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What If New Density Had to Be All Affordable? This City Did It

Cambridge is as pricey as Vancouver. But its housing crisis response is now much bolder. Latest in a series.

Geoff Dembicki 9 Dec

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. His work also appears in Vice, Foreign Policy and the New York Times.

The city of Cambridge, Mass. is getting serious about solving the housing crisis. This fall, its council passed a policy so explicit in its commitment to ending out-of-control home prices that it caught the attention of an expert at the University of British Columbia.

“It’s twice as ambitious as my most aggressive dream for Vancouver,” UBC landscape architecture professor Patrick Condon told The Tyee of what’s being adopted in Cambridge. “It effectively says you cannot add any density at all unless it’s going to be permanently affordable.”

Condon, who writes often for The Tyee, is referring to the Affordable Housing Overlay, which passed in a seven-to-two city council vote in early October. The policy allows developers and others to build taller and denser housing developments across the city with fewer regulatory hurdles — but only if all the units are 100 per cent affordable.

Not only does the overlay make it easier and faster to construct homes that are financially accessible to ordinary people, it also has implications for a climate problem faced by many highly expensive cities including Vancouver: residents forced by crazy housing prices to make long commutes from the suburbs in polluting cars.

“Addressing affordability in Cambridge means that more people can live there,” said Yanisa Techagumthorn, a local transit planner who is also an organizer with the Boston chapter of the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led climate organization associated with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Which means more people have access to transit and services that are going to make their personal carbon footprints go down by a lot.”

People who were involved with the multi-year fight to get the Affordable Housing Overlay passed see lessons that can be applied all over the U.S. and Canada: name 100 per cent affordability as a specific political goal, push forward a policy that deliberately tilts the playing field toward builders of cheaper homes, and build a coalition strong enough to overcome the power of wealthy homeowners and luxury-focused developers.

“This is a move towards explicitly incentivizing affordable housing development,” Becca Schofield, co-chair of A Better Cambridge, which was one of the lead groups organizing Cambridge residents in favor of the overlay, told The Tyee. “We have clearly established political priorities within the city government for years.”

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Transit planner and Boston Sunrise Movement organizer Yanisa Techagumthorn: ‘Addressing affordability in Cambridge... means more people have access to transit and services that are going to make their personal carbon footprints go down by a lot.’ Photo: Nelson/Nygaard.

Cambridge has about one-fifth the population of Vancouver, was founded in the 17th century and is home to two of the world’s most prestigious universities, Harvard and MIT. The cities share in common an increasingly dire housing crisis. The median sale price for a single-family home in Cambridge in 2016 was US$1.7 million, which is comparably out-of-reach to Vancouver.

Rents are even worse, however. The average renter pays around US$3,100 per month, more than US$1,000 above Vancouver’s average, making Cambridge one of the most expensive places to have an apartment in North America. “It’s becoming a place where you can really only afford to live for a long period of time if you have a family member that can pass down a house or you and your partner make six figures, which is not the case for most people,” Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, a city councillor elected last year, told The Tyee. “So we desperately need to address the crisis.”

And these house prices are driving up emissions. “Working class people and people of colour are being priced out,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said. “This is the choice more people are facing: either pay 40 or 50 per cent of your income to live near your job or move an hour and a half away and commute on highways that have some of the worst traffic of anywhere in the U.S.”

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Cambridge coun. Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler contemplates more bold steps, including rent control and a community land trust that buys property and keeps prices lower. Photo: Facebook.

From 2016 to 2018, climate pollution from transportation grew by over six per cent across Massachusetts and is at its highest level since 2008, despite continuing efficiency improvements for cars and trucks. “It is the only sector where emissions are higher today than they were in 1990,” the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded. “Even as the state makes significant progress in other areas, the challenge of transportation pollution threatens to undermine our ability to achieve our legally mandated climate limits.”

Crazy home prices are part of the reason why. “Housing near public transportation centers is also becoming prohibitively expensive for many Massachusetts residents,” the group wrote.

Origins of the overlay

Cambridge has non-profit housing developers eager to build new units and stop people from being forced out. But land prices are so high that those non-profits can’t compete with builders of market-rate and luxury homes, which have the resources to outbid them anytime a new property becomes available. And at the same time, non-profits must often go through a long, onerous and expensive permitting process. “It’s a constant struggle,” said Schofield, who is also a project manager at a non-profit housing developer.

In 2016, Cambridge held meetings across the city asking residents for input on how to fix the housing crisis, and out of that process the Affordable Housing Overlay was launched. The basic idea is to level the playing field for builders of affordable homes by relaxing zoning requirements across the entire city. In most of the city’s residential districts, buildings can only be 35 feet tall, but the overlay allows developers to raise that to 45 feet if all the units are affordable — and 50 feet if that building has a restaurant or storefront on the ground-level. Even with that height increase, these buildings can’t exceed four stories. The overlay allows comparable height and density increases in areas already zoned for taller buildings.

At the same time, it removes potential delays by preventing citizens from suing in court to stop these 100 per cent affordable buildings from being built, which is risk that some developments have to contend with.

Cambridge, Mass. Median home prices vie with Vancouver’s high levels, and rents are even worse — on average around US$3,100 per month — making the city one of the most expensive places to have an apartment in North America. Photo by Kyle Klein Photography.

Perhaps not surprisingly, neighborhood groups noisily protested the overlay as it moved from the idea stage into actual legislation before Cambridge council. “The AHO carries major risks. No comparable plan is enacted elsewhere, much less a deeply historical urban center like Cambridge (founded in 1630) with its rich architectural legacy,” argued people like Suzanne Preston Blier, a founding member of Cambridge Citizens Coalition.

Others made thinly veiled racial arguments against more affordable housing. “Must the aim really be to make our already-traffic-congested Cambridge now become more like the most-crowded sections of say, the Bronx, just for dubious claimed theoretical benefits of ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’?” argued a former real-estate broker.

Advocates like Schofield countered that the overlay is “an essential tool for building more affordable housing.” But the voices of naysayers, who tended to come from wealthier and more politically-connected areas of the city with lots of single-family homes, which also tends to be the case in Vancouver, had an impact. By the time the policy came before council in fall 2019, “months of controversy and divisiveness” had taken a toll — the overlay didn’t have the six votes it needed to pass.

Building a new political coalition

That wasn’t the end of the story though. Having a policy explicitly setting out a goal of 100 per cent affordable housing had allowed Schofield and other overlay advocates to organize a coalition of people who might not normally be involved in local zoning battles, such as student groups at Harvard and MIT, anti-poverty organizations and the Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association. “It’s hard to get people to pay attention who aren’t white privileged homeowners,” she said. “We had to turn out a lot of new folks.”

The coalition sent people to speak on behalf of the overlay at City Hall, wrote letters to councillors and local media, built awareness on social media and packed community meetings. And when Cambridge had local elections in November 2019, people turned out to elect affordable housing champions like Sobrinho-Wheeler. “After the election, we had the votes,” he said.

In February of this year, a Cambridge city councillor reintroduced the overlay. And this October it was passed into law. Immediately, A Better Cambridge wrote that evening, it will be “easier to build affordable housing in all neighborhoods of Cambridge, including those that have long resisted it.”

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A Better Cambridge co-chair Becca Schofield closes a coalition-building event in 2019. ‘We have clearly established political priorities within the city government for years.’ Photo: Facebook.

In Vancouver, Condon has been closely following the overlay. “What they’re basically saying is we need a system that doesn’t inflate land values and the overlay will do this,” he said. Previous attempts to create denser and more ecologically sustainable neighborhoods in Vancouver have led to speculators snapping up property, flipping units several times before they’re even built and causing massive home price increases.

“The Cambridge ordinance is structured to insist that units be affordable forever,” Condon writes in an upcoming book. “This means that land rent, rather than being tied to the global appetite for investment assets, as is now the case, is forevermore tied to local wage rates.” He goes on, “If a substantial percentage of the city eventually is redeveloped in this way, the city’s land base is protected from excessive rent in perpetuity.”

Yet even the overlay’s staunchest advocates acknowledge that many more steps need to be taken before Cambridge, and any other city that decided to adopt this policy, can become truly affordable. The policy, at least for the time being, will likely result in about 100 or so new affordable units across the city each year. “It’s only incremental progress, and that’s hard to say,” Schofield said. “This is one tool in the box.”

“It’s a right step but not the whole solution,” agrees Techagumthorn of Sunrise, arguing that Cambridge should be actually building affordable housing units on city-owned land.

Sobrinho-Wheeler argues that truly addressing the twin crises of climate change and housing might require things like reinstating rent control and creating a community land trust that can acquire property and keep it permanently affordable, alongside a local Green New Deal that includes fare-free public transit.

But one enduring legacy of passing the overlay could be to make these and other bolder demands for affordable housing easier to move forward. “We’ve articulated affordable housing as a political priority and as a social good,” Schofield said. “We hope that sets a precedent.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Housing, Environment

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