ABC News, June 2023 🏘️Federal caps, new ideas, jazz outdoors, and more

Homeowners Rehab Inc. has filed for an Affordable Housing Overlay permit to turn a parking lot into 25 apartments of permanently affordable housing. The proposal includes a renovation of the historic mansion – landmark designation pending – at 1627 Mass Ave to provide an additional four apartments. When this development is complete, the 1863 Charles Hicks Saunders mansion – previously owned by Lesley University – will return to its original residential use. The Planning Board will take emailed comments on the plan until 5:00 pm on Monday, July 17 and live comment at a Zoom hearing at 6:30 pm on Tuesday, July 18. The HRI project team will also answer questions at an Open House in the Saunders building on Wednesday, July 26, from 6:00 - 7:30 pm.

A 2021 AHO proposal to add 95 homes to the existing Walden Square Apartments in Neighborhood Nine has become active again, but so have some opponents. Winn, the property owner/manager, has done and is continuing renovations to the existing buildings, along with completed changes in management personnel and policies. The Mayor and Vice Mayor have written to the Council to confirm this progress, but a neighbor seeking a smaller-scale redesign of the development has represented their report as a list of problems that more affordable housing would bring to the area. Winn is holding a community meeting about the proposal on Wednesday, July 12, 6 - 7:30 pm, in person and on Zoom. 

The 100% Affordable Housing Overlay – the 2020 zoning change that made possible these two developments and four others – is the subject of amendments, proposed last November, that will expand and strengthen it. Hearings on those amendments will soon be held by the Planning Board and the Ordinance Committee, although neither has been scheduled at this time.

The Planning Board unanimously voted a favorable recommendation on wide-ranging zoning changes for the Quadrangle portion of the Alewife Overlay District. Although there are still uncertainties about how eventual development will be split between residential and commercial uses, this now under-used area is likely to see a considerable amount of market-rate housing as a result. The changes should soon be reviewed and voted on by City Council. 

Next month…

  • ABC IEPAC – an independent organization working to elect pro-housing City Council candidates – is holding a Pro-Housing Pizza Party on Sunday, July 9th, (rain date July 16th), 4-6pm at 64R Prospect St backyard (near Central Square). Tickets $50. Come find out who’s running and who’s not running for Cambridge City Council. The 2023 Election for City Council is heating up. The deadline for pulling papers for potential City Council candidates is July 2nd! If you join us on July 9th, you will learn all the latest election news, enjoy Pizza from Area Four and see old and new friends!
  • ABC members will again staff a table at the Cambridge Jazz Festival at Danehy Park on Saturday and Sunday, July 29-30. If you can help out and join us for a couple of hours of music and housing talk, please contact [email protected]. In any case, be sure to stop by and say, “Hello!”

Government steps up (sometimes)…

The Faircloth Amendment is a 1999 Federal law that caps the number of public housing units in the US at that year’s level. Although a 2020 repeal attempt failed, other efforts to work around those limits have been gaining traction. While Faircloth prohibits Federal dollars from being used to build more public housing, it doesn’t prevent use of such funds for units up to the 1999 cap. HUD is helping out with a bit of flexibility in its (still very complicated) funding regulations, although after decades of housing underproduction, shortage of funds can be more of a limiting factor than the 24-year-old cap.     

  • Public housing is ready to make a comeback,” reports Slate, citing activity in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, California, Hawaii and New York City. Given the size and urgency of the housing shortage, lowering zoning barriers could have even greater effect (and sooner) if housing is built by public agencies to fulfill public goals, rather than waiting for private owners to respond to development opportunities. As the Slate authors note, “The housing crisis is not just an economic and social crisis but also a crisis of ideas. Much of the population find themselves shut out of homeownership and struggling to find affordable rentals. .... It has become plainly obvious that the old model of housing isn’t working.   

On the other hand, transit-oriented-development plans in Lynn have encountered an obstacle from an unexpected source. Lynn, one of the Gateway Cities, received interim approval for zoning compliance under the MBTA Communities law, instituted an inclusionary zoning program and has 27 rental units in a mixed-use building under construction right across from its Central Square commuter rail station. But the MBTA has now closed the 1991 station to repair crumbling concrete and a damaged elevator. Until the station reopens – expected in 2030 – the commuter rail will pass through Lynn on its way to Newburyport and Rockport, without stopping in Central Square.

Conditions and cures…

  • Indefatigable zoning expert Amy Dain has again performed a deep dive into the zoning laws of about 100 Greater Boston communities and found…much that is illegal. On this trip, she collected data – along with supporting evidence in the form of officials’ memos and comments – showing that in a dismayingly large number of communities, “Zoning in the Boston suburbs is stacked against families with children,” resulting in “a glaring injustice overdue for redress.” A year after Congress passed the Fair Housing Act outlawing age discrimination in housing, for example, one town concluded that the only way to legally achieve its goal of restricting multi-family housing to seniors was to require Planning Board approval for multi-family developments. It’s apparently a popular and widely-used solution (including in some parts of Cambridge).
  • Major non-profits – including The Boston Foundation and United Way – are lining up behind a proposed expansion and streamlining of a rent-assistance and eviction-averting program fueled by Federal COVID assistance funds that are now running out. Supported by landlords as well as tenant groups, the program has helped many households and served to stabilize the battered pandemic economy. The requested $250 million in state funding would allow the program to continue on a steadier basis. If it worked well in a once-a-century pandemic, the thinking goes, why not use it in times of regular ongoing dangers, like shortage of housing and sky-high rents? 

Here’s the kind of housing bidding war we really need: An op-ed in the Boston Globe calls for a “whole of government…housing moon-shot” program to build 250,000 new homes by 2030. The Mass. legislature is considering “An Act to Promote Yes in My Backyard,” backed by our friends at Abundant Housing Massachusetts, which would establish a statewide goal of producing 427,000 new homes by 2040. May it be so!