ABC January Newsletter: Conservation District, new Council, and more

(Sent on Friday, January 17, 2020.)

We’d like to catch you up on what’s happened since last November, when Cambridge elected a new City Council with a super-majority of pro-housing councillors. (See our sister organization’s blog post for more statistics about the election.) This month, we’re celebrating Cambridge’s inauguration of that council, and we’re excited about the possibilities the coming term will bring.

To help us build on the election’s promise, please join A Better Cambridge as a member today. Your donations go toward our educational mission. 

Our first project of 2020 will be giving each city councillor and the city manager their own copy of Generation Priced Out, to show that housing policy is equity policy. If you’d like to support this measure, consider donating one of the books, by adding its cost ($20) to your membership renewal (for a total of $45 — use the “other amount” option). 

Now without further ado, here's the news.

Thank you,

Allan Sadun

January Spotlight: the East Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District study. 

map of east cambridge NCD

The Cambridge Historical Commission has announced that, over the next six months, it will hold 12 public hearings to determine whether to recommend a permanent neighborhood conservation district (NCD) be created in East Cambridge. If City Council were to approve it, the NCD could dramatically limit the building of new homes, including on large parts of Cambridge Street.

Public hearings like these tend to be highly unrepresentative. If you live in East Cambridge, your voice is needed; reply to this email if you’re interested in coordinating with ABC on this.

Around Town

  • Congratulations to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon! They were unanimously elected at the inaugural meeting of the City Council last week, making Sumbul Siddiqui the first Muslim mayor in the state of Massachusetts.
  • Committee assignments for the new City Council are available here. We’re particularly excited to see Councillor Marc McGovern as co-chair of the Ordinance Committee, and Councillors Denise Simmons and Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler as co-chairs of the Housing Committee.
  • The CambridgeSide upzoning passed by a 6-3 vote in December, paving the way for the struggling mall to be redeveloped into a mixed-use project. Most of the project will be commercial office space, but a large retail footprint will remain (including the food court), and a significant portion will be housing — over half of which will be affordable housing. See ABC’s opinion here.
  • There’s a vacancy on the Board of Zoning Appeal, an appointed board of Cambridge residents which meets twice monthly to review applications for special permits and applications for variances from the terms of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance. We’d love to have ABC members apply. Read more (including application details) here.
  • A third-party review of Cambridge’s linkage fee program (which requires large commercial developments to pay into an affordable housing fund) completed its report in December. In order to fully compensate for the effects of commercial development on housing demand, the report suggests the linkage fee would need to be nearly doubled from $17.10/ft^2 to $33.34/ft^2. However, out of concern for regional competitiveness, the report recommends raising it by only $2/ft^2 (plus $4/ft^2 more over five years). We are currently drafting a statement encouraging the Council to go beyond the report’s recommendations.
  • The Mayor’s Task Force on Tenant Displacement issued its recommendations report in December. Its four categories of recommendations are in improving city support services, enacting a condo conversion ordinance, revisiting PILOTs and establishing a housing stability fund, and investing in study work to better understand displacement. Thanks to then-Councillor Sumbul Siddiqui for chairing this task force, and then-Mayor Marc McGovern for convening it. We hope City Council will act on these recommendations soon.

ABC Announcements

  • Join the ABC Slack & Google Group! We have launched a Slack workspace and an “Active ABCers” Google Group — two new ways for members to be more involved with the ABC community. We use them to discuss policy, react to news, track projects, and more. If you are a member and want to be a part of one or both of these spaces, respond to this email. (If you are not a member, join today!)
  • Book Club: We’re kicking off our monthly book club with a Thursday, February 20th meeting discussing Generation Priced Out, a fantastic introduction to the housing crisis (and our beginning-of-term gift to the new City Council). RSVP here to join the discussion group. [link removed]
  • Mark your calendars! On Wednesday, April 1st, we will have a book talk by Dr. Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard professor and author of Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age. Stay tuned for more details.
  • Website refresh. We’re looking to update the ABC website a bit. If you have any feedback or suggestions, let us know.

Other Housing News

  • On January 14th, Massachusetts Bill H.3294, “An Act enabling local options for tenant protections” (by Reps. Connolly and Elugardo), had a hearing before the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing. A Better Cambridge testified in favor of the bill. Read our statement here.  
  • A mixed-use development in Newton, fresh from passing City Council with over a two-thirds vote, now faces a referendum thanks to a NIMBY citizens’ petition. It’s an awful example of the kinds of roadblocks that further exacerbate our housing shortage. If you are connected to Newton, consider getting involved with Engine Six, a pro-housing organization fighting to support the project.
  • Real estate transfer fees, a proposal to finance affordable housing, are gaining momentum with the launch of a statewide coalition last week. ABC is still determining our position on this idea — it has benefits and drawbacks.
  • YIMBYtown, the annual YIMBY conference, is taking place in Portland, Oregon on April 2-4. This year’s theme is “Fair & Sustainable Cities.” Register here.
  • Four states — California, Maryland, Virginia, and Nebraska — have begun debating strong pro-housing bills for their 2020 legislative sessions. (Plus, in case you missed it, Oregon already legalized duplexes statewide last year.) A special highlight to Maryland House Delegate Vaughn Stewart’s “Homes for All” package, which hits all three needs of our housing crisis: upzonings in transit-rich and job-rich areas, increased investment in affordable housing, and strengthened tenant protections. We hope these bills all go well, and we hope to see similar proposals (including but going beyond the governor’s Housing Choice bill) proceed in Massachusetts!
  • There’s a lot more room for transit-oriented development all over Greater Boston. How much room? Check out the Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s interactive tool for visualizing current housing density near MBTA stops. Contrast Central (21 units/acre) with, for instance, Chestnut Hill (1.9 units/acre).