Editor’s note: This is part one of Councilor Alanna Mallon’s two-part op-ed examining the affordable housing overlay proposal.
For too many in our Cambridge community, the cost of housing has reached a crisis level, and I am reminded of this nearly every week when I get emails from residents at their most vulnerable. They often face dramatic rent increases that create emergency situations, or are in danger themselves: a mother trying to escape a domestic violence situation, an elderly woman whose long-time home was just sold and is facing a no-fault eviction, an entire building of Section 8 tenants who were living affordably, but without leases and the legal standing as tenants that could protect them from displacement -- and they are in immediate and dire need for housing.
As a councilor, I have some, but not nearly enough, power to help them. I’ve written letters to vouch for Section 8 tenants’ credit to get them into inclusionary housing, or I’ve made calls to every realtor I know, trying to get an apartment for a single mom so her child can stay in Cambridge, finish high school, and graduate from CRLS. But these are band-aids on a systemic problem: that there’s just not enough housing to keep our most vulnerable residents in our community.
After replying to hundreds of emails from residents, I’m writing this column to speak to the whole community at once -- not only to answer questions and address a pattern of concerns, but also to be transparent in my thinking about this proposal as we move forward with this conversation as a community.
Why will there be different rules for affordable housing builders?
Some reasons we’re seeing a proliferation of luxury condo development are high land costs, an unpredictable and expensive zoning and permitting process, and the high costs of legal challenges to building projects. Affordable housing builders and nonprofits rely on already scarce Federal/HUD funding, state and city funding, with occasional contributions from other sources as well. Though the city has dramatically increased our contributions to affordable housing, we are not the sole financer of these projects, or even the largest ones. For most low income and affordable projects, nonprofits can apply for federal and state funding, the source of the bulk of their financing, once a year in November, and zoning and permitting are required to be in place. If zoning complications arise, a single permit is denied, or they face a legal challenge, funding isn’t awarded, and they must wait an entire year before reapplying. Unlike large, for-profit developers, nonprofits cannot carry the expensive land costs for an entire year, which means the project doesn’t get built, and our community has lost a vital opportunity to produce low and middle income units. This is how we get the luxury-centered development that has frustrated so many in our city, including myself.
How long will units be affordable?
Developers reneging on their word and turning a profit on housing that was intended to help our community is a deep worry, and after what is happening with the Fresh Pond Apartments, what we call “expiring use” was a concern even before this draft zoning language was written. To ensure this never happens, every unit in every project will be deed-restricted, so that it remains affordable in-perpetuity and can never be converted into market-rate housing. This housing is protected specifically for individuals making between 30%-100% of the Area Median Income, or between $32,000-$107,000 annually, which means that residents like teachers, police officers, firefighters, retail shop employees, and home healthcare workers can have the housing stability they need.
How tall will buildings be in my neighborhood?
Building height is a concern for many who worry that their low-rise neighborhoods will be overwhelmed by larger structures. The proposal would allow buildings only up to four stories in residential areas, and they could only go up to 50 feet if they contained an active ground floor use, and are located in a part of the neighborhood already home to businesses. Buildings that could reach up to seven stories, or 80′, would only be allowed in major transit corridors, such as Massachusetts Avenue. I have been advocating for a “middle tier,” because I think there are some identified “major transit corridors” that are too close to residential neighborhoods or are home to only 2-3 story buildings now, and would be more appropriate at 60 feet rather than 80 feet. A good example is Cambridge Street between Inman Square and Lechmere Station. While these small, local businesses would benefit from the increased traffic that new residents would bring, the existing structures, even in the business district, are only 2-3 stories tall, and in my opinion, too closely abut residential neighborhoods to allow 80 feet. Instead, 60 feet would allow the additional units without being out of context in these neighborhoods, which are typically located in BA districts on the zoning map.
Look for part two of this op-ed in next week’s Chronicle.
Alanna Mallon is a Cambridge city councilor.