ABC's housing vision for the next City Council: growth, affordability, stability

OP-ED: ABC’s housing vision for the next City Council: growth, affordability, and stability

(Published in the Cambridge Chronicle on September 13th, 2021.)

This year, like every year, surveys reminded us that the cost of housing is the #1 issue facing Cambridge residents. (Yes, even above COVID-19.) Every year, rising rents have pushed more and more of our neighbors out of the city - away from jobs, schools, and community - and put countless others in positions of fear and instability. Every year, it gets more and more difficult for us to claim that Cambridge is a “welcoming community”, open to refugees and immigrants, when often it’s not even open to people raised here. We write to stress, however, that the housing crisis is not a force of nature - it is a crisis of our own making, which elected bodies like the Cambridge City Council have meaningful powers to address. We hope that candidates running for office this November are up to the challenge.

We must be clear-eyed about this: Cambridge is facing a massive housing shortage, particularly affordable housing and rental housing. Since 1980, Cambridge has only added 13,000 new homes, woefully inadequate for the 45,000 jobs we’ve added. The resulting cruel game of musical chairs has led to overcrowding, displacement, and skyrocketing costs (particularly in the decades since rent control ended), and put tenants increasingly at the mercy of their landlords. Today, over 21,000 families are on CHA waiting lists, and half of Cambridge renters spend over 30% of their income on rent. When we ask why people are being squeezed out, the simple answer is that Cambridge is refusing to make room. In order to prioritize renters’ needs, our next City Council must address this shortage by pushing for more housing.

We must also be clear about the role that our housing shortage plays in the climate crisis - pro-housing policy is progressive climate policy. Cambridge is an extremely transit-oriented, walkable city, with much lower per-capita emissions than surrounding suburbs, giving us a climate imperative to be welcoming. The more people we allow to live here, the more we fight sprawling land use patterns and create more sustainable models for growth.

The key factor in our housing shortage is our antiquated, regressive, and inequitable zoning code. It sets tight limits on the number of new housing units; it requires those units to be larger, sparser, and more expensive; and it is, by historical design, strictest in the neighborhoods with the worst racial and economic exclusion. Most housing in Cambridge predates zoning’s introduction in the 1920s, and is denser than would be allowed today - on most lots, even a new triple-decker would be prohibited by zoning! That’s why it’s so important for the next City Council to reform zoning to allow for small multi-family housing in all residential neighborhoods, allow taller buildings near transit hubs, and stop requiring luxury amenities like off-street parking in new developments.

Zoning reform is also critical for creating deed-restricted affordable housing; we were thrilled to see the 2020 City Council pass the 100% Affordable Housing Overlay, which has already put over 350 affordable housing units in the pipeline. It’s an incredible start and demonstrates the power of City Council action. However, the current AHO does not cover important affordable housing developments such as 2072 Mass Ave, and we believe that the next Council needs to expand the AHO to cover a wider variety of projects.

Beyond its direct control over housing growth through the zoning code, the City Council also has important legislative and budgetary power to protect tenants’ rights and invest in housing stability. This term, amidst an unprecedented pandemic, the Council passed an eviction moratorium and a “know your rights” notification ordinance, and strengthened the Office of the Housing Liaison with additional funds for tenant legal aid - but still, too many fall through the cracks. The next Council must permanently commit funds for a Tenant’s Right to Counsel, expand local housing subsidies, pass recently-drafted condo conversion regulations, and enforce protections against source-of-income discrimination (a major barrier to voucher holders finding housing).

For those who can afford to live and stay here, Cambridge is a great city. We have incredible services, institutions, restaurants, jobs, walkability, and community, which we should be proud and excited to share. But in order for these opportunities to be available for all, we need to prioritize housing growth, affordability, and stability.

Not all candidates for city council share these priorities, and not all candidates have the expertise and dedication needed to carry them out. Furthermore, Cambridge’s election system makes City Council races uniquely competitive and makes voting uniquely impactful. So we invite everyone to check out the candidates’ responses to our questionnaire, and to join us for our Zoom candidate forum at 4:00pm on September 19th. If we want to lower housing costs and increase housing access in Cambridge, let’s vote this November for candidates who will act. 

Allan Sadun and Becca Schofield are co-chairs of the all-volunteer pro-housing group A Better Cambridge.