Local Residents, Harvard Affiliates Debate Cambridge Affordable Housing Proposal

Housing Overlay Fights
City Councilor E. Denise Simmons speaks about an affordable housing zoning proposal at a meeting at Cambridge City Hall Tuesday evening.

Residents of Cambridge and neighboring cities, including several Harvard affiliates, testified in front of the Cambridge City Council Housing Committee on its proposed “100% Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay” at City Hall Tuesday.

The proposed zoning reform would incentivize affordable developers to build residential units across the city, aiding them to successfully compete with for-profit developers. The legislation would also amend zoning regulations to increase approval process efficiency, reduce costs, and facilitate new affordable housing construction. Tuesday’s hearing is the latest step in the rezoning process and follows a roundtable discussion within the Housing Committee last week.

City Councilor E. Denise Simmons called Tuesday's meeting to order, and urged councilors and residents alike to “remember the human element” during the process.

“Ultimately, we're talking about people, families,” she said. “And we're talking about doing what we can to allow our affordable housing to be built in the fairest way possible throughout our city.”


Many advocates for the overlay referenced the housing crisis in Cambridge, which they said made immediate expansion of affordable housing urgent. Among them were more than a dozen Harvard affiliates, including College students.

Zoe L. Hopkins ’22 argued that affordable housing is a critical way to support Harvard employees who cannot afford to live in Cambridge. Hopkins, who said she spoke on behalf of the Student Labor Action Movement, referred to Harvard employees as the “lifeblood” of the University.

“How can Harvard, how can Cambridge, call itself a community when many people who have dutifully served are denied the ability to live here because it isn't financially viable for them?” she asked. “To claim that it is legitimate to oppose this overlay because it will make neighborhoods less desirable or less attractive is not only a farce, but it is also an offensive and anti-poor afront to those who work tirelessly to support this community.”

Many attendees said that while they support affordable housing efforts, they are unsatisfied with the current proposal. They cited the lack of a complete and comprehensive plan; concerns that the city is rushing the process; and the exitence of an “As of Right” provision, a designation that would protect affordable housing developments from certain court challenges.

Cambridge resident Patrick W. Barrett III said that he supports affordable housing efforts, but is concerned Cambridge is rushing the project. He urged the city to carefully consider the proposal, saying that now is the “time to get it right.”

“Keep it in committee, work on it, make it do something that it’s supposed to, but also don't forget the people who live here in the residence,” he said.

Meeting attendee Francis “Fritz” E. Donovan ’59, who also resides in Cambridge and favors affordable housing, described the current proposal as a “mess.”

“Cambridge needs a well-thought-out plan that both increases affordable housing and enhances quality of life in our wonderful city,” he said. “The 100 percent affordable housing overlay plan is a disaster. We need to go back to the drawing boards and do it right.”

After the meeting, Mayor Marc C. McGovern said in an interview with The Crimson that regardless of how many meetings the city holds, there will always be dissent. But he said he is “frustrated” by residents who constantly oppose the city’s proposals.

“I'm a little frustrated that some of the more vocal opposers to the overlay refuse to acknowledge that there has been movement by the city to address their concerns,” he said.

The Housing Committee will consider the overlay proposal again at a meeting April 25 and vote on whether to advance the proposal to the City Council Ordinance Committee. McGovern said that he plans on voting for the proposal and that the Council needs to advance the proposal.

“At the end of the day, we need to move this forward,” he said.

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