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No good alternatives to Affordable Housing Overlay in Cambridge

A former City Councillor explains why a plethora of alternate housing proposals — some valuable, some intended to head off the prospect of affordable housing in the proponents’ neighborhoods — can’t replace the Overlay.

Since serving five City Council terms years ago, I have not commented publicly on the many issues facing Cambridge. But, as someone who has fought for affordable housing throughout my career, I am writing now in strong support of the proposed Affordable Housing Overlay zoning ordinance, because it will mean so much for the future of Cambridge.

Every recent survey of Cambridge residents shows that affordable housing is by far our most important concern. And for good reason: when rent control ended in 1995, Cambridge lost about 14,000 affordable apartments. Since then, our percentage of legally protected affordable housing has decreased even further, from 15.4% in 1997 to 14.7% in 2016. Partly as a result, from 2009 to 2015, single-family home prices here rose by 76%, two-family home prices by 70%, and condominium prices by 36%; and rents rose by 59% for one-bedroom apartments, 63% for two-bedroom apartments, and 81% for three-bedroom apartments (all adjusted for inflation). Over that same period, Boston-area inflation-adjusted median household income rose only 2.6%. Cambridge is increasingly a place where only wealthy people can afford to live.

So we need to do everything we can to protect the future affordability and diversity of our City. The Affordable Housing Overlay is an important way to do that: it will give small height and density bonuses for new housing that will be permanently 100% affordable to low- and middle-income Cambridge residents. It will help our trusted affordable housing developers to compete for available land in ways that they usually cannot now. It will expand opportunities for affordable housing development in all neighborhoods, combatting the racist legacy of redlining that excluded people of color from the “best” areas. And it will fight climate change and reduce “super commutes” by allowing more people to live near where they work and around transit stops.

The Overlay is controversial; affordable housing usually is, in my experience. Opponents claim that unsightly new housing will destroy neighborhood character. But the proposal would allow only a single additional floor of height in residential neighborhoods, where the vast majority of buildings are already “non-conforming” because they were built before the present zoning restrictions. The City staff predicts (perhaps unfortunately) that due to limited financing the Overlay will produce at most 100 new affordable housing units citywide every year. Our affordable housing developers have a consistent, exemplary record of design that fits nicely into existing neighborhoods, and the Overlay contains design guidelines that will ensure that. The Overlay also maintains all the City’s existing protections for historic structures, including the neighborhood conservation district ordinance that I sponsored when I was a Councillor.

Opponents also complain that the Overlay reduces the Planning Board’s role. But that is necessary to avoid binding, discretionary review of every affordable housing development, which unfortunate experience shows inevitably prevents timely land acquisition and produces years-long litigation that kills project financing. Still, the Overlay requires extensive citizen participation, including robust Planning Board involvement and advice. And the City’s Affordable Housing Trust will play an important role by approving funding only for appropriate developments.

The Overlay is an innovative proposal developed by the City’s excellent professional planning staff. Like any new idea, it presents some small risks: maybe a design not to some neighbor’s liking, or an unwelcome shadow on an abutter’s yard. But these risks pale when compared to the risks of no action or longer delay: more Cambridge families living on the streets, or in cars, or crowded in with relatives, or forced to move far away from their jobs and their friends. As a single-family homeowner who has had the incredible privilege of raising my family for 28 years in a Residence B zone, I am eager to accept those small risks — which the Overlay does everything to minimize — in return for putting a roof over the heads of new and old neighbors and saving the affordable, diverse, vibrant Cambridge that I love.

One fascinating outcome of the Overlay debate has been the plethora of other housing proposals that it has inspired. Some of these are good ideas that we should pursue. For example, the City Council recently passed unanimously a little-noticed zoning change making it easier to permit “accessory dwelling units,” sometimes called in-law apartments, which could provide hundreds of additional naturally affordable housing units throughout the City. And certainly, the City should publicly encourage the universities and other major employers to fund more housing — but our legal power to mandate this is limited to the “linkage” and “inclusionary” requirements for new private development that the Council has already enacted.

Other ideas do not really address the need for more affordable housing. Providing rental or homebuyer subsidies — whether by direct City appropriation or through tax incentives (the latter requiring unlikely state legislative approval) — would simply bid up housing prices unless we also dramatically increase the number of allowed housing units, thus actually hurting residents who do not receive these subsidies. And while I continue to support reasonable rent, eviction, and condo-conversion controls and other methods to protect tenants against displacement, they would regrettably only allocate a shrinking number of affordable apartments in the face of increasing demand, and most of these remedies also require state legislative action that seems very unlikely soon.

Some Overlay opponents proposed alternative ideas to head off the prospect of new affordable housing in their neighborhoods. But even their good ideas should be in addition to, not instead of, the Overlay. The Overlay proposal has been the subject of more citizen participation than I have seen in my lifetime: five City-sponsored neighborhood open houses, two Planning Board public hearings, vigorous debate in our newspapers, neighborhood listservs, and online forums, and at least four Council public hearings, with more to come. No doubt our Council will improve it further before voting on it in September, and I welcome ideas to do that.

The Affordable Housing Overlay is not a panacea, and it will not solve all our affordable housing problems. But it is an important tool to address those problems. It is the only one ready to enact that actually increases Cambridge’s affordable housing supply. I hope the Council will pass it soon.

David E. Sullivan, Former Cambridge City Councillor

Thank you to David for allowing ABC AF to publish this opinion piece. You can follow David on Twitter @dsulliva2.

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