Sunday, June 16, 2024

Affordable housing is under development Monday at 116 Norfolk St. in The Port neighborhood in Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The successes of Affordable Housing Overlay zoning described in an annual report Monday pleased Cambridge city councillors, but there were concerns about other properties that had either rejected development offers or were “under continued review.”

“There’s a lot of things to be excited about and proud of in here, as well as some things that could be done better,” councillor Marc McGovern said, noting that two of 16 sites in the report had accepted offers for affordable-housing development. “It does say to me that as good as this has been, there’s tweaking that needs to be done, because we’ve lost out on far more than we gained.”

The report was presented at the council’s sole summer session by the Community Development Department and City Manager’s Office boasting 16 total sites under “active review,” 13 of which were evaluated and added to the docket this year. Six additional sites are in development, with a total of 616 multi-bedroom units approved and underway.

Within the 16, five total offers were made, out of which three were rejected by sellers or walked away from by the city’s partners, nonprofit developers such as Homeowners Rehab Inc. or Just A Start. Another seven are “under continued review,” meaning locations are still being vetted before an offer is made or withdrawn.

“In some cases, we’re looking at things that are fairly prospective, but we’re reporting them here wanting to keep the conversations going, because we’re looking at a lot of different opportunities and trying to assess which are the best,” housing director Chris Cotter said, explaining some of the properties appearing in the report.

The annual report provides a summary of activity under AHO zoning adopted in October 2020 to help developers create permanently affordable homes in a quick, cost-effective way in areas of the city where they lack. The report is required to show evaluated and confirmed sites and give a description of each project underway or completed.

Although the zoning was adopted with language calling for a review in year five, some councillors are looking to make changes in year three, seeking to build higher along major roads and in squares.

More family units

Four projects – Jefferson Park Federal, North Cambridge; 52 New St., Neighborhood 9; 49 Sixth St., East Cambridge; and 116 Norfolk St., The Port – have completed AHO community and advisory design review processes. Construction began at 116 Norfolk St. in December, while 52 New St. and Jefferson Park Federal will begin construction in a few months and 49 Sixth St. begins construction in early 2024, once funding is secured.

The fifth site, 102 Sherman St., Neighborhood 9, restarted its community process after a redesign; the sixth site, 1627 Massachusetts Ave., in the Baldwin neighborhood, began its Planning Board advisory design process last month.

The housing is designed with all types of tenants in mind: 62 units will be studio rentals, 116 will be one-bedroom apartments, 238 will be two-bedroom apartments, 174 will have three bedrooms and 26 will have at least four bedrooms.

“It was exciting to see that of the 616 units, about 438 of them are two-, three- and four-bedrooms,” McGovern said. “We were so desperate for those larger units.”

Councillor Dennis Carlone received the report with optimism, but wanted to know more about the cost of the finished projects. “What are they per unit, or per bedroom or per square foot – whatever is the best way to tell the story?” Carlone said, warning that he planned to put forward a policy order calling for accounting of such things as money spent on projects and what community benefits have come back.

Geographic spread

Other councillors looked at the locations of the housing. Patty Nolan hoped the six undisclosed addresses would fulfill better the “geographic spread” of affordable housing intended by the zoning.

“One of the key rationales for the Affordable Housing Overlay was to have West Cambridge have more of these, and so far that hasn’t been as successful,” she said.

Still, two newly accepted sites are “‘in the neighborhood,’ as we think of traditional neighborhoods,” McGovern said, looking at the 37 Brookline St., Cambridgeport, home of the late artist Peter Valentine, and a Blanchard Road site in the Cambridge Highlands on the Belmont line, a small commercial building being developed by B’nai B’rith Housing. The placing of properties in such residential areas was not something the council was seeing before this report, he said.

McGovern highlighted a concern from the community that residents weren’t feeling that their input on AHO projects and throughout development was valuable, and councillors and other city employees would follow their own ideas instead of collaborating with the neighborhoods.

“All of these projects have gone through community meetings and Planning Board meetings, and all of these projects have been revised based on that information,” McGovern said. “I know that’s a big concern for people, but so far this has worked and projects have changed and projects have evolved, and people have been listened to.”