Full question: From 1980 to 2020 (pre-pandemic), Cambridge on net added ~45,000 jobs but built only ~12,600 homes. As a result, rents and home prices have skyrocketed, making Cambridge less affordable and more exclusive with each passing year. Cambridge Housing Authority waitlists have more than 22,500 households on them, and Cambridge residents consistently select housing affordability as their #1 concern in citywide surveys. As City Councillor, what would be your top priorities to address our housing crisis?
As we tackle these pressing housing issues, we need to focus on creating more affordable housing and prevent biotech and pharmaceutical companies from driving up housing costs if they’re not going to do their part in addressing the housing crises. Right now, with the AHO we’re making progress on creating the opportunities to build affordable housing, but we need to incentivize the creation of these homes. Also, it's crucial to support tenant rights through a rental assistance program and we need to bring our homeless community into the conversation. Because someone doesn’t have the means to secure a home, it doesn’t mean their worth should be lost in the conversation. This includes all forms of homelessness: transitional, chronic, episodic, and hidden. We need to work more on investing in our homeless shelters so that we invest in our most vulnerable communities. The bottom line is that we should always put people over profit.
Cambridge residents consistently rate the cost of housing as a top priority. Addressing our housing crisis has been my priority on the Council, and if re-elected I’ll build on my progress this first term to make real progress in our housing crisis.
To productively address our housing crisis we need to address supply, subsidy, and stability. This means that we need to build more housing, provide more resources to help people afford housing, and strengthen protections for residents. I’ve been proud to lead on all
In my first term, I’ve led efforts to expand the Affordable Housing Overlay. The AHO is one of our strongest tools to create more housing. By loosening the restrictions on 100% affordable development, the AHO allows nonprofit affordable housing developers to compete in Cambridge’s tight real estate market and bring many more units online than they otherwise could. I was also a leader in getting citywide parking minimums removed. Parking minimums drive up the cost of building housing, and are particularly unnecessary in Cambridge, where so many people don’t own cars. The AHO increased both supply and stability, and parking minimums help with housing supply.
I’ve also worked to increase the financial resources the City can bring in to aid affordable housing development. I’ve voted to increase the linkage fee for developers to raise more money for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. I support a Tenant Right-to-Counsel and boosting resources to the Office of Housing Liaison.
I look forward to working on all of these priorities in the coming term and making Cambridge a more affordable place to live.
As long as I have lived in Cambridge, our City has had a housing affordability issue. (My first apartment here included 6 other roommates). Cambridge is a desirable place to live, as shown by both our housing prices and our housing waitlist. Though the problem is too big to solve on our own (at current costs, clearing the entire waitlist would cost us more than $20 billion), a multi-pronged approach may help address the most pressing housing needs of our residents.
For those Cambridge residents currently on the waitlist, I support the City issuing a housing bond to support increased housing production.
For renters who wish to own, I believe that we should support the creation of a community land trust to enable more home ownership opportunities. I also would support a city program to provide grants or 0% interest loans for first-time down payments.
For renters who prefer continuing to rent, we need to solve our vacancy issue. 10% of all housing units are currently vacant, often due to real estate speculation and/or foreign investment, but also because owners can’t afford to fund necessary repairs. Some states are experimenting with controls on house flipping and on foreign ownership, while others are providing grants to fund repairs. We should pursue both options.
For current owners, it’s time to consider moderate zoning reform to allow incremental expansion of the existing housing stock.
And for all residents, I support funding an ADU grant program as an economical and fast way to add units in existing neighborhoods. Vermont, California, and even Boston have such programs, with grants up to $50,000 for each ADU, provided the grantees agree to rent only to full-time residents and keep rents at a fair price.
In the end, making progress against this seemingly forever problem is less about specific programs and approaches, and more about how we all live together and make decisions in an already dense urban environment.
Cambridge's success in attracting good paying 45,000 jobs is the envy of the country. These jobs provide a considerable opportunity to residents of Cambridge and the region. The 2020 Census (from CDD site) says Cambridge has about 50,000 households. Cambridge is one of the US's densest cities, so demand is very high and land expensive. The result is that long-time residents, working people, and low-income people cannot afford to live here. Our firefighters, teachers, nurses, and working professionals can't live where they work. As pointed out in the question, this number is quite large.
We can not rely on one solution to address this problem. A combination of solutions is required to meet this problem. We cannot build our way out of this problem.
First, the unhoused presents an acute problem across the country and region. We as a city must work locally and regionally to address this problem. The homelessness problem requires a concentrated effort but is more complex than just the cost of housing. We must approach the causes with specifically targeted programs and accommodations to help these people in need. Addiction, mental health, and bad luck represent many of these. We must help these people.
Second, Cambridge is a congested and difficult-to-reach city. Many of those 45,000 people with good-paying jobs would prefer to live in towns with yards, open space, and less traffic. The problem is that commuting takes more than an hour each way. This circumstance causes them to look in Cambridge for housing. We could significantly reduce demand for housing by improving transportation to/from/within Cambridge. We can start by fixing congestion in Cambridge and then work regionally. This strategy could reduce housing demand by 10,000 or more.
Third, Cambridge needs a realistic plan for addressing low-income and working-class housing. (There are more delineations but not enough space to discuss here). Cambridge is recognized for one of the highest percentages of affordable housing in the US. I support continuing our effort with a balanced approach between working-class and low-income housing. We must also check our assumptions and realistically measure results. I have doubts that housing without parking or green space will be attractive to families, working-class, or low-income households. We should measure these assumptions to improve our offering.
Finally, we must act regionally. The demand for affordable housing in Cambridge will not diminish if we continue to build and no one else does. Or if Cambridge is unreachable from other affordable places in the region.
One solution will not fix the housing problem.
Housing abundance, hosing affordability, and environmental sustainability.
There are no easy answers here, but we need investment, education and creativity to find solutions.
1) Build more housing: I support the Affordable Housing Overlay, limiting non-residential development in our commercial squares and along major corridors, and allowing for multi-family housing in every neighborhood.
2) Protect existing homeowners and renters before they are displaced: Revamp Cambridge’s inclusionary housing programs which includes expanding middle income homeownership; initiate technical assistance programs that connect residents with vendors and information, like the newly introduced Electrify Cambridge; exploring ways to cap rent increases and end brokers fees, and City investment in the creation of and support for tenant councils and unions.
3) Update Zoning: Ensure multi-unit home options including the subdivision of larger homes and the creation of triple-deckers, duplexes, and other apartments is possible in every neighborhood in Cambridge; explore social housing options and mixed use development by getting creative and considering municipally owned land and/or housing.
We need to build more housing. The data is clear. Supply has not kept pace with demand. Not even close. Hopefully the amendments to the AHO will pass this term. If not, I will be putting them forward again next term. But we know that the AHO is only one tool. We need to pass the Missing Middle petition to allow for smaller housing, starter homes, to be built. This term I co-sponsored a motion to increase funding to the Affordable Housing Trust by $20 million to allow them more flexibility in purchasing available property. That order passed on a 5-4 vote and now sits on the desk of the City Manager. I will continue to fight to get that funding. We must end exclusionary zoning, and not just performatively, but make the zoning changes necessary to ensure that the type of housing we want built can actually be built. The city needs to purchase more land and then use that land for housing. We also need to build on land we already own, like the parking lots in Central.
Solving the housing crisis is a major challenge for Cambridge, as well as our nation. There is no single solution to this, so we must attack the problem from many angles. Creating more housing density is one, which has the added benefit of helping us address our carbon footprint. In Cambridge, that means building upwards as we do not have many options for going wider. We must invest more in the realm of affordable housing, which is the purpose of the AHO. AHO 2.0 gives tools that will allow our affordable housing builders opportunities to create more units.
To further support the creation of new affordable housing the City should capitalize a loan fund for affordable housing developers. Developers would be able to borrow money from the City at below market interest rates in order to acquire property on which they plan to build 100% affordable housing. This would allow developers to move quickly to purchase property and significantly decrease the carrying costs for affordable housing. This fund would complement the Affordable Housing Overlay, making our City one of the simplest and most supportive communities in which to build 100% affordable housing.
To create new affordable housing, the City should make additional funding available for developers, especially non-profit developers, for affordable housing. The City should pursue a real estate transfer tax on commercial and residential sales over a certain amount. It is key that we are able to capitalize on the enormous wealth generated in our City to support the construction of affordable housing.
I would propose a pilot program for moveable municipal vouchers.This would be targeted at renters not already receiving government support for their housing who are earning less than 60% of the Area Median Income. These renters would pay 30% of their income on rent every month, and the City would pay the difference between the renter’s share and the fair market rent (established annually by HUD) for their apartment based on the apartment size and location (based on zip code).
My family’s story is full of ways that government policy, particularly housing policy, lifted us into the working class and middle class. In that history, though, are some of the clearest examples of how our government excluded People of Color, particularly Black people, from that uplift. It has been clearly documented how Black people were systematically left out of the housing market in the 20th century. Racism in housing has evolved since then and continues to be ever present in the housing market today. It is our obligation to address and redress these past and persistent inequities within our housing system.
We should take a look at the ZBA. Many affordable housing proposals languish as they wait for the opportunity to present (or re-present) their plans. These delays slow the process and can lead to proposals being withdrawn. We should consider a paid ZBA staff that will be able to meet more regularly, as well as be more amenable to addressing outdated and restrictive zoning practices.
I would advocate for an income tax credit for landlords who charge below market rates. In Cambridge, these small landlords are integral to keeping market rates from rising even higher. We should advocate at the state level, to encourage this continued behavior.
Build quality affordable public housing.
Revise the AHO to encourage mid-rise, gentle density townhouses in harmony with the surrounding neighborhood. The profit-driven public housing market is part of the problem.
Profit, not quality-of-life, is driving land development.
Avoid repeating the public housing mistakes of the past. Build smaller, smarter, more efficient homes. Scale matters: for humane housing, economic and environmental justice.
Promote rent-to-own policies for low income families.
Hold the city and developers accountable in respecting the city's design heritage.
The "lab bubble" has burst. We need a moratorium on the construction of new lab space in favor of new home construction, especially affordable housing.
Develop a long-term city wide housing plan where all neighborhoods contribute to the city’s affordable housing needs.
Demand that Harvard and M.I.T. follow through on their stated commitment to build more student housing.
As a City Councilor it's important to convey the housing crisis honestly to our constituents and frame discussions of effective housing policies from both a local and a regional perspective. I have sought to get better data on the waitlists - how many of the 4400+ people on the waitlist who live in Cambridge are in dire need - meaning unhoused, in situations that are too crowded or dangerous - so we can prioritize getting them housed first. Our most vulnerable deserve to get housing first.
From a local Cambridge perspective I have been public about wanting us to tackle per unit costs: approaching $1 million /affordable housing unit. If we can bring that down to even $700K/unit we can house 30% more people, since funding is the limiting factor. Another priority is to secure more funding through a transfer fee and our increased linkage fee. I was the only councillor to propose housing on a site in West Cambridge for a model small (6-8 unit) home ownership opportunity - on city property. And I have advocated that the city buy property and have put forth a specific proposal for the large property recently purchased in West Cambridge. I urged the City Manager to conduct a comprehensive analysis of all city owned properties to see if other such opportunities exist and intend to follow through on its progress so it isn’t another useless filed report. We also need to monitor the city’s current policies for inclusionary housing and linkage fees to ensure that they are not too onerous and discourage development in Cambridge.
From a regional perspective a top priority is to get the state and other communities to do more. In the Boston Housing Report Card, Cambridge stands out for doing the most - alongside Boston. I have supported the transfer fee on property over $2m and will continue to work with the state on a home rule petition to be able to enact that legislation. The housing crisis is a regional one and Cambridge can’t solve it alone. We need to work with regional agencies to ensure that policies and funding are in place to ease housing costs and build more in the metro core, such as the MBTA Communities act to increase multi family housing in every community near transit stations.
I believe we need brand new equity program which will help the community grow income which would help the family growth and generations to come.
As a city councillor, my top priorities to address our housing crisis align with what is in our Envision Cambridge plan. I would prioritize City and other public property that is available for disposition to develop housing, and acquire any property (e.g like we have from Lesley University) to help more affordable housing. Another priority would be to increase existing City funds and explore options for new revenue sources and support for dedicated affordable housing. I am also very much interested in supporting legislative and other efforts to improve protections for tenants at risk of displacement. I am in favor of changing zoning to enable more housing, especially more affordable housing, to be built along major corridors, squares, and in other areas that have the capacity to accommodate growth and are well served by transit. Other ideas that have emerged are municipal vouchers and having an affordable housing bond to build more affordable housing.
E. Denise Simmons
I will continue supporting the kind of legislation I have long championed - looking at adjusting our Inclusionary ordinance, adjusting our linkage fees, passing amendments to the Affordable Housing Overlay District, and exploring other ideas that, when combined, can help us try to get this issue under a semblance of control. I have served as Chair of the Housing Committee the past several terms, and I will continue to vet these ideas and policies in my role as chair.
To create more affordable housing in the city, Cambridge should expand the Affordable Housing Overlay, strengthen tenant rights, incentivize creating housing especially in areas that have relatively little like Kendall Square and Alewife, and utilize our prop 2 ½ levy capacity to put millions more toward affordable housing each year. As the Council has been working on this year, Cambridge should expand the AHO to allow for more units and diverse types of affordable and public housing throughout the city, including on major corridors and near transit. If the Council is not able to pass the AHO amendments that have been discussed this term for whatever reason, this will be one of the first items on my agenda. Cambridge should also seek to improve tenant support by learning from cities such as Somerville and Boston that have recently strengthened their tenant rights notification requirements and provide robust assistance through a fully staffed, multilingual Office of Housing Stability.
Unlike many other municipalities in Massachusetts, Cambridge is significantly below its Prop 2 ½ levy limit in our annual budget. Due to our commercial tax base and split-rate, even a modest increase would generate millions more dollars of revenue in the annual budget, a large portion of which would come from levies on corporate landholders. Finally, Cambridge should re-examine how our planning and zoning processes lead to the creation of housing or lack thereof, particularly in areas like Kendall and Alewife, that currently have relatively little housing. Given the ongoing underutilization of office space due to remote work, this should include exploring how to incentivize the conversion of commercial space to housing, as Boston and other municipalities have been doing.
Paul F. Toner
I will continue to work with my fellow councillors, city staff, nonprofit and for profit developers to identify opportunities to purchase land, fund the Affordable Housing Trust, and remove unnecessary zoning and other barriers to building more housing across income levels from subsidized to market rate.
I’m glad ABC agrees that the housing crisis is in part caused by the massive amount of commercial development over the decades. Restricting new purpose-built biotech in our squares is a bonafide pro-housing policy because that is what drives the cost of land insanely through the roof, impeding housing production of all kinds. I have nothing against science and innovation, but new development that doesn’t contain any residential dwelling units of any kind should absolutely be restricted. I’m not saying that this is the only thing we need to do, but I think it would be a lot easier to find common ground if ABC as an org would accept the economic and “housing impediment” arguments for this being part of the solution.
A lot of the other housing affordability stuff I want to focus on is covered in other sections, so I’m going to use this space to highlight some specific improvements that need to be made to our shelter system.
Conditions at YMCA Central House need to be addressed by the city. Residents at this facility need more direct support and case management. They also deserve a dedicated kitchen space and some common dining areas - right now each resident just has a microwave and a fridge in their room, and there is only one sink in the entire building where they are allowed to wash dishes. It has been several months since residents submitted their petition demanding better conditions, and there has been nothing but silence from the city.
Similarly, 240 Albany Street needs to be renovated and upgraded. Residents of the wet shelter face deplorable conditions and many on our streets refuse to go there because of how bad it is. There are often incidents of harassment and discrimination. One of the goals of including Albany Street in the amendments to the AHO (it was my idea) was to legalize an as-of-right pathway for 240 to be redeveloped with, for instance, several stories of permanent supportive housing on top of the shelter.
Vernon K. Walker
It is well known that Cambridge is suffering from a housing crisis fueled by a lack of affordable housing units. Two thirds of the city population are renters and the path to homeownership is difficult. I advocate expanding rental vouchers and homeownership assistance and I am eager to join the City Council to explore and implement my ideas.
Some of my ideas include supporting the amendments to the Affordable Housing Overlay to ensure that we have more affordable housing development being built. I also support a municipal renter voucher that would subsidized rent for low-income to moderate renters that want to be able rent market rate units.
I would also support the city expanding the Inclusionary Housing requirement for the new market rate developments to reserve 30% floor area for affordable housing units instead of the 20% that it currently has in place.
I agree more using should be built in the city, I question how effective it would be just to build more market rate housing as the market rate housing prices are increasing becoming more higher.
Essential workforce housing, in the midst of the housing crisis, is my top priority. I have authored an op-ed on Cambridge Day (https://www.cambridgeday.com/2023/09/05/workforce-housing-is-critical-for-cambridge-keeping-the-essential-from-doctors-to-police/) alerting the exodus of our essential workers from doctors to police to city workers. We are just out of the pandemic, we learnt how important our essential workers are to our communities. As for low income housing at large, I am supportive of an eventual dual-pricing system similar to that of Singapore where I specifically studied affordable housing policies and public health infrastructure. I want to compare and share other cities' experience for a long term strategy for Cambridge.
My top priority is making Cambridge more affordable. To do so, I support zoning tools like the AHO that expand the supply of permanently affordable housing, as well as additional city investment in the Affordable Housing Trust. I also support changing our zoning to make it easier to build more multi-family homes, which are generally more affordable than single-family homes. We need to strengthen public housing and other affordable housing because many people will never be able to afford market rents in Cambridge, and we also need to make those market rents more affordable because only about one in five Cambridge residents have the opportunity to live in subsidized housing. I also strongly prioritize stability, and will work with our legislative delegation to secure a local option for rent stabilization. I’m open to many policy tools that meet my broader goals of making Cambridge more affordable and helping Cambridge residents stay in their homes.
Permitting housing growth where most appropriate while acknowledging that no city can address housing affordability unilaterally.
I agree that we need to add more housing for people of all economic means and the infrastructure to support it. This should be smart growth near transit hubs and corridors. But we also need to preserve architectural character and neighborhood cohesion. We don’t want oversized buildings built anywhere and everywhere, casting shadows, filling green open spaces and decimating old trees. Everyone needs light, the sky and access to nature.
We need balance. It costs about $1m to build an affordable housing unit in Cambridge. At that cost, we can’t provide housing for everyone who would like to live here. Currently 15% of our housing is income restricted (about 8,500 units). Most neighboring towns only have 6-10% of their housing stock as affordable units. So we while we should continue to expand our housing inventory, this is a regional issue that we can’t solve alone. This is especially so because 1. this is already a very densely packed city with very high real estate and construction prices; and 2. there is a worldwide demand for real estate here. (We have the trifecta: we are close to Boston, the capital; close to Harvard and MIT; and close to Kendall Sq., an innovation hub.)
I also understand that while we may have a waiting list for housing of over 22,000, that fewer than 6,000 of these people live or work in Cambridge.