Tuesday, July 23, 2024

A rally at Cambridge’s City Hall on June 17, 2021, calls housing a human right. (Photo: Marc Levy)

After a year of debate, meetings and refinements, changes to height and open space rules for all-affordable buildings were approved Monday in Cambridge in a 6-3 vote that surprised no one, but offered an end to the bitter condemnations and accusations hurled from one side to another.

“Like my colleagues, I recognize that the six-to-three vote is inevitable,” councillor Dennis Carlone said. He and the other votes against – Patty Nolan and Paul Toner – took the opportunity to restate their positions, while councillors in favor seized the chance to explain the significance and value of what was decided.

The amendments to the three-year-old Affordable Housing Overlay zoning, called AHO 2.0 by many, increases the by-right height of buildings with 100 percent affordable units to 12 stories along the city’s main corridors such as Albany Street, Alewife Brook Parkway, Bishop Allen Drive, Broadway, Cambridge Street, Concord Avenue, First Street, Fresh Pond Parkway, Massachusetts Avenue, Memorial Drive, Mount Auburn Street, Prospect Street and Sidney Street, and to 15 stories in Central, Harvard and Porter squares. For these projects, design review by city officials become suggestions, not potential deal-killers.

Several of the city’s nonprofits, including builders of affordable housing, spoke in favor of the changes as making it more likely they could compete with market-rate developers for sites and projects, likely adding a few residential towers citywide over the next several years. 

The general lack of funding for such projects is expected to limit AHO 2.0’s impact, but backers say that’s why passing the changes was so urgent.

“Tonight, we have an opportunity to prioritize the thousands of people who live or work in Cambridge that are on the affordable-housing waitlist. We have an opportunity tonight to add another tool to the toolbox to help increase our affordable-housing stock. We have an opportunity tonight to do what we can to help maintain the diversity of our city. We have an opportunity tonight to prioritize people over aesthetics,” councillor Marc McGovern said. “It is a great opportunity.”

Councillor Burhan Azeem said 616 homes had been built under the original zoning. “I imagine 616 families in front of us today that got to live in our city, just seeing them fill up an auditorium,” he said.

While Nolan noted that Azeem was getting a little ahead of himself by putting the homes’ construction in the past tense – most are still in the pipeline and for various reasons are not prime examples of what the new laws can accomplish – she also hit on a message shared by all councillors: “The simplistic message that this vote is either or for or against affordable housing is deeply wrong and corrosive to our community.”

Residents’ rhetoric

Residents’ rhetoric around voting the amendments have included allegations of racism or classism, because opposing the amendments meant keeping out people of other races or lower income, or corruption, because favoring the changes could mean being in the pocket of developers who will profit from the projects.

A little of that was heard among the more than two dozen public comments Monday on the amendments. “I checked records of campaign donations for City Council members and discovered a correlation between a councillors’ funding from lawyers for developers and his leading the push for AHO 2.0 amendments. That represents to me a conflict of interest,” one speaker said. Another said she was disturbed that the amendments seemed crafted to guarantee a green light for a single project – at 2072 Massachusetts Ave., near Porter Square – that tried a different path to construction but was withdrawn in August 2021.

There is at least one project waiting for these amendments to pass, but it’s in Central Square, said Dan Totten, a legislative aide for councillor Quinton Zondervan who resigned to become a candidate for City Council. That project has been “on the table for a year because the numbers don’t work under the current AHO,” Totten said. “They are waiting for the day the zoning passes. I would bet you within a week or two we’re going to hear something about the site.”

Injury on both sides

Opponents on the council spoke of their issues with the amendments, from them jumping the gun on the five-year review written into the original to fears of a “Russian roulette” in property values that could expose the city to a lawsuit, but also about the tone of debate. “The amendments will do nothing to promote mixed-income housing, which is what Cambridge needs most,” Nolan said, while noting that each of the opponents have “a long, solid, documentable history of supporting affordable housing.”

“I do hope that we can move on after this vote and get beyond this notion of ‘You’re for it or you’re against it,’” Toner said. “The notion that any of us is just anti-housing is unfair and unnecessary.”

McGovern responded that he’d been “called more names by people in the public” suspicious of developer riches – which he found particularly dismaying because apart from his political career he’s a social worker who’s never earned more than $55,000 in a year. “I agree, people should watch what they say, but that’s a two-way street,” McGovern said.

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui cautioned against a back-and-forth on the tone of the past months.

“I get it, folks. There’s been a lot of things said in the community. But let’s be collegial,” Siddiqui said.

Vitriol could continue

When the vote was taken, Carlone, Nolan and Toner were opposed; in the majority were Siddiqui, McGovern, Azeem, Zondervan, vice mayor Alanna Mallon and councillor E. Denise Simmons.

But with elections coming Nov. 7 and the Affordable Housing Overlay zoning a key topic – challengers have suggested starting the next round of discussions, and that the next council could rescind the changes – Nolan suggested that Monday’s vote wouldn’t be the end of the vitriol.

“I have not said those things,” Nolan said in reference to allegations of doing developers’ bidding. “I think everyone here has to pledge then to tell surrogates not to either, and that has not happened – on both sides.”

This post was updated Oct. 17, 2023, to correct a speaker’s quote from their printed notes.