ABC News, Apr 2023 🏘️ AHO expansion, North Cambridge tour, local journalism, and more

ABC urges you to lend your support to a City Council policy order to expand and improve the Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO) -- preferably by speaking this Monday evening, May 1, at 5:30pm (in person or remotely; sign up here starting at 9 am Friday, referring to Policy Order #1), or by emailing the Council and the Clerk ([email protected], [email protected]). If you have a relationship with individual Councilors (other than the four sponsors), please speak to them personally about the importance of this proposal.

The 2020 AHO is a zoning change that allows denser by-right development of 100% affordable homes. While it has been very successful, it has become apparent that affordable housing developers are still missing vital opportunities to build more affordable homes.  This compromise proposal by ABC Councillors Simmons, McGovern, and Azeem, as well as Councillor Zondervan, directs city staff to draft AHO amendments to allow increased heights of 15 stories in the city’s main squares and 12 stories in specific major street corridors, thus allowing these developers to expand our affordable housing stock. 

For more background, this guest column in Banker & Tradesman by ABC co-chairs Becca Schofield and Justin Saif, “Cambridge Seeks to Take Overlay to Higher Level,” underscores the need for reducing the barriers to affordable housing remaining in our zoning code.

The Charter Review Committee this week discussed whether to recommend continuing our current government structure of City Manager/Council/Mayor or changing to an Elected Mayor/CFO/Council arrangement. The Committee was unable to reach a consensus on the issue, so discussion will continue in the coming weeks. ABC has not taken a position on the question at this time, but has strongly opposed transitioning from at-large proportional representation to any ward-based system because of its negative effects on political representation and housing production. 

The long-delayed reform of the initiation and operating rules for Neighborhood Conservation Districts was heard yet again by the Ordinance Committee this week. An updated version of the revised NCD ordinance was introduced, reflecting discussions at previous meetings. After considering the provisions lacking consensus, the meeting was recessed. At its next meeting, expected in the next few weeks, the Committee should discuss any additional amendments and take a final vote.

Beyond City Hall…

  • Join us in North Cambridge on Saturday, May 20, 2:00-4:00pm for the third in ABC's series of neighborhood walking tours. We'll look at examples of the wide variety of housing in the neighborhood, starting with its 19th century period as home to mostly working-class families and the small industries that employed them. We'll see the changes that occurred as industry faded away and this sparsely-settled outlying area filled in, mostly with residential buildings, and consider circumstances where the neighborhood adapted and where it didn't. See details and sign up here for a rain-date notification.
  • The recent announcement by Cambridge Day, now our city’s only source of locally-reported news, that its continued existence depends on an immediate outpouring of public donations has generated much concern about the need for local journalism in a city of substantial civic activity. Although some ABC members feel that Cambridge Day has not always reported evenhandedly on issues and events within ABC’s purview, we share these concerns about the lack of full-time local coverage. Thomas Jefferson wrote that if it were up to him “to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.” 

Housing roadblocks and potential fixes…

  • An online article titled “How to Fix Housing Gridlock? Solve the Public Hearings Mess” draws on examples from Vancouver, British Columbia, but its content will sound very familiar to folks in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Housing policy has a democracy problem,” the authors note. “Amid a housing crisis, highly unrepresentative public hearing processes contribute to land-use decisions that fail to reflect the perspectives and interests of all affected residents. But the right reforms can help deepen democracy and break housing gridlock.” The authors call for new forms of public engagement, including a concept they call “mini-publics,” which sounds intriguingly similar to a new type of “advisory group” discussed by members of Cambridge’s own Charter Review Committee at their meeting this week.
  • Who makes planning choices? A comprehensive study from the Urban Institute surveyed over 600 land-use boards in the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the country. It shows that the boards that “adjudicate and implement land-use laws rarely share similar demographics, occupations, or housing tenures as their jurisdiction’s residents,” and “feature persistent overrepresentation by non-Hispanic white residents, men, homeowners, and real estate or planning professionals.” These findings “raise questions about whether land-use boards are making planning choices that appropriately reflect local needs and desires. These results may offer one explanation for why US cities have suffered from decades of inadequate housing construction, low levels of housing affordability, and high levels of segregation.”
  • A recent NY Times column spotlights “The 100-Year-Old Reason U.S. Housing Is So Expensive.” Zoning, a “reform” measure promoted by Herbert Hoover in the 1920s “soon became a plague whose effects continue to be felt today. Local governments figured out that they could use zoning to achieve racial segregation. Suburbs adopted exclusionary zoning that prohibited the building of the least costly forms of housing, not just to keep out racial minorities, but also to boost local housing values...”
  • Our state’s version of the zoning consequences outlined by the Times has been plainly described by the Boston Globe editorial board. “Since the early 20th century, the Legislature has let individual municipalities thwart housing. Now the consequences threaten the Commonwealth’s future.” The piece describes how the results of climbing housing costs are spreading to people previously unaffected and calls for stronger state action. “For years, housing advocates warned that crippling housing prices and the lure of cheaper housing elsewhere would eventually affect the state’s ability to sustain and attract businesses. "Now a tipping point seems to have been reached; 110,000 people have left the state since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly enough to fill Fenway Park three times over.”
  • In a Slate interview, Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, said, “one of the areas where I think the Democrats have it wrong, traditionally, is that we’re actually creating a shortage of the thing that we say we want. We are making it incredibly difficult to create housing, and then we sort of puzzle through what to do about it. And the solution is very simple, in fact. We need to make it legal to build housing of all kinds.” Schatz is co-author of the bipartisan YIMBY Act in the Senate, which would require jurisdictions receiving certain federal housing aid to report back on how their zoning practices are limiting opportunities for new housing. He notes that “the status quo is working for wealthy landowners and homeowners and people who are on their second and third house when most people aren’t even on their first apartment.”