Cambridge has everything to gain from the Affordable Housing Overlay

The Overlay will contribute to a virtuous cycle of greater income and racial diversity; lower greenhouse gas emissions; beautiful, green new buildings; and a more vibrant, exciting City for everyone.

Cambridge residents are clamoring for one thing: lower housing costs.

Asked what “affects you and your family the most?” 35% of surveyed residents in 2018 answered housing/affordable housing (up 5% since 2016). Only 6% mentioned the next biggest concern (traffic). The City’s own needs assessment also put affordable housing as its top priority.

Is City Council working on anything to answer this urgent need?

There’s only one major housing proposal on the docket in 2019: the Affordable Housing Overlay.

L: You don’t need to study the graph long to see that Housing is THE main concern for residents. That’s why the Community Development Department proposed the Overlay. (R: part of their infographic.)

Describe the Overlay in one sentence.

The Overlay is a zoning change that will make it easier to build affordable housing by allowing 100% deed-restricted affordable projects to be a little bigger than current zoning allows.

Cambridge Affordable housing is beautiful — six examples of nonprofit Homeowners Rehab’s recent projects.

Give an example of how building 100% affordable projects under the Overlay will be different than under current zoning.

The Overlay allows 4-story buildings in 3-story zones (yellow), the max 7 stories in medium zones (green), and compliance with district standards if the building exceeds 80 feet in zones where that’s allowed (purple).

Height: You can build a little taller than what current zoning allows.

That doesn’t necessarily mean taller than the surrounding buildings — much of Cambridge is taller/denser than current zoning allows because it was built before our current suburban-flavored code. Or because the developers secured a variance.

Examples of nonconforming buildings in Mid-Cambridge. They look great! More examples here.

Design review: Also, a single neighbor can’t hold up the building’s construction for years by suing. You’d be surprised how often that exact scenario kills or greatly reduces housing developments, including affordable ones. Even when the developer wins the suit, which usually happens.

L: A law suit delayed this project near the Central T-stop by three years, and reduced the number of units by two. R: The Overlay’s design process is robust.

Not to fret, the buildings will still be lovely.

The Overlay would require affordable housing developers to go through extensive community meetings. It also gives the Planning Board ample opportunity for design review. But the Overlay purposefully makes these developments “as-of-right” because of how toxic litigation can be to the creation of new homes.

Anything else I should know about the Overlay?

Three things:

  1. It takes on a racist legacy that is still felt in our City.
  2. It will help fight climate change.
  3. It will benefit all current residents, no matter their income level.

(1) The Overlay explicitly tackles a racist legacy.

Cambridge’s redlined map that categorized neighborhoods in part based on how many black residents lived there. RED = “hazardous” | YELLOW = “definitely declining” | BLUE = “still desirable” | GREEN = “best.”

In the 1930s, federal planners “redlined” Cambridge (and much of the US). They created maps denoting an area’s desirability based in explicit part on whether or not black people lived there.

Today’s map of where affordable units exist. DARKER = more; WHITE = none.

Today, that racist 90-year-old map eerily reflects where affordable housing units exist. That’s because the redlines guided the zoning code.

The code kept “desirable” areas (whites only) that way by outlawing apartment buildings and other “urban” housing types that tend to be cheaper. These areas became more “suburban” in feel.

Meanwhile, apartment buildings were allowed in “hazardous” areas (areas with black residents). Affordable housing developments are only feasible when they use land more efficiently than suburban-style zoning allows.

Today, the result is that Cambridge neighborhoods with the highest incomes and lowest diversity scores are also the least dense (ie: most suburban). Thus, if economic and racial diversity are values we cherish, it’s important that we increase the number of homes (especially affordable ones) in these areas.

Diversity and density scores are low in richer areas such as Avon Hill, Agassiz, West Cambridge and Cambridge Highlands in this chart from the City’s 2019 statistical profile.

(2) The Overlay is good for the environment

This slide shows how much less Cambridge residents commute by car (BLUE) than people outside of the City.

The Overlay will make Cambridge greener because, unlike our current code, it doesn’t force developers to build parking spaces for projects near transit. It also reduces the number of parking spaces developers must build for projects further out.

In addition, simply allowing more people to live in a high-opportunity city like Cambridge helps to reduce the amount of pollution residents emit.

A majority of Cambridge residents get to work without cars — their rates of commuting on foot/bike/transit are far above the regional average. Living in cities means shorter, greener commutes and less driving for errands and the like.

Again, Boston Area car use (BLUE) averages 60%. In Cambridge, it’s just over 25%.
The largest source of transportation pollution is from passenger cars.

Reducing car-dependence is particularly important for fighting climate change. Cars contribute enormously to greenhouse gasses. In fact, almost half of Massachusetts transportation greenhouse gas emissions are from passenger vehicles. Denser living is much, much, much greener living.

The Overlay will not force developers to build parking spaces for most projects, helping to reduce residents’ incentives to rely on cars.

Finally, the state gives affordable housing developers strong incentives to incorporate energy efficiency and other sustainability standards into their buildings. New affordable housing thus tends to be extremely sustainable, not to mention boasting other benefits of new construction, such as full wheelchair accessibility, which is difficult to retrofit. (Side note: for projects converting older buildings, the full Historic Review process remains in place.)

(3) The Overlay will benefit all Cambridge residents, regardless of income level.

Only 20% of Cambridge public school teachers live in the City, according to the teachers union. The Overlay is modest in scope. But it will allow a greater diversity of professionals, like school teachers, to live here. It will be a small step toward reversing the long trend of us losing our middle class to high-end earners.

Cambridge has become considerably richer and less income-diverse over the past twenty years.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with rich people! But a vibrant City needs people from all walks of life contributing to it — artists, restaurant industry folk, firefighters, small business owners and much more.

It’s unfair to reserve a vibrant, high-opportunity place like Cambridge only for the rich.

It’s also harmful to all residents. If the City is only open to tech and biotech and other high-end earners, then all of Cambridge loses out. We lose people who might open unique, independent shops. Or cook for a local restaurant. Or work for a nonprofit dedicated to improving the City and the lives of its residents. Or simply contribute to the fascinating, heterogenous world of unexpected collaborations that we expect from a world-class city.

Who wants a homogeneous Cambridge?

In Conclusion: Let’s open Cambridge up to income diversity! Let’s be climate leaders! Let’s work on undoing our own shameful legacy of racism! Let’s answer Cambridge’s overwhelming need for more affordable housing!

Let’s pass the Affordable Housing Overlay!

What we need to do now:

The Overlay will likely be up for a final City Council vote in September. Currently, we need 6/9 votes (supermajority) — but only 5 councilors have committed to supporting the Overlay.

To learn more about how you can support the Overlay, follow A Better Cambridge AF by subscribing, on Twitter @ABetterCAF, or on Facebook for updates. We’re working hard to get this passed + there’s lots you can do to help!

Correction: On 4/12/19, we noted that the nonconforming buildings shown above are from Mid-Cambridge, not West Cambridge, as originally written.