Thursday, July 18, 2024

I really hope that the Cambridge City Council doesn’t vote tonight in favor of the Affordable Housing Overlay amendments known as AHO 2.0. I understand councillors’ sense of urgency to respond to our housing emergency, but AHO2 is not the answer. Do we really want 15-story buildings in Harvard, Porter and Central squares casting shadows, without setbacks and without any review by the Planning Board and neighborhoods?

The good news is that Cambridge is already almost halfway to our 2030 Envision Cambridge new affordable-housing unit goal: 1,500 units are in play. Why change what’s already working?

Proponents of AHO2 have hijacked the conversation. There are other ways to create more affordable housing, and there are broader questions we should be asking. For example, how can we lower development costs? Currently affordable housing costs almost $1 million per unit.

We should consider creative financing and look at the Housing Production Fund in Montgomery County, Maryland, as a model. And we should look at the Itasca Project in Minneapolis: a collaboration of businesses, philanthropies and public sectors. We should also look at how they create social housing in the Netherlands, where nonprofits, not private equity firms, own two-thirds of the rental units.

And what about creating more shared housing?

We need to consider the unintended consequences of giving developers carte blanche to build high and, most importantly, to come to consensus about our goal. Currently, 15 percent of our housing – 8,500 units – is income restricted. Most of our neighboring communities have 6 percent to 7 percent affordable housing. They will soon be producing more units as required by the MBTA Communities Act. Housing is a regional issue; its solutions will be regional, too.

If our goal is to increase our affordable housing stock to 20 percent, adding another 3,000 units, how will we pay for this? At $1 million a unit, that would cost $3 billion. Our annual budget is about $1 billion, and our 2023 fiscal year tax levy was $5.3 million. Will we raise taxes or allow high-rises to be built everywhere to get the “free” (but not actually “free,” since they increase the cost of market rate units) inclusionary units?

We must change and broaden our conversation and move from a quick-fix mentality to a nuanced discussion about our goals and how we can best achieve them, considering all the long-term implications.

Cathie Zusy, candidate for Cambridge City Council