Councillor Nolan’s Statement on the 9/14 AHO Vote

At the September 14 City Council meeting the AHO was passed to a second reading (all policies get voted twice) by a vote of 7-2. I was a NO vote along with Councillor Dennis Carlone. Below are my reasons (in abbreviated form, since I have reams of information and research on the topic) for voting no on this enormously important ordinance. Not only do I think the policy is not right for the city, I am concerned that somehow this issue is being turned into a litmus test on whether one supports affordable housing, or addressing systemic racism. That false narrative is destructive to the community. As Councillor Carlone made clear, he is someone who has fought for decades, successfully, to increase and expand affordable housing and address inequities. For his intentions to be called into question is just plain wrong. Similarly, those who support the AHO have good intentions – I do not disparage them. Now I hope we can work together on other issues. As I note in my statement, this effort has taken too much time, energy, effort and money in my view.

I look forward to working on other projects to improve our city – including charter review and revision (to change our form of government to be more responsive and democratic and balanced), sustainability initiatives, and re-thinking our budget allocations.

When I first got elected, I thought that my first few months would be consumed with discussion and debate about the Affordable Housing Overlay [AHO]. Then the pandemic hit and everything was on hold not directly related to dealing with the public health crisis. Then George Floyd’s murder happened and a welcome reckoning with our country’s legacy and lasting pandemic of racism spurred action, discussion, and passion around addressing systemic racism and policy department practices and protocols.

Now, with the Covid19 in a different stage here in Massachusetts, and notably in Cambridge, the AHO is before the council for a vote. Last year it created a lot of discussion, and sadly division and rancor in the city. As with all matters, it is important to me that I approach the issue thoughtfully.

We had the first council meeting to discuss the AHO last month. After researching the question of whether the AHO is a good policy change, I was hoping for a robust full discussion. I understand that for most of the council, the discussion had already happened – the hundreds of emails and hours spent thinking about it last year. And I understood that it had the votes to pass as is. Still, I hoped that we would discuss and make some changes to make it a better policy.

In researching this issue, I had an intern over the summer look into the topic, digested an incredible amount of research and work done by residents with varying opinions on the merits, spoke with affordable housing developers in Boston and other cities. I reached out to folks in Somerville who are looking at how to increase AH and have had some zoning changes. I explored what other cities are doing. I learned a lot – and remain unconvinced that the AHO as currently written will be a game changer. It has good intentions and some good ideas – and it doesn’t in the end strike me as good policy.

I would have liked to see several amendments, all of which in my opinion would be best for the city and all of us:

  • Make design guidelines mandatory
  • Require passive house/net zero for all new projects under the ordinance, the city has said that the newly completed Finch building was just 3% more in costs for a building that is a model for sustainability – and some of those costs were covered by grants
  • Increase in the number of 3 BR – to ensure family friendly units
  • Focus the first phase on corridors – see how it works, and after the first few years expand to other areas of the city
  • Support Councillor Carlone’s potential amendments – from facade changes to an actual urban housing plan
  • Middle income folks like teachers and custodians to have a small percent of the units where they would get first dibs
  • Establish goals to measure success – put in writing the 10-15 additional units as expected goals – which is the number the CDD said might be built as a result of the AHO. And establish a goal for geographic distribution of new AHO projects.

We still don’t know if the AHO will produce very few new units, in which case we’ve spent a lot of time on something that isn’t effective. The city’s own estimate of additional units per year due to the AHO is 10-15 units. [Last year they said it would produce NO new units.] Or could it lead to buildings that unintentionally create more divisions, not fewer? Or will it work as the proponents hope – producing more AH units in a way that benefits the city? We don’t know. While I am not afraid of change – I think good governance demands policymakers to build on successful models, which is not the case here.

An example of why I am concerned that we do not have a sense of how this change will play out is that the cities noted as examples to use in assessing this proposal. All of the cities proffered by the city CDD as examples are not comparable to Cambridge. I would have liked to understand how cities that have engaged in change have fared – like Minneapolis, which recently changed their zoning. The examples provided were Austin TX, Salt Lake City UT, Los Gatos, and Corte Madera CA, Simsbury CT and Arlington County VA. While that list is varied, the density of those cities is far below Cambridge – by a factor of 25, 8 or more than 2. The one closest in density to Cambridge, Arlington Country Virginia, has a density less than half of Cambridge AND its AH project district is restricted to corridors. Plus the inclusionary rates and incentive rates in these cities are far below Cambridge. Which means we are left not knowing how this change might play out – based on these examples presented as comparables which are not really comparable.

This proposal has been debated for a long time and we are all weary. I wish it had been amended, but it is now before us as is.

We cannot solve the housing crisis or income inequality on our own and all of us acknowledge that. AH is challenging and market forces are so strong, it is difficult to imagine whether this ordinance will change this enough to justify all the energy and concern. At this point, that time and energy which I personally wish had been spent on other initiatives that appear to my analysis to have more potential, are sunk costs. We now need to move on and keep working to understand how best to address the issue of housing affordability.