Tackling Housing Unaffordability in Cambridge
(Published in Banker & Tradesman on March 27th, 2022.)
The housing crisis in Cambridge has been worsening for decades now. With the highest rents in the entire state, there’s no end in sight for growing unaffordability. Decades of underbuilding housing and underinvesting in affordable housing have led to overcrowding, displacement, and skyrocketing costs. The human costs of this crisis are severe and multifaceted. Whether you’re one of the 21,000 families on Cambridge Housing Authority waitlists, a renter desperate to hold onto tenuous, low-quality housing in a market where landlords hold all the cards, a local graduate or would-be immigrant or refugee turned away by high costs, or simply experiencing fraying community bonds as more and more long-time neighbors move out, you know the severe and multi-faceted harms of this crisis on an economic and a human level.
A Better Cambridge is a volunteer pro-housing group fighting for a more welcoming and equitable city through housing abundance, housing affordability, housing stability, and housing sustainability. Cambridge is a city rich in services and opportunity, but those services and opportunities are not available to all.
One of the few bright spots in Cambridge’s housing scene is the October 2020 passage of the Affordable Housing Overlay, a zoning change to create a streamlined, as-of-right permitting pathway for 100% affordable housing developments. It has had a tremendous and immediate effect on parcels already in nonprofit hands, adding over 400 new units of affordable housing to the pipeline so far, and we are hopeful it will also increase opportunities for the market acquisition of development sites. A Better Cambridge was proud to be at the forefront of advocating for the AHO, and that its success has inspired similar measures in Boston, Somerville, and Berkeley, CA. In Cambridge, we need to build on the AHO, expanding the policy to cover a wider variety of projects and further accelerate the pace of affordable housing construction - we have a lot of catching up to do.
We also need to increase local funding for affordable housing, so that (alongside state and federal subsidies) Cambridge can better address rising construction costs and the pressures of lab development on scarce land. One of our policy priorities currently under Council consideration is the affordable housing linkage fee on commercial development. We support raising the linkage fee to $33/sqft - a number we believe can easily be accommodated by the commercial real estate market and which likely understates the impact such development has on the need for affordable housing. Boston is also studying raising its linkage fee, and we hope Cambridge’s move will set a precedent for municipalities throughout the metro area.
More broadly, ensuring housing affordability for all will require increased production of housing of all types, at all income levels. Since 1980, Cambridge has added over 45,000 jobs but only about 13,000 units of housing. This imbalance is unacceptable. Only substantial zoning reform and planning initiatives can move the dial to the extent needed. In recent decades, much of the city’s strategy for addressing our housing deficit has relied upon requiring significant amounts of housing in large planned unit development districts such as Cambridge Crossing (formerly North Point) and the Volpe redevelopment. We expect and demand that such efforts continue with Healthpeak’s plans for the Alewife Quad. But the City Council also needs to enact more comprehensive zoning reforms - removing parking minimums and allowing denser multi-family housing, especially near transit, so that it is more feasible to build housing at less expensive price points citywide.
Achieving housing affordability in Cambridge will be a long and uphill battle. While our organizational focus is local, truly reversing these decades-long trends will require state-level legislation like H.1448 that enacts regional solutions. Still, each local policy victory lessens the impact of our housing crisis, and buys more families more time in our high-opportunity city - every single home is worth fighting for. We’re pleased that many of our City Councilors share our belief in abundant, affordable housing. We call on them and the public to act and advocate so that Cambridge can set an example for the region.
Allan Sadun is one of the co-chairs of A Better Cambridge.