The Historic Affordable Housing Overlay Is about to Pass. How Did It Overcome so Many Obstacles?

When the Affordable Housing Overlay was first unveiled a couple years ago, it proposed something that had never been done in the history of Cambridge: allowing construction of new affordable housing in all neighborhoods. The approach taken by the City has long been to allow more housing almost exclusively in formerly industrial parts of Cambridge: places like North Point, Kendall Square, and Alewife. Long-time residential neighborhoods have remained almost entirely off-limits to new housing.

If the AHO passes on Monday night, as expected, we hope to see more affordable housing built in places that have long fought new construction. Passing zoning reform that prioritizes housing equity over both preserving the status quo and private development interests is a historic achievement.Fights over housing development are a constant feature of Cambridge politics, so we always knew passing the AHO was going to be a tough fight. Anti-development forces would do anything they could to turn the public against the AHO, spreading misinformation about what it would do. And a super majority of our City Council, or six votes, would be required for passage. 

The AHO is on the cusp of becoming law because of the tireless work that advocates across the city undertook to overcome these obstacles. Dedicated, passionate AHO supporters — including many members of A Better Cambridge — turned out in amazing numbers at City Hall to speak out in support. They sent letters to our councillors and local newspapers. They spoke up on listservs and social media. 

ABC was far from alone in its AHO advocacy. The late Cheryl-Ann Pizza-Zeoli, who dedicated her life to the fight for affordable housing, advocated for the AHO up until she died from cancer in April 2019, Friends of Affordable Housing, the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee, the Cambridge YWCA, organized groups of Harvard and MIT students, and many other supporters of affordable housing showed their strong support throughout the process. City staff devoted many hours to writing and refining the ordinance, while also educating the public at community meetings.   

During the 2019 election season, ABC hosted a candidate forum where the AHO was a major topic of discussion. The ABC PAC’s endorsements of candidates who supported the AHO drove pro-housing voters to the polls. Going into the election, the AHO was one vote shy of the necessary supermajority. After the election, it had its six votes. The AHO was at the center of the discussion, and voters spoke loud and clear.

Five councillors bravely supported the AHO from the beginning. Former Mayor Marc McGovern made the initial push to bring the AHO to Council and spoke with great moral clarity throughout the process. Current Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Councillor E. Denise Simmons, as co-chairs of the housing committee, expertly shepherded the AHO through the process last year and were powerful advocates for greater housing equity. Councillor Alanna Mallon spoke eloquently about vulnerable members of our community who can’t find homes in the city they love. Councillor Tim Toomey steadfastly articulated how the distribution of Cambridge’s affordable housing is unfair and unjust. The housing crisis was a centerpiece of Councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler’s campaign last year, and he consistently noted the AHO was a necessary tool to combat it. His victory gave council the six votes it needed.

Activism can be a slog. Instant gratification almost never happens. Advocates need to plow ahead in the face of countless obstacles that are relentlessly thrown their way. In the world of housing activism, opponents of new housing never rest. They like their neighborhoods the way they are and often have lots of time on their hands. 

They usually win. But not this time.