ABC News, Oct 2023 🏘️ AHO expansion passes, election stakes, and more

The City Council passed the expansion to the 100% Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO) by a 6-3 vote on Monday, October 16. ABC thanks all those in the pro-housing community who took the time to write or testify in support, along with the six councillors who voted to make Cambridge more closely live up to its progressive ideals. This expansion is expected to add to our pipeline of affordable housing projects in the years to come.

The Stakes on November 7

Cambridge has further to go to address our housing crisis. We hope Cambridge will end exclusionary zoning by legalizing - at minimum - triple-deckers across the city. Cambridge should also turn its attention to serious transit-oriented development that permits much greater densities near T stops - the Alewife rezoning plan is a step in the right direction (although we would have liked to see a higher minimum percentage of housing). And the city should continue to increase its investment in affordable housing and tenant protections.

All of this is contingent on the outcome on November 7. The downside risk is not just stasis, but regression. Some well-funded challengers have already called for rescinding the AHO expansion. And many prominent AHO opponents appear to have no qualms keeping close company with city council candidates with toxic online histories, including transphobia, Islamophobia, and racism.

What you can do: It’s critical to remind everyone you know to vote, to vote deep (i.e., rank many candidates - transfers matter), and consult the ABC slate. We also need volunteers for canvassing and phone banking - contact the A Better Cambridge IEPAC for lots of ways to get involved. We also have yard / window signs available.

Spotlight on Housing

The situation remains dire. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team has begun a 5-part special report on the housing crisis, “Beyond the Gilded Gate”, which cited an 11-fold increase in Boston-area single-family home prices since 1980, almost double the national average. The Globe team reports that “the region creates about three jobs for every one new home these days — a ruinous ratio...” Since 1980, Cambridge’s ratio has been about 3.5 times as many new jobs as new homes.

The first installment focused on Milton, but the dynamics will sound all-too familiar: “It is the story of a town, and region, that has for half a century doubled down on the status quo, or made zoning even more restrictive, all but guaranteeing that single-family home prices — rising more steeply here than in any other state since 1980 — will remain shockingly high.” As noted in a recent Cambridge Day op-ed, Cambridge has its own “neighborhood defenders” attempting to double down here, too.

Turning Tides

Following decades of successful local opposition to housing reform, the tide might finally be turning, with movement at all levels of government:

  • The Biden-Harris administration announced new action on housing supply and affordability, including making affordable multifamily projects easier to finance and allocating $85 million to help communities “identify and remove barriers to affordable housing production and preservation”.
  • The Healey-Driscoll administration announced a new housing bond bill, which would permit accessory dwelling units (ADUs) by right state-wide with only “reasonable restrictions” from local zoning, allow local communities to institute a real estate transfer tax on the amount of home sales above $1 million, and ramp up funding for affordable housing. Bond proceeds would be used to double the state’s commitment to its affordable housing trust fund and allocate $1.6 billion to upgrade existing public housing. The bill still needs to pass through the state Legislature, but the Globe editorialized in its favor.
  • Notwithstanding state and federal efforts, local governments remain on the front lines because they control the zoning rules that now forbid – but could allow – badly-needed new housing. Looking back on the last Cambridge City Council term shows what we can achieve with a pro-housing majority on the Council. In addition to expanding the AHO, Cambridge became the first city in the commonwealth to remove parking minimums entirely, which is already leading to more housing production. ABC-endorsed councillors also voted to reform neighborhood conservation districts after a three year-long struggle and successfully pushed the City Manager to add $1.6 million more in funding to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust to keep up with inflation.
  • Much will depend on the outcome of a contest between states and local communities over control of zoning regulations. California, Washington, and other states have been clawing back zoning authority they ceded long ago. Massachusetts has taken steps in that direction with the slow-starting MBTA Communities regulations, but the proposed Healy-Driscoll Affordable Homes Act (mentioned above) could strengthen the Commonwealth’s attempts to roll back exclusionary housing policies.  

ABC Activities

With the election looming, it’s all hands on deck. ABC volunteers tabled at Oktoberfest and Honk!, and joined Somerville YIMBY’s table at Fluff Fest. We’ve knocked on doors in every ward (but still have a long way to go!) and mailed flyers to voters across Cambridge.

With all of that, we still made time for a happy hour last Wednesday at Lily P’s to celebrate the passing of the AHO expansion. And rumor has it there’s a party for election volunteers next Friday as well (RSVP here). Stay tuned for a member meeting after the election - hopefully we’ll have something to celebrate then, too.