ABC News, Oct 2022: zoning progress, BZA vacancies, upcoming events, and more

(Sent on Friday, October 28.)

This week, the Council ended all city requirements that new buildings must include parking spaces. New developments will no longer have to set aside space for driveways and car storage; homeowners may now use existing parking areas for other purposes. Builders may still include parking in their projects, but it’s now optional. All six of the ABC-supported Councilors (Azeem, Mallon, McGovern, Siddiqui, Simmons, Toner), joined by two more (Nolan, Zondervan), voted to prioritize housing over parking, making Cambridge the first city in Massachusetts to take this step. Meanwhile, an anonymous group is aiming to collect 8,396 signatures in 20 days in an effort to undo the Council’s action by referendum.

The Council has also approved a substantial jump in the “linkage fee” paid by large commercial developments to help fund affordable housing construction. While the 66% increase is the largest in recent years and will raise tens of millions of dollars for affordable housing, it could have raised even more if not for a pair of loopholes that came with it. Previous fee increases have adjusted only the overall rate but this one adds a partial exemption for small projects and another that reduces the fee when parts of an existing building are demolished.  

Now and Then

  • The annual Greater Boston Housing Report Card, just released by The Boston Foundation, finds that the region is lagging in its efforts to remedy the ongoing shortfall of housing. “The report as a whole tells a concerning and all-too-familiar story of high prices, [and] low vacancy rates,” notes TBF’s President. A major section of the report digs deep into the shortage of subsidized housing and systemic barriers that make it inaccessible to those who need it.
  • While the housing shortage is often described with aggregated statistics, a recent Boston Globe report zoomed in on the dire personal consequences for one immigrant family’s Life in a single room. Manuel and Teresa have four children, hold five jobs between them and earn $3000 per month. They rent part of a 3-bedroom apartment in Somerville that’s home to 12 people. One night, they come home from work at 1:00am to find their belongings on the sidewalk, and learn how limited their options really are.
  • In 1970, activists in the working-class, historically Black community then residing in the Riverside area fought Harvard’s plan to build student housing at a site known as Treeland. Using recently unsealed University documents and new interviews, two Harvard Crimson reporters describe the community’s struggle to have Harvard build low-rent housing there. The fight propelled community leader Saundra Graham onto the Cambridge City Council and later the State legislature. Today, there is no housing at Treeland but Saundra Graham still lives in Riverside.
  • The Way Los Angeles Is Trying to Solve Homelessness Is Absolutely Insanereports Ezra Klein in the NY Times. Significant funding is available for affordable housing in LA, but being able to spend it effectively is difficult. “Surviving the gantlet of local opposition often means agreeing to a range of concessions that send costs ballooning…Even if a project does survive all this, it does so at a higher per-unit cost, which then, of course, becomes one more data point that gets wielded in opposition to the next project.” Although Cambridge is not LA, the claims and counterclaims around the housing shortage there will probably sound familiar. “When do Angelenos want affordable housing? Now! Where do they want it? Not here!

Events and opportunities

  • The City Manager is revising the selection process for members of the Board of Zoning Appeals (and other boards) and is seeking new applicants. The BZA could play an important role in addressing the housing crisis but many present members are homeowners who have been insulated from its effects. The new selection criteria emphasize diversity, and steps are underway to allow the payment of stipends starting in 2023. If you or anyone you know is interested, please consider applying before the November 7 deadline.
  • Housing Navigator’s Jennifer Gilbert and ABC’s co-chair Becca Schofield are leading a conversation - “Affordable For You?: Understanding the Housing Crisis” - at 6pm on Thursday, November 3. Taking place at the CIC Venture Cafe in Kendall Square, it will start with a brief presentation and then break out into discussion groups.
  • Immediately afterwards, the next ABC pro-housing social hour will happen on Thursday, November 3, 7-9:30pm, at Grendel’s Den, near Harvard Square. Come celebrate the end of parking mandates in Cambridge!
  • ABC members are continuing to volunteer at the Friday Café, serving lunch to the unhoused and housing insecure at First Church, near Harvard Square. November shift opportunities are filling up, but December slots are still available; please contact Cathy Higgins for more information.
  • Save the date: we’ll be hosting a talk on how Housing Policy is Climate Policy on Monday, December 7, 7-8pm. On the evening of Tuesday, November 15, we’ll be writing postcards to our neighbors to invite them to the event – join us to socialize and write notes to climate-conscious community members.
  • As always, you can find many of these events on ABC’s Events Calendar.

Don’t forget to check your polling place and VOTE on November 8 – or earlier! ABC recommends a YES vote on question #1, the Fair Share Amendment.