Tuesday, July 16, 2024

A home near Porter Square in Cambridge seen Aug. 2, 2019, before becoming affordable housing known as Frost Terrace. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Changes to Cambridge’s Affordable Housing Overlay zoning are moving forward without further adjustments suggested Monday, in large part because city staff wouldn’t have time to assess their impact before the zoning petition expires Oct. 29.

The zoning is meant to make it easier to build affordable housing citywide and was passed three years ago with a clause for a check-in at the five-year mark. Backers of the changes say the city can’t wait.

The amendments that have been debated since November would increase the possible height of buildings with 100 percent affordable units. While the current AHO allows for buildings up to around 80 feet, the new version would cap buildings in areas near Harvard, Central and Porter squares at 15 stories, with major corridors in the city allowing buildings of up to 12 stories and mainly residential areas allowing for nine stories. It also changes open space requirements.

What was proposed Monday by councillor Patty Nolan and co-sponsored by Paul Toner questioned the approach taken on height – proposing an alternative such as a formula “instead of an across-the-board allowance” – and open space formulas and seeking a “workforce housing” or middle-income-earner priority. But it asked for a report back next week.

“There is no way we could turn it around,” Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for community development, told councillors during their first meeting back from a summer break. “The last time we did modeling for the original AHO, it took us almost six months. It won’t take us six months now, because we have some of those models that we can work from – but it would certainly not be something that we could turn around ahead of the expiration of this petition.”

Councillors and residents would likely demand time to absorb and debate new language, and the council doesn’t meet either Sept. 25, for the Yom Kippur holiday, or for Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 9. 

Last-minute changes to zoning are hardly unknown in Cambridge. Councillor Marc McGovern, in recommending the current zoning go to its second reading on the way to enactment, said there was already a small change being worked on by the Community Development Department: language for all-affordable-housing projects that overlap zoning lines from a residential district into a commercial district. A senior-housing project on Blanchard Road is in that situation now, McGovern said Tuesday by phone.

The second reading can be held on or after Oct. 16, putting passage on either that or the next council meeting date of Oct. 23.

Debating amendments

There was little support heard for Nolan’s proposed changes Monday.

“When I think of housing in Cambridge, I think of it as a state of emergency. There are so many folks, and we don’t have to go far to hear about how much housing we need and how many people are leaving the city because they just can’t hold on,” councillor E. Denise Simmons said. “The average wait [for an affordable unit] is two years, and two years is forever for a lot of people. I do not want to take the chance to have this petition expire.”

The proposal still doesn’t make sense in some ways, Nolan said, because different parts of the city should be treated differently in terms of height. She questioned the numerical goal of affordable homes to be built as just “pulled out just from one member” of the Envision Cambridge master planning process that took place from 2016 to 2018, and said that Envision’s data dashboard showed that “for housing, all the goals are actually being met or on target.”

“All the measures of housing production, according to the Envision dashboard, are met. There is one goal that is not met, which is for middle-income residents,” Nolan said.

Dashboard disagreement

It led to the sharpest response of the night, as councillor Burhan Azeem objected to Nolan’s reading of the dashboard. “First is that it says that we are meeting our affordable-housing targets – it does not say that, it says ‘improving,’’ Azeem said. Extrapolating the numbers of built affordable homes suggests Cambridge will miss its target, he said.

To Nolan’s wish to see middle-income housing included based on Envision data, “it does say we are falling behind,” Azeem said, but defines middle-income housing as between 50 percent and 100 percent of local average median income, “which is included in the current AHO.”

Aside from Azeem, councillors explained their opposition in muted tones, with appreciation for the attempt, and Nolan let go of her suggestions with regret. 

“I appreciate my colleagues’ understanding that we’re coming from a place of wanting to get to ‘yes,’ of wanting to understand how we can support it,” Nolan said. The request to Community Development wasn’t intended to be intensive, but “well, what’s your best guess,” and the deadline should have been put at a week before expiration, she said.

The night’s votes

The amendments proposed Monday by Nolan and Toner failed 6-3, with councillor Dennis Carlone joining them in the minority. Those opposed were Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and vice mayor Alanna Mallon and councillors Azeem, McGovern, Simmons and councillor Quinton Zondervan.

Moving the AHO was passed 6-3 again, with the same members in favor and against. 

With a lack of funding being the main reason affordable housing isn’t getting built, Nolan said, “I really feel like it would be better for us to take a little more time to get this right.”