ABC News, Q1 2024 🏘️ Upcoming Councillor forums, strengthening tenant protections, and more

The Cambridge City Council passed a policy order introduced by ABC Councillors to strengthen tenant protections 8-0 (Councillor Toner was absent). The order requests that the City Manager increase funding for legal counsel for lower-income tenants facing eviction and improve notice of renter rights.

As the Cambridge Day notes, “studies have shown that access to free legal representation results in a higher chance of tenants remaining housed, facing smaller financial losses in court proceedings and being less likely to face an eviction notice at all.” Kudos to the ABC Tenant Protection Working Group for their work on this vital issue.

ABC Councillor Town Hall: ABC will be hosting two virtual Town Hall-style meetings with ABC-endorsed City Councillors to talk about their plans to combat rising rents and build new housing. You can submit questions in advance here.

  • Session 1: Wednesday, April 3, 8-9 pm will feature Mayor E. Denise Simmons, Councillor Burhan Azeem, and Councillor Ayesha Wilson. RSVP here.
  • Session 2: Thursday, April 11, 7-8 pm will feature Vice Mayor Marc McGovern, Councillor Sumbul Siddiqui, and Councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler. RSVP here.

Other Housing Events

Abundant Housing Massachusetts (AHMA) is hosting its first-ever 2024 Lobby Day on May 29. The lobby day will consist of a morning rally during which attendees will hear from state legislators, members of the Healey administration, and other pro-homes groups. They will then head into the State House to meet with local elected officials. If you have never met with your legislators or attended a lobby day before, don’t worry! Leading up to May 29th, AHMA will be hosting on-line training sessions and providing educational materials, and other ABC members will be there. Sign up here.

ABC teamed up with Harvard’s Phillips Brooks House Association students to talk with Councillor Azeem about the intersection of housing and the climate. In short, housing policy is climate policy! When housing is built in dense, walkable areas like Cambridge, people rely on their cars less and their feet (and public transport) more. Multifamily homes are more energy efficient and also reduce sprawl.

ABC also held its first member meeting of the year over Zoom to get feedback from the pro-housing community on our priorities. Joining as a member helps us maintain our advocacy. ABC also offers a Slack workspace, a members’ email list, and social gatherings. We appreciate your support!

What else is going on in Cambridge / City Council?

Is it the beginning of the end for exclusionary zoning in Cambridge? The City Council passed a policy order directing the Community Development Department (CDD) to develop zoning language that “effectively promotes multi-family housing” throughout Cambridge. Though there is no specific proposal yet, this establishes zoning reform as a priority of the Housing Committee—made up of all ABC-endorsed councillors. Mayor Denise Simmons, also ABC-endorsed, supported the order as well. Anti-housing voices are sure to mobilize, so we will need your support to legalize apartment buildings in all Cambridge neighborhoods!

The city-led Central Square City Lots study evaluated ten municipally-owned parking lots and buildings in Central Square for potential housing, open space, and community development purposes. Based on community feedback, creating more affordable housing was the number one priority (the expansion of parks was a somewhat distant second, and parking was a very distant last). Big increases in affordable housing often require big projects: over 85% of the potential housing units in this study came from just two of the ten municipal lots examined: 260 Green St. (90 - 200 potential units) and 84 Bishop Allen Dr. (180 units).

  • 260 Green St. is currently the site of the Central Square branch of the Cambridge Public Library as well as a public parking garage. Plans are being considered to move the library branch to Mass. Ave. in Central and develop housing at the old site.

Winn’s plan to build 95 affordable units in Walden Square, including family housing, is moving forward despite running into some opposition. Opponents rallied around the slogan “Stop the Slab”. Their solution? “Build elsewhere.” Fortunately, as a project proposed under the 100% Affordable Housing Overlay, it can proceed by right while still going through public consultation, which prompted Winn to change its design. Winn’s current properties at Walden Square were previously the subject of resident complaints regarding management issues, resulting in a letter from then-Mayor Siddiqui and then-Vice Mayor Mallon in early 2022. By April 2023, Winn had made progress, including improving pest control and hiring more property management staff, and now the Phase 2 development is proceeding. 

The Mass. Ave. Planning Study has kicked off, covering Mass. Ave. from Alewife Brook Parkway to Cambridge Common, with public meetings planned throughout the year. Especially for those in the Porter / North Cambridge area, these are great ways to tell the city we need more housing throughout this process.

For all these processes, thank you to all of you who shared your support for housing. City officials, elected and appointed, listen carefully to those that speak up. Historically, this has been NIMBY voices. Now, we need to stay organized and stay LOUD to let city officials know the public wants housing.

Regional and National

The balance of power between local and state governments continues to play out. In Massachusetts, Attorney General Andrea Campbell is suing Milton for non-compliance with the MBTA Communities law and the lawsuit is now heading to the Supreme Judicial Court. For more details check out The Law of the Land (Use) from Upzone Update, a new newsletter dedicated to covering in detail the MBTA Communities Act. 

Meanwhile in Arizona, Democratic governor Katie Hobbs surprised pro-housing advocates in her own party—and those in the GOP—when she vetoed a bipartisan bill designed to facilitate the construction of starter homes. The bill would have prohibited cities from requiring certain aesthetic and design features on single-family homes and barred mandates that people form homeowners associations. Arizona mayors opposed the bill, but Arizona, like Massachusetts, lacks sufficient housing.

The Biden Administration is backing a plan to incentivize local governments to relax zoning restrictions that hinder affordable housing construction. Although the federal government has little direct power over land use regulations, it could use federal funding as a carrot to encourage pro-housing reform.

Evidence continues to mount that building more housing works. The Wall Street Journal reported that Austin’s housing market is experiencing a “cool-down” which marks a “sharp reversal” following a period of “over-building”. Put differently, rents and home prices in the Texas capital are going down after lots of housing was built!

Further north, a recent Minneapolis Fed study found that “market-rate rental construction in Minneapolis has freed up more affordable homes for households across the income spectrum”. This occurs due to a “chain of moves”: when one household moves, another can move into the vacated unit, and so on. They note that “100 new market-rate units lead to 70 new vacancies in lower-income neighborhoods”. Will Cambridge take note?