Cambridge Has Increased Affordable Housing Requirements. Now What?

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For the first time since 1998, Cambridge City Council voted on April 3 to increase mandatory affordable housing requirements for new developers. Beginning June 30, developers will be required to make 20 percent of total new units built affordable units, up from 15 percent.

The measure comes after years of effort from activists and council members alike and follows similar increases in neighboring cities; Somerville, for example, raised the requirement to 20 percent in May 2016. Originally launched after a 2014 housing study (and encouraged by another report that came in 2016), City Council voted to increase the zoning requirements after initial drafting took place in November.

“It’s going to be a financial hit to developers,” Vice Mayor Marc McGovern says. “But according to the consultant’s report we have and our own analysis, it’s something we feel they can absorb. We haven’t changed the inclusionary percentage in 19 years. It’s time.”

The change has been almost universally hailed as a positive step toward fighting the rising rents—McGovern calls it a “momentous accomplishment”—and other councilors agree. “It’s a great first step in the ongoing [housing] crisis,” says Councilman Nadeem Mazen. He says he originally approached City Council about raising inclusionary standards in 2013, but was thoroughly shot down before the council saw the consultant’s report supporting him.

Developments built or approved before June 30 will still go by the old percentage of 15, a figure many housing activists have pointed out as being false due to what’s referred to as a density bonus—essentially, that so long as a plan meets the affordable housing requirements and crams enough people into a certain amount of space, developers are allowed to build an additional number of apartments that aren’t counted toward the figure, lowering the actual percentage of affordable housing per development to around 11.5 percent.

The density bonus was not raised with the affordable housing increase, giving it an extra value that developers haven’t been thrilled about. The new amendment also requires developers to make family-sized units with three or more bedrooms.

“The original recommendation was that we request developers provide affordable three-bedroom units,” McGovern says. “We made it so it’s actually required that developers build and provide affordable three-bedroom units. We’ve long had studios and two bedrooms, but families often got left off the inclusionary program because there factually wasn’t enough room. This should be a huge gain for the city.” All of the requirements, new and old, will be reviewed regularly, as the council mandated the topic be revisited in five years. This appears to be the only fix with regard to new units until then, but there’s hope of addressing the struggle in other ways.

“In terms of inclusionary zoning specifically, this is kind of it for now,” McGovern says. “In housing in a broader sense, we have meetings coming up; we’ll be talking about strengthening tenant protections and condo conversion rates, and we’ve used eminent domain to build affordable housing before. We’re always trying to improve in the areas we can.”

When the topic is re-addressed, it’s likely to be another showdown between those who want to keep the inclusionary housing rate the same and those who want it raised. Some already fear the increase could scare off developers, a notion others dismiss.

“Maybe housing and developing is going to slow down because of the interest rates,” Mazen says. “Or maybe it’s going to slow down because it’s harder to find new land to develop, but it’s certainly not going to slow down because affordable housing increased to 20 percent.” Both sides agree this is not the be-all end-all solution to the crisis. After four years of research and frustration, the City Council agrees that this is a good step—but not the whole solution.

“We need to be more creative with fighting this crisis. This alone isn’t going to solve the problem, and if we don’t get very serious about this in the next few years, it could get worse,” Mazen says.

So long as the city of Cambridge is still growing and people continue moving here, the housing crisis will be ongoing. The city’s population is approaching its historic peak of 120,740, according to data released by the city as part of the Envision Cambridge project last year. The same study found that housing prices and rents are skyrocketing and that it takes a salary of $100,000 to live in a market-rate one bedroom apartment here. City Council is already trying to figure out additional ways to create a sustainable and affordable housing market.

“Are we doing enough to offset luxury development in our city in order to create equity? Well, no,” Mazen says. “Twenty percent is not enough, but 20 percent inclusionary housing is not our only tool. We have to have more co-ops—which is a bank credit issue, not a city government issue—we have to have more creative solutions, more public land trusted, more city-funded nonprofit housing and nonprofit housing construction.”

“And why didn’t we do this sooner?” Mazen asks. “The answer is unclear to me. An onlooker could look and say Cambridge has always been behind, compared to Somerville or Boston. Cambridge has been suspiciously far behind. This could’ve passed in 2013, but we missed out on it. I see that. It begs the question: What are we missing out on now?”

This story originally appeared in the March/April issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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