ABC News, Jan 2023 🏘️ State-level housing action, Charter review, homes and homelessness, and more

(Published Jan 30, 2023.)

The 2021 MBTA Communities Act requires 175 municipalities (including Cambridge) to update their zoning and meet minimum state targets for zoned capacity. The requirements include an imminent January 31 deadline, and are the subject of significant state-wide discussion. (Public policy researcher Amy Dain, for instance, recently released five articles in Commonwealth Magazine explaining “what the MBTA Communities law means for your town”.) However, in Cambridge, beyond a preliminary analysis in April, we have heard nothing about Cambridge’s plans for compliance.

A broader housing bill has just been filed in the Legislature. “An Act to Promote Yes in My Back Yard” sets a statewide target of 427,000 new units by 2040, with 20% to be income restricted. It will also legalize accessory dwelling units by right statewide, streamline the process for converting vacant land and commercial properties to multifamily housing and prioritize the disposition of state-owned land for affordable housing, among other provisions. 

In other city matters…

  • A proposal to ban new labs from selected areas of Cambridge has encountered a rocky start. The fact that there were two versions –  one started as a policy order at a September Council meeting; the other as a citizens’ zoning petition – that were on different tracks in different committees was met with disapproval by many Councilors. A 6-1 vote of the Planning Board declared it too broad and not well crafted. Its promotion as an affordable housing measure has also generated much discussion. While supporters cite instances of labs in mixed-use districts that could’ve been housing, the petition does not contain any provisions that increase the amount of housing allowed nor provide any incentives for housing, which are particularly necessary for affordable housing. The Council has decided to consider both proposals jointly, by the Economic Development Committee and the Neighborhood/Long-Term Planning Committee.
  • The Charter Review Committee will take public comment at a community forum on Saturday, February 4 (6-8pm) on Zoom and anytime by email. The 15-resident group is charged with reviewing the 1940 Charter and making recommendations to the Council on improving Cambridge’s structure and governance. A member of the Charter Review Committee will also present and hear from us at the next ABC members meeting on March 2nd.
  • A new zoning petition announcing itself as “a plan for the incremental modernization of residential zoning” was recently filed by Doug Brown, a member of the generally anti-housing Cambridge Citizens Coalition’s Research and Advisory Team. The petition technically allows multi-family housing citywide, but leaves in place the vast majority of dimensional restrictions which currently make it rare and expensive. Many CCC voices are supporting the petition in the hopes that it could be a less “unpredictable” alternative to more substantial reforms. The Ordinance Committee and Planning Board have yet to schedule hearings on the proposal.
  • The City Manager is seeking to fill vacancies on three of Cambridge’s Neighborhood Conservation District (NCD) Commissions: Mid Cambridge, Avon Hill, and Half Crown-Marsh. Interested residents must apply by Monday, February 6.

Reports from elsewhere…

  • In “Meet the Latest Housing-Crisis Scapegoat” (limited access), The Atlantic’s Jerusalem Demsas debunks the notion that we can reduce housing costs by cracking down on institutional investors. In her usual clear and direct style, she digs into the available research and finds that large investors do not have enough market share to have such power over prices, especially since only a small percentage of houses are sold each year. Demsas notes that “false narratives are dangerous because they distract attention from real problems and plausible solutions.”  
  • “Allowing accessory units is not nearly enough to solve the housing crisis. We also need to allow three- and four-unit buildings in what are now single-family neighborhoods.” Much of what Michael Lens, professor of urban planning at UCLA, recently wrote about the housing and homelessness crisis in LA also applies to Cambridge and other cities: “If we don’t build more housing of all types, we are sustaining homelessness, not solving it.” And yet, “cities’ housing and planning policies and their approaches to homelessness are profoundly disconnected,” say researchers at BU and Cornell. “Land use and zoning have long been used as tools to wall off communities, allowing privileged white homeowners to limit access to their communities…Those same homeowners use these tools today to block all types of developments, including large and small projects, affordable and market rate, and homeownership and rental.”    
  • Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, a member of Gov. Maura Healey’s housing transition committee, makes a strong economic and practical case for more housing (while not ignoring the moral case). “The cost of living here, whether for renters or home buyers, is unsustainable, as Boston and surrounding communities continue to rise to the top of the list for most expensive places to live in the country. This crisis risks destroying much of what makes Massachusetts successful.
  • A pending federal class action suit could force Massachusetts to provide housing assistance for thousands of people with disabilities who are now institutionalized in nursing homes because they cannot find affordable housing. Although physically able to live independently, many rely on Supplemental Security Income (SSI). In the Boston area, they would have to spend twice their SSI allotment to afford a one-bedroom home. As a result of previous lawsuits, Massachusetts is already providing residential programs for former nursing home residents with intellectual disabilities or brain injuries – this suit seeks similar assistance for people with other types of disabilities who are now living under unnecessary confinement.

We note with sadness the passing of Alice Wolf, who served as School Committee member, City Councilor, Mayor and State Representative during her decades of public service. She sought “equality and equity for all people,” notes her family, especially for those who are not well served by our society. May her memory be a blessing.