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City Council Votes to Send Housing Overlay to Ordinance Committee

Several Cambridge politicians have proposed measures to increase the amount of affordable housing in the city.
Several Cambridge politicians have proposed measures to increase the amount of affordable housing in the city. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Maria G. Gonzalez, Crimson Staff Writer

The Cambridge City Council voted to bring a proposed affordable housing overlay before the planning board and ordinance committee during their meeting Monday night.

The overlay — which was a key issue in the last election cycle — is a zoning proposal that would allow affordable housing developers to compete with market rates by streamlining permitting processes for housing units that are considered 100 percent affordable.

Cambridge’s municipal zoning laws require a minimum of six votes to pass the council; in September, city councilors unanimously voted to table the overlay after months of heated debate indicated that the measure would not pass if put to a vote.

The policy order that the council approved Monday will bring the 2020 version of the overlay back to the planning board and ordinance committee for further discussion.

During the public comment section of Monday’s meeting, Cambridge residents said they had mixed feelings about the measure’s revival.

Harvard Square Neighborhood Association president and Fine Arts and African American Studies professor at Harvard Suzanne P. Blier said she was “disappointed” to see the overlay return “without new study or discussion about key problems and touch points in it.”

Blier said that an amended housing overlay should take the environment, sustainability, and social equity in housing into consideration.

“We need to look at the root causes of these concerns and not advocate for a band-aid that does not stop the bleeding and does not resolve the core problems,” she added.

Other residents during the public comment section said that the reintroduction of the housing overlay is a necessary step that the city must take to create affordable housing.

Eva Martin-Blythe, executive director of the Young Women’s Christian Association in Cambridge, said the overlay “may not be perfect” but offers a “manageable solution” to the city’s housing crisis.

“We've micromanaged and weighed down the overlay proposal so much that continued discussion and continued work on it and continued changes and amendments to it run the risk of it being non-functional,” Martin-Blythe said.

“I don't believe that that's what we want,” she added. “Every time there's a proposal on the table, like the hundred percent housing overlay that is in any way reasonable, we will support it.”

During Monday’s meeting, Councilor Marc C. McGovern, who sponsored the proposal to re-introduce the overlay alongside Councilor E. Denise Simmons, Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, Councillor Timothy J. Toomey Jr., spoke about how the new proposal includes discussion and deliberation that took place last year.

McGovern said the overlay was discussed in “over twenty community meetings” and that ordinance committee discussions totaled roughly 2700 hours last term.

He also noted that out of 62 proposed amendments, 46 amendments were approved throughout previous deliberation. All 46 amendments have been incorporated into the new version of the overlay, according to McGovern.

“We have done a lot of work on this, and all we're doing tonight is moving into ordinance where we're going to do more work,” McGovern said.

“I hope we can just move this forward and dig deeper into the merits and any other amendments that we're going to adopt in the ordinance committee,” he added.

—Staff writer Maria G. Gonzalez can be reached at maria.gonzalez@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariaagrace1.

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