While Cambridge residents worry about affording to live here, Neighborhood Associations ask “How Big Is Too Big?”

Instead, let’s ask how we can regain our vanishing middle class

For most Cambridge residents, housing tops the worry list — by a lot. Affordable housing is the “dominant issue on people’s minds,” with 30% volunteering it as the City’s top problem, according to the most recent poll, from 2016. It also topped Cambridge’s 2017 Needs Assessment.

Contrast that with the issues raised at a recent gathering of Cambridge Neighborhood Associations. The event — which caused a stir by drawing over 150 people, including five city councilors, and by featuring comedian-turned-political candidate Jimmy Tingle — relegated housing concerns to the “officially third-tier,” to quote the Cambridge Day.

Left: Terrible event photo by co-author Eugenia; co-author Burhan stands at the back, second from right. Right: Event poster.

So what ranks highest for Neighborhood Associations? One clue is the event’s title: “How Big Is Too Big?” Another is its list of top three concerns, as presented by event organizers:

  1. “Climate: environment, trees, parks.”
  2. “over development (too tall, too much)”
  3. “Quality of life: parks, open spaces, light and noise, garbage, drugs on the streets, homelessness, arts, diversity, Schools (sic)”

“How Big Is Too Big?” is not representative of the average Cambridge resident’s concerns

As we discuss what this event means for the policies Cambridge should adopt, it’s important to note that the crowd wasn’t representative of the City as a whole. For one thing, as pictures of the event seem to indicate, the average age was retired and up — in a City whose median age is 30.2.

Left: 2016 poll shows affordable housing tops list of residents’ concerns. Right: 2017 Needs Assessment places affordable housing first.

To be clear, these groups have every right to express their views. But we must be mindful that representing our Neighborhood Associations does not mean representing our neighborhoods. Neighborhood Associations attract members who tend to be older than the average resident, and who are more likely to own their homes.

(In fact, people who oppose new housing development in Cambridge and the region tend to dominate public comment, according to BU research. Our public process for housing under-represents renters, people of color and lower-income residents.)

In addition, we should note that some attended the event to express opposing points of view, and that not all Neighborhood Associations agreed with the “too big” sentiment.

The point is that we, as a City, need to balance viewpoints as we decide our policies on building new homes. The organizers of “How Big Is Too Big” did an excellent job of making a case that there are cons to building here. Nevertheless, we need to remember how many in Cambridge urgently need housing. Building more homes — especially affordable housing — is critical to achieving that goal.

Cambridge’s middle class is disappearing

In discussing support for the notion that Cambridge may be “too big,” we should also note that high housing prices have already decreased the City’s share of middle-class residents by over a third.

About 27% of residents were middle-class in 2000, compared to just 17% in 2014 (see chart). While this data isn’t current, the trend has almost certainly continued. And, as the City’s share of middle-income residents decreased, it was the share of the very rich that grew.

Chart from City housing process showing Cambridge’s rapidly decreasing middle-class.

By limiting how many new homes we build, we’re allowing our City to become an enclave for the very rich. Asking “How Big Is Too Big” implies it’s okay that middle class people — teachers, fire-fighters, artists, small business owners — can’t afford to live here.

To fight climate change, we must build more homes in Cambridge, so more people can live near transit

Finally, building more homes is one of the best ways to reduce our climate impact. When we limit housing in transit-rich Cambridge — where people can generally commute and do errands on foot, bike, or by bus and train — that housing ends up getting built further from the City and from easy transit. It’s sprawl. The result is that those people will depend more on cars for commuting and everyday getting-around.

Nifty illustration of research showing how population-dense cities contribute less greenhouse-gas emissions per person than other areas of the country. (Hint: it’s a map of NYC.)

Thus, if you want Cambridge to be a leader in the climate change fight, you must advocate for home-building as our top priority. That doesn’t mean settling for a tree-free dystopian future. It means working trees into a sustainable development policy that benefits the entire planet.

(Here’s an example of a 20% affordable (100 units), transit-oriented development that does just that — providing a larger tree canopy than currently exists, and removing impervious surfaces to mitigate flooding concerns.)

Healthy tree and park numbers can follow strong home-building development — the opposite isn’t true. If we prioritize trees without thinking about housing, we’ll likely encourage sprawl and car pollution. Let’s instead prioritize trees as part of a holistic plan to make Cambridge the climate change leader it should be.

So, instead of asking “How Big Is Too Big,” why not ask …

  • Is Cambridge living up to its progressive values?
  • Is it welcoming enough?
  • Climate — Is it building enough new homes so that sprawl doesn’t happen elsewhere?
  • Climate — Is it building enough so people aren’t forced to commute and run errands in polluting cars, instead of walking, biking or using transit, as is only feasible in a city?
  • Climate — If we put trees ahead of a holistic plan for minimizing climate change, are we boxing ourselves in? If we put climate change first, can’t we also make sure we have full and beneficial tree coverage?
  • Equity — Is Cambridge building enough new homes so that the richest aren’t the only ones who can buy up the existing housing stock?
  • Equity — Is it building enough so that the middle-class and a younger generation can hope to live here?
  • Equity — Is it doing enough to subsidize affordable housing and support tenants’ rights, so that middle- and low-income people can keep contributing to the City’s diversity and vibrancy?
  • Equity — Is Cambridge supporting zoning changes that will allow more affordable housing to be built?
  • Dynamism — Is it welcoming enough new people to give independent stores, restaurants and music venues(!) a healthy customer base to keep Cambridge weird and wonderful?

— Eugenia Schraa, Executive Director, A Better Cambridge Action Fund + Burhan Azeem, Chair, Ward 2

Correction: On 1.17.19 we corrected the paragraph about the affordable development — it is 20% affordable with 100 affordable units, not 100% affordable as we initially wrote.