efficient environment for housing development, we can make projects more affordable and accessible.

Debunking misconceptions and objections

Let us dispel the notion that the AHO will transform Cambridge into Manhattan. In reality, we anticipate only three to five larger buildings to be constructed over the next decade, spread out across the city.

It is important to address the misconception that the AHO will concentrate low-income residents. The truth is, individuals and families of various income levels, including city workers, teachers and electricians, will have the opportunity to live in these developments. The overlay encompasses a range of income brackets, fostering a diverse and vibrant community.

Other concerns:

Developers had input

When you have a crisis, you go to the experts.

We collaborated with our local affordable housing developers to understand what they needed to build more affordable housing. Seeking input from those who possess expertise and experience in building award-winning affordable housing is not only logical, but vital for our community.

You don’t need to build tall

Given Cambridge’s limited geographical space, including land owned by Harvard and MIT and municipal buildings, we face constraints when it comes to available land for housing. Building taller structures becomes essential. We simply do not have enough land to build four-story buildings and meet our housing needs.

The AHO eliminates setbacks and open space:

The AHO amendments permit additional height without additional density. This means that buildings can be taller but not wider, thereby occupying less space on the lot and allowing for more open areas.

People don’t want to live in tall buildings

According to the Cambridge Housing Authority, there are 1,367 people on the waiting list for its Millers River (19 stories); 1,489 for Manning Apartments (19 stories); 1,419 for LBJ Apartments (12 stories); and 8,674 for Fresh Pond Apartments (22 stories). People are choosing to live in these buildings, and one need only visit to know that they have thriving communities. In fact, residents of Fresh Pond Apartments wrote a letter in support of the AHO.

These buildings are just like those built during failed urban renewal projects

The reason the urban renewal buildings of the past failed had less to do with the height of the buildings and more to do with the fact that the buildings were poorly constructed, underfunded, built away from transit and amenities such as local businesses, and had no open space. AHO buildings are nothing like this. Its buildings are on main corridors, surrounded by retail, parks, transit and open space. This comparison is unfounded.

Cambridge has an affordable-housing crisis. If development is left up to market forces, our affordable-housing partners are going to continue to be outbid by market-rate developers. By working together and using effective strategies, we can create a city that provides safe, affordable and inclusive housing for all residents. Let us forge ahead, leaving a lasting legacy of housing equity and opportunity.

Burhan Azeem, Marc McGovern, E. Denise Simmons and Quinton Zondervan, Cambridge city councillors