Affordable Housing Overlay: Not Ready for Prime Time

This opinion piece by Patty was published in the Cambridge Chronicle August 2019.  

Cambridge is proposing a citywide zoning change with potentially wide-reaching consequences. Good governance and management best practice require studying and reviewing policy ideas prior to decision-making. An exemplar process for devising solutions: brainstorm a list of 20 or more ways to tackle the problem. After research, reflection and expert advice, analyze the dozen most promising ones. Based on that assessment, conduct in-depth study of the best five or six, and recommend the most promising one or two. If Cambridge followed this best practice related to the overlay, there is no evidence. If so, the city should distribute the analyses that led to this one option. It would be irresponsible to adopt a major change without knowing alternatives and understanding potential consequences.

I’m not a housing expert but can think of several promising options. One, Minneapolis’ bold proposal that will eliminate single-family zoning everywhere in that city, without changing setbacks, open space or height. What could that approach accomplish here? Two, using data on the recent change in inclusionary housing to 20%, model an increase to 22% or 23%. That appears to have been a very cost-effective way to increase the number of affordable units. What would that do? Three, recent Section 8 increases based on zip code might increase affordable units significantly. How might the city motivate landlords to have Section 8 tenants? We own a two-family and rent an apartment for below the Section 8 rent. Might there be other landlords like us in Cambridge who would consider Section 8 tenants? These are three options of many that should be explored, which needn’t take much time and none of them require citywide zoning changes and potential changes to exterior dimensions, permeable surfaces or tree canopy.

I am stunned so much energy and staff time have gone into marketing this single proposal instead of studying a range of proposals which might be more promising and less disruptive. Had the overlay resulted from such a process, opposition would be less.

Second, there is a distinct lack of clarity around the number of additional units expected due to an overlay. The city’s documents state clearly the overlay alone will result in zero to very few. The updated FAQ states the proposal “is not increasing the amount of affordable housing” and the recent June 21 administration memo states CDD expects “no more than one to two developments” each year. Yet proponents believe the overlay will increase affordable units. And documents refer to the number of units possibly increasing from the current 60-70 to 100. However, close reading makes it clear those additional units result from the funding increase the City Council voted, from $13 to $20 million. The number is limited by funding, with or without the overlay. Why do it? The overlay might mean more housing in different neighborhoods, but would developers buy land near Brattle over Riverside for the same size project if it cost more?

Or alternatively, the additional units might be hundreds or thousands. Say a wealthy developer with private funding bought my next door neighbor’s house and built small apartments for graduate students, who generally are low income. It appears the number of units could be double what the city suggests in its specific examples of potential impact. Might it be profitable even with permanent affordability restrictions? And with no mandates, why follow any design guidelines? With thousands more units, what are the infrastructure implications?

These questions of how this proposal might unfold and change the fabric of Cambridge are critically important to understand and think through. It might be positive. Or negative. We owe it to ourselves to model various scenarios. This proposal has far too many unanswered questions and far too great a risk to move forward as written.

And please, let’s all model respectful behavior. Don’t denigrate anyone on any side of this debate. Supporting this proposal or not does not mean you are for or against affordable housing. We disagree on how best to increase and spread out affordable housing, not on whether we should.

Yes, in many places zoning was put in place to exclude and is racist and elitist. That does not mean all zoning regulations and limits are racist and elitist. There are models for good and just urban planning. There is a reason for some zoning regulations, like no cannabis next to a school. Many cities wish they had the luxury we have, of a community engaged in dialogue about what makes the city livable and welcoming. And a staff capable of thoughtful comprehensive review of options. We haven’t done the hard work of vetting different options, a surprising and disappointing situation. We can do better.

Patty Nolan is a Huron Avenue resident and candidate for City Council.  
Here’s a link to the piece on the Chronicle’s website.