Cambridge City Council Digs Deeper Into Affordable Housing Proposal

Housing Overlay Roundtable
The City Council Housing Committee held a meeting Tuesday to discuss the proposed Affordable Housing Overlay. Mayor Marc McGovern speaks to to the council on the issues at hand.

The Cambridge City Council Housing Committee discussed the Affordable Housing Overlay proposal at their Tuesday meeting, the latest step in an ongoing process to create more affordable housing in the city.

The proposed zoning reform would offer affordable developers incentives to build residential units, allowing them to successfully compete with market-rate developers. The proposal would also amend zoning regulations to streamline approval processes, reduce costs, and increase efficiency for new affordable housing construction.

At the meeting, city officials from the Community Development Department addressed questions and concerns from the Housing Committee. In addition to the five members who sit on the committee, every member of City Council attended the meeting.

During the meeting, several councilors raised concerns about the project, including various technical aspects such as height restrictions on buildings and potential legal challenges. Councilor Dennis J. Carlone, a former architect and urban design consultant, questioned the City’s ability to address urban design challenges including cost management and building capacity, calling it “the big question mark.”


“I think we're avoiding the big issue, and I want this to succeed like all my fellow councilors, and we will make it succeed,” he said. “It seems we're not ready and just accept that and let's get the work done.”

Other councilors focused the potential environmental impact of such a project. Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan said he is concerned about a negative “tradeoff” between lower-cost housing and more environmentally friendly building standards.

Zondervan specifically cited the tree protection legislation passed by the City Council in February that has halted the issuance of tree-cutting permits for one year. Trees on properties considered to be affordable housing, however, are exempt from this protection.

“We need housing, and we also need to mitigate against climate change,” he said. “This could be an opportunity to achieve both.”

Councilor Sumbul Siddiqui, co-chair of the Housing Committee, reiterated the importance of ongoing dialogue between the Council and Cambridge residents to ensure the overlay proposal proceeds with “clarity.”

“The ability to work on something and play around with it conceptually will help this committee,” she said.

While the meeting did not allow public comment, over a dozen members of the public attended. Cambridge resident David E. Sullivan said he attended because he supports the proposal, and wanted to hear the councilors’ concerns.

“It affects me in the sense that I care about the diversity of our city, and I want it to continue to be a place where you don't have to be rich to live here,” he said.

The city will hold a public hearing on April 16, during which Cambridge residents can share their opinions on the Affordable Housing Overlay. The Housing Committee will continue its discussion on zoning reform in the following meeting, scheduled for April 25.

Mayor Marc C. McGovern urged the Council to continue its dialogue without giving way to negative criticism.

“I don't want us to be ruled by fear of backlash,” he said. “I want the best project, the best ordinance we can get, and I'm open to anything that achieves what it is we're saying that this is about.”

Correction: April 14, 2019

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the House Committee includes every member of the City Council. In fact, only five City Council members sit on the committee.

— Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

— Katelyn X. Li can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @KatelynLi2.