Cambridge passes new affordable housing rules, paving the way for taller buildings

The Boston Globe

The amendments, which passed the council on a 6-3 vote, mark one of the more ambitious local efforts to address the affordable housing crisis in Massachusetts.

The site of the Jefferson Park public housing complex, which will be redeveloped through Cambridge’s Affordable Housing Overlay. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Cambridge City Council on Monday night passed controversial changes to the city’s landmark affordable housing law, potentially paving the way for taller, denser affordable housing development in the city’s major squares and corridors.

The move, which passed the council on a 6-3 vote, marks one of the more ambitious local efforts to address the region’s housing crisis, going further than policies elsewhere in Massachusetts to bolster the development of deeply affordable units. Projects that are comprised entirely of affordable units will now be allowed to be as tall as 15 stories in the city’s major squares, and projects as tall as 12 stories on corridors like Massachusetts Avenue.

“At the end of the day, there is no magic wands, there [are] no quick fixes. There are no silver bullets that will resolve our affordable housing crisis,” said Councilor Denise Simmons, who supported the amendments. “But with tools like [this], we are creating opportunities for this critically needed housing to be built — homes to be built.”

But it was not without serious objection. Some city councilors and residents raised concern that the changes to the policy, known as the affordable housing overlay, were developed without enough community input, and that they may lead to rampant development of tall buildings across the city.

It also raises the stakes of the upcoming city council elections in November: a slate of candidates have cropped up in opposition of the council’s recent efforts to accelerate housing development, and say the election will be something of a referendum on those policies.

“This is Russian Roulette zoning,” said Councilor Dennis Carlone, who opposed the amendments. “No one knows what site is going to be purchased. Whether it’s on Broadway, Cambridge Street… No one knows until the day it gets announced. And to me that is against what the principle of zoning is all about.”

The ambitious new policy and the controversy surrounding it highlight just how tense the debate around housing has become in Cambridge in recent years.

As tech and biotech development has flourished over the last few decades, rents in Cambridge have climbed higher than any other city in Massachusetts. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city now sits at $2,750, according to Zillow. Apartments in new buildings fetch even more.

A view of Central Square in Cambridge. DAVID L. RYAN / GLOBE STAFF

In one of the densest cities in the US, that presents a tricky problem, and piecemeal solutions like policies that squeeze some affordable units out of market rate projects, weren’t working well enough, some said.

The idea of the AHO, which was first passed in 2020, was to ensure zoning doesn’t get in the way of affordable housing projects that already face an array of both political and financial hurdles. Since the original policy went into effect, 616 units have been approved in AHO projects.

But there were still some hurdles, like height limits and setback restrictions, which housing advocates hope the changes will address. Several councilors who supported the amendments cited one particular eight-story affordable project near Porter Square that failed last year because of pushback from neighbors and the zoning board. Under the updated policy, the project would’ve been allowed by-right.

Allowing tall projects by-right, or without special approval from a zoning board, was another big point of contention. Some councilors and residents argued that the special approval process is critical to moderating development and ensuring that buildings fit the city’s character. Some of the city’s nonprofit affordable housing developers, though, said that process can be long and costly, oftentimes informing whether they propose a project on a certain lot at all. Making that work within the confines of the financing structure for affordable housing, they said, is extremely difficult.

They also contended that very few 12 to 15 story buildings will actually be built in the years to come, because they are more expensive to plan and construct. More realistically, they said, the tweaks to the policy would result in more eight or nine story buildings.

The amendments to the AHO add to a series of changes to the way land-use is governed in Cambridge shepherded into law by a group of progressive city councilors in recent years.

The November elections will feature 24 candidates vying for nine seats, many of whom have taken sides on the AHO and made their stance on the policy part of their campaign.