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As Cambridge City Council Plows Ahead With Affordable Housing Plans, Some Candidates Voice Doubts

A quiet Cambridge street. Some Cambridge residents are protesting the addition of affordable housing in the city.
A quiet Cambridge street. Some Cambridge residents are protesting the addition of affordable housing in the city.
By Declan J. Knieriem and Katelyn X. Li, Crimson Staff Writers
A quiet Cambridge street. Some Cambridge residents are protesting the addition of affordable housing in the city.
A quiet Cambridge street. Some Cambridge residents are protesting the addition of affordable housing in the city. By Naomi S. Castellon-Perez

Cambridge City Council’s proposed affordable housing overlay has taken center-stage on its agenda in recent months, but as the 2019 election draws near, some candidates are not impressed with the plan.

The citywide zoning overlay — which promises to be a cornerstone issue across campaigns — was introduced before the council in early 2019. It is designed to combat a housing crisis that continues to rank as residents’ number one concern in Cambridge’s biannual surveys.

The zoning overlay would enable affordable housing developers to compete with market rates by streamlining the permitting process for units that are deemed 100 percent affordable. The city defines affordable housing as units for which residents do not have to pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent or a mortgage.

The overlay also incentivizes developing housing units that follow preferred dimensional standards with regard to height, open space, and the distance between buildings and property lines. Implementation would facilitate construction of a greater number of multi-family and townhouse units.

City Council candidate John Pitkin is one of several candidates, however, who harbor reservations. Pitkin said in an interview that he agrees with the purpose of the overlay, but aspects of the proposal — such as eliminating development reviews by the city Planning Board — concern him.

“This changes it in too many ways, too abruptly,” he said. “I think there are many things that could be done to improve the supply of housing, not necessarily specifically affordable housing. At a minimum, this needs more work than the Council has been able to do.”

City Council challenger Derek A. Kopon — who works at Harvard’s astrophysics center — was also unconvinced that the overlay was the best way to address housing in Cambridge. Among his concerns is the overlay’s timeline, which he described as “rushed.” He also said the overlay fails to adequately address the impact that it would have on the environment, specifically the city’s tree canopy.

“Right now, the overlay proposal has no protections at all for trees,” he said. “This proposal could have a devastating impact on the tree canopy, and that's something we should really be trying to protect.”

The City Council has previously sought to deal with the tree canopy loss, most recently passing legislation to achieve this goal in February.

Over the summer, the city hosted a series of drop-in sessions, along with two public hearings, to discuss questions and concerns about the overlay. The next ordinance committee meeting regarding the zoning proposal is set to take place Sept. 10.

Candidate and former Cambridge School Committee member Patricia “Patty” M. Nolan ’80 said in a summer City Council meeting that the housing overlay was not sufficiently researched. She added that more alternatives should have been considered, and that the lack of further analysis was “irresponsible.”

“Good governance and good management requires a clear process for assessing options for any kind of issue like affordable housing,” she said. “I see no evidence that this best practice was used.”

Other candidates, including Jeffrey McNary, spurn the housing overlay in favor of alternative policies that are better tailored to Cambridge and its particular needs. He also said he considers the proposal “exotic.”

“We just don't see that as good public policy at this point. It could be refreshed,” he said. “It could be a teachable moment for a lot of us, you know, myself included, and other players here. But I think that there are other more direct and immediate routes that can be taken.”

Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern, a fervent advocate of the overlay, defended it in a July interview.

“The housing overlay is a key initiative, I think that we have to make it easier to finance affordable housing projects,” he said. “I understand that that makes people nervous and change is difficult. But again, it's about priorities and keeping Cambridge a diverse city, making sure that people with lower incomes can still live here has always been my priority, and that doesn't come without some degree of sacrifice and change.”

—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.

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