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City Council Backs 100 Percent-Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay

Housing Overlay

After years of discussions about how to combat Cambridge’s enduring challenges with a lack of affordable housing, City Councillors plan to push for legislation enacting a “100%-Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay” plan in the coming weeks.

The proposed zoning reform will offer incentives to developers in return for building residential units that are considered “100%-Affordable,” according to the City Council website. These reforms are intended to bolster the ability of affordable housing developers to compete against market-rate developers. The proposal will also amend current zoning regulations to streamline approval processes, reducing costs and increasing construction efficiency for new affordable housing.

The plan intends to use public funds to help developers "more quickly, more cost effectively, and in areas where there are fewer affordable housing options for residents,” according to the website. The proposal stemmed from concerns about displacement and increasing rents.

Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern wrote in an emailed statement that high property and living costs in Cambridge made the affordable housing overlay “necessary.”

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“We need to provide this relief so that more affordable housing can be built to address our affordable housing crisis,” he wrote.

At last Wednesday’s Housing Committee meeting, officers dedicated more than two hours to public comment regarding the proposed overlay, with both dedicated supporters and critics airing their views before the council.

Critics of the plan said the overlay could impose residential projects into unsuited neighborhoods, worsen traffic congestion, and work against the middle class. Supporters, however, argued that the overlay could help ensure access and equity.

City Councillor E. Denise Simmons, chair of the Housing Committee, said during the meeting that public input would be important in shaping the legislation.

“As I’ve said in previous hearings, it is critical that we all reach a shared understanding of what this proposed overlay is, what it aims to achieve, and how it would work,” Simmons said.

Recently released results from Cambridge’s 2018 Resident Opinion Survey indicate that 35 percent of respondents believe affordable housing is “the single most important issue facing the City of Cambridge today.”

According to McGovern, the overlay proposal will next proceed to a third Housing Committee meeting on March 28 and a roundtable discussion on April 9. Then, the proposal will head to the Ordinance Committee for a series of hearings, before arriving before the City Council.

—Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

—Katelyn X. Li can be reached at katelyn.li@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @KatelynLi2.

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