May 2023 🏘️ AHO changes advance, states take action, housing discrimination testing, and more

After five months, amendments to strengthen the 100% Affordable Housing Overlay have achieved a step forward.

With agreement among five Councilors, a substitute amendment introducing further delays was voted down and a policy order was passed, calling for the Community Development Department to draft, by June 1, a zoning petition similar to the original proposal but with lower height limits. Mayor Siddiqui and Councilors Azeem, McGovern, Simmons, and Zondervan supported this compromise; Vice Mayor Mallon and Councilors Nolan and Toner opposed it; Councilor Carlone did not vote.

One of the results of the AHO – the addition of 103 new units to the rebuilding of the 175-unit Jefferson Park Federal public housing in North Cambridge – also moved ahead with the allocation by the Mass. Department of Housing and Community Development of $6.9 million in direct subsidies and Federal tax credits toward the Cambridge Housing Authority development.

In this photo, ABC member/architect Bill Boehm discusses the 2018 improvements in the public housing at Jefferson Park State, during ABC’s walking tour of North Cambridge this month. When revitalization of the federal portion of Jefferson Park is complete, a similarly updated appearance and improved layout will replace the current 1950s design.  

In other City news…

  • The City Council has asked the City Manager to add $20 million to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund for the next fiscal year. The requested one-time increase would be drawn from the City’s cash reserve, outside of the FY24 budget. The proposal also calls for a plan to increase the Trust’s annual budget, over the next three years, to 10% of the overall City budget. Mayor Siddiqui, Vice Mayor Mallon and Councilors Azeem, McGovern, Simmons, and Zondervan supported this measure; Councilors Carlone and Nolan opposed it; Councilor Toner did not vote.
  • The Alewife Zoning Working Group, after an 11-month review of the under-utilized northwest corner of the city, has just released their final report (see summary, zoning amendments, design guidelines). While the proposed zoning and incentives appear to do a good job of balancing residential, City, and commercial uses, ABC has noted that the East Quad portion (now the Fresh Pond Mall) – which had greater potential for future housing in earlier versions of the proposal – is no longer included, while the remaining West Quad has tighter restrictions that would limit housing, which is badly needed here. The Working Group’s revised proposal will next be considered by the City Council.
  • The Franklin Petition, an ambitious effort to restructure large portions of the Cambridge zoning code, peeling away decades of restrictions to “Restore Cambridge Housing,” is struggling to gain traction. Members of the Planning Board mostly saluted the author for the scope of his efforts, thanked him for the magnitude of his work…and unanimously voted to send an unfavorable recommendation to the Council. The Ordinance Committee decided to hold it for further study.

Housing actions and reports…

  • Washington joined Oregon, California and Montana in the small group of states that have enacted broad reforms limiting restrictive local zoning. The recently-signed Washington laws legalize fourplexes or duplexes in most cities, allow two accessory dwelling units per lot, limit exclusionary abuse of design and environmental reviews, encourage streamlined permitting and reduce other regulatory barriers. The Sightline Institute attributes the burst of prohousing activity to more residents seeing or personally experiencing the effects of the housing shortage, a growing consensus that restrictive zoning is the main culprit, a stronger and broader pro-housing coalition, and bipartisan support in the legislature. 
  • In the US, “real estate is a place where money literally grows on tree beams. In the last decade, the typical owner of a single-family home acquired nearly $200,000 in appreciation.” Francesca Mari’s report in the NY Times Magazine compares that to the vastly different situation in Vienna, where “public housing” evolved into something far removed from the US version. Residents there spend a far lower portion of their incomes on housing, avoiding the social and economic disruptions created by the housing market here. Mari references the Harlem River Houses (built 1937, still standing) as an American vision of public housing that might’ve been.    
  • The Boston Globe Editorial Board recently took the Town of Brookline to task for dragging its feet on compliance with the MBTA Communities Act. While the Town’s Planning Department has firmly rebutted inaccurate claims and warned of the consequences for non-compliance, opponents’ calls for “more study” to “do it right” are continuing. One Town meeting member is urging the Town to do just the minimum legally required in an attempt to “buy time.”

The Suffolk University Law School is seeking volunteers to participate in a housing discrimination testing program, which aims to collect evidence of illegal discrimination in rental housing. See details here.