ABC News, July/Early August 2023 🏘️ Expanding affordable housing, removing parking minimums bears fruit, new homelessness study, and more

Proposals to expand the 100% Affordable Housing Overlay went before the Ordinance Committee this past Monday for public comment and a second Ordinance hearing without public comment is scheduled for tonight, Thursday, August 3, for Councillor discussion. Notably, Michael Johnston, Executive Director of the Cambridge Housing Authority, said that at the current rate, even if CHA closed its affordable housing waitlist today, it would take 20 years to provide affordable homes just for the 6,500 households on the waitlist with a local preference.

The co-sponsors recently debunked misconceptions about the amendments, stressing the importance of greater heights and how strong the demand is for affordable housing in existing taller buildings. Many thanks to the pro-housing advocates who have voiced their support along the way. If you missed the hearing, you can still show your support by emailing the City Council or by emailing / giving public comment to the Planning Board, which will consider the amendments on August 8.

Current happenings

In the midst of this activity, City Council election season is kicking off, with three sitting Councillors choosing not to seek re-election, including ABC endorsee Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon. While we will greatly miss Vice Mayor Mallon’s voice on the Council (and her podcast with Mayor Siddiqui!), we thank her for her service and her many contributions to our community, including her efforts to pass the Affordable Housing Overlay and her tireless constituent services. 

ABC plans to publish its City Council candidate endorsements in September, shortly following the ABC Candidate Forum, which will be at 6 pm on Tuesday, September 12 at The Foundry, 101 Rogers Street in East Cambridge. If you can help out, please check out our sister organization, ABC IEPAC!

As a reminder of how much local elections matter, a recent article in Cambridge Day looks at an encouraging example of how the Council’s removal of parking minimums in Cambridge has already enabled more housing production. After the elimination of parking minimums, a proposal within a few minutes walk of Lechmere station was able to add 12 homes, including four affordable homes, along with more open space, by removing six parking spaces. Not bad!

ABC events

  • On the local front, ABC recently teamed up with Somerville YIMBY to talk to concert-goers at the Cambridge Jazz Festival in Danehy park. Most passers-by agreed: the rent is too damn high! Please drop us a line if you are interested in similar outreach in the future.
  • Up next, you are invited to come hang out with us at 6 pm on Wednesday, August 16 at Vitamin Sea Brewing in Kendall! Come say hello, check out the outdoor beer garden, and meet other pro-housing folks. Count on plenty of election talk and a chance to share your thoughts on what ABC’s top priority should be after the election.

Homelessness is a housing problem 

  • While trying to explain why some cities have higher rates of homelessness than others, University of Washington scholars Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern found no consistent geographic correlations between homelessness and mental illness or drug use…nor with poverty, good weather, generous benefits, and other popular but incorrect theories. Using hard data and rigorous analysis, they learned that the most common factor shared by places with high rates of homelessness was a lack of low-cost housing. Come and learn more when ABC joins with Somerville YIMBY for a discussion of Colburn and Aldern’s 2022 book Homelessness is a Housing Problem on Saturday, September 9 at 2 pm at Bloc Cafe in Union Square, Somerville. Open to all.

Co-author Colburn participated in a conference on homelessness at Boston University last April. In the first 30 minutes of this recording of the event, Colburn leads a quick march through the pair’s methods and findings, followed by a discussion among a panel of three other experts. (Their book is great, but if time is short…)

  • A recently released study from UC San Francisco – the largest representative survey of homelessness in more than 25 years – draws on 3,200 survey responses and 365 in-depth interviews with unhoused adults. “Produc[ing] more housing affordable to the lowest-income renters” tops their list of six policy recommendations. (Perhaps a zoning overlay to make it much easier to build affordable homes?)

The Atlantic’s report on the UCSF study discusses a dynamic familiar to Cambridge residents: “When new housing isn’t brought to market, high-income residents turn to older units, bidding up the price. In turn, middle-income workers turn to lower-income housing units, and everyone at the bottom crowds together in a dwindling stock of affordable housing until someone loses their spot. Every day that [...] expensive states across the country delay in building more housing is another future family turned out onto the street.”

Problems and solutions

  • “A nightmare of epic proportions” is a local official’s description of the years-long wait endured by many Massachusetts residents who seek affordable housing in our increasingly expensive region. The Boston Globe recently followed three households and reported on the harrowing obstacles they encountered in their lengthy search for homes. “There are simply not enough affordable units for all the people who need them, and little turnover among people who have them…. [A] well-documented shortage of housing at all price points simmers below it all.”  
  • Layers of regulations and a “culture of no” have stymied healthy adaptation in our cities, reports Emily Badger in the NY Times. “Zoning codes have grown sprawling and more prescriptive. We’ve added well-intended speed bumps to development, like environmental reviews and public meetings, and they have often been used to protect narrow interests over societal ones…And we’ve developed over time more rigid ideas about the built environment: that housing should gain value indefinitely, that politicians should ensure that’s so, that property owners have a right to veto change around them.”
  • An historical geographer at the Boston Public Library whose work focuses on “the relationship between community structure, geographic units, and political ideology” has found some surprising discrepancies between popular notions on preserving “neighborhood character” and how that works in practice. Garrett Dash Nelson provides illuminating examples of “Massachusetts municipalities [that] have rarely been good stewards of their own historical character when given free rein to exercise the powers of their local land-use controls… For much of the 20th century and still to this day, town-level control of development has been one of the primary culprits of historic destruction.”

The author finds that “people who rankle against ‘outsiders’ upsetting the character of their town may point to a handful of preserved buildings or a beloved park as the features they are trying to save. But what they will in fact end up saving in reality is something very different, and something with only a dubious claim to ‘historic’ value—a landscape that preserves and perpetuates the worst inequalities of the 20th century.”