Advocates from Sunrise Boston and A Better Cambridge launched the Cambridge Missing Middle Housing Petition today, gearing up for a push to ease zoning restrictions in Cambridge’s residential neighborhoods. The proposal — a joint venture of the youth climate justice group and the housing advocacy organization — would create a zoning category for residential neighborhoods that allows new “missing middle” housing: up to three stories of multi-family housing like townhouses and three-deckers.
ABC co-chair Becca Schofield framed the policy as a matter of racial justice, stating that “apartment bans and other down-zoning mechanisms in Cambridge, codified in the 1920s, are part of a legacy of exclusionary housing policy.” She also touted the affordability benefits, saying "there's a lot of demand to live in Cambridge … we need more housing, particularly less expensive multifamily housing, to prevent displacement of existing residents."
Cambridge MMH leaders plan to submit a zoning petition next Thursday, giving city councillors 135 days to consider the proposal under state law. Some key features include ending a rule that prohibits new apartments in some Cambridge neighborhoods, as well as a removal of off-street parking minimums. It also increases the maximum allowed Floor Area Ratio — the ratio of livable space to lot area — to 1.25; at this ratio, a three-story building would cover up to just over 40% of a lot.
Daniel Mascoop, a Sunrise Boston member and Cambridge resident, argued that eliminating parking minimums and encouraging denser, more energy-efficient housing is necessary to fight for climate justice. “In order to create a sustainable and just city, we need to prioritize space for residents and open space,” he said. “Eliminating parking minimums also will encourage using sustainable transportation modes so many Cantabrigians already enjoy, such as public transit, walking and biking, instead of incentivizing carbon-intensive driving.”
The idea to adjust zoning in this way is not new, but has gained attention in Cambridge and around the country in recent years. In 2019, Minneapolis adopted a comprehensive plan that allowed triplexes by-right. In the same year, the Envision Cambridge planning process released its final report, which included a recommended action to “adjust zoning in residential districts to be more compatible with prevailing patterns of development”, among more general recommendations to increase the housing supply and rethink the role of parking minimums. Most recently, in December 2020, the City Council unanimously passed a policy order, sponsored by Councillor Patty Nolan, stating that “single-family only zoning is an unnecessary artifact of historically exclusionary housing practices, and two-family zoning can have similar effects”, and resolving to study whether such practices should be removed from city ordinances.
Though the petition represents a substantial change from current zoning, ABC co-chair Allan Sadun emphasized that it will not radically transform the city’s housing stock. “Over two-thirds of residential buildings in Cambridge don’t conform to current zoning”, he said. “This reform just makes it legal to build more of what we already have today.” Still, City Councillor Marc McGovern argued that the change is an important step in addressing the region’s housing crisis: “townhouses and three-deckers made Cambridge affordable for generations of Cantabrigians, and it’s past time to allow them in every neighborhood.”
Residents can visit CambridgeMMH.org for more information, to sign the petition, or to attend an upcoming information session on Thursday, January 28th at 6pm via Zoom.