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Cambridge Planning Board Recommends Affordable Housing Overlay to City Council

The Cambridge Planning Board voted Tuesday to recommend an affordable housing overlay zoning petition to the Cambridge City Council.
The Cambridge Planning Board voted Tuesday to recommend an affordable housing overlay zoning petition to the Cambridge City Council. By Steve S. Li
By Meera S. Nair, Crimson Staff Writer

The Cambridge Planning Board voted Tuesday to recommend an affordable housing overlay zoning petition to the Cambridge City Council.

The overlay — a key issue in the last election cycle — will allow affordable housing developers to compete with market rates by streamlining the permitting process for units that are deemed 100 percent affordable.

The Planning Board voted 7-to-1 in favor of recommending the overlay to the City Council. The overlay will need to be presented to the entire City Council before it can be officially passed.

Councilor and former Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern, a strong proponent of the overlay, said while it is yet to be seen whether the overlay will be officially adopted, he is “very excited” about its prospect.

“I really hope that this leads to better integration of our neighborhoods by allowing more affordable housing to be built in areas that are currently lacking in affordable housing,” McGovern said.

McGovern sponsored the proposal to re-introduce the overlay along with Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, Councilor E. Denise Simmons, and Councilor Timothy J. Toomey Jr. after the initial proposal was dropped in 2019.

In his statement Tuesday evening in front of the Planning Board, McGovern referred to a redlining map of Cambridge that showcased the areas of the city where banks had denied mortgages in the 1930s to people of color and lower-income residents of certain neighborhoods.

“When we look at where our affordable housing is located today, it is almost a perfect match to our redlining map,” McGovern said. “This, of course, is not the fault of anyone here tonight and is not the fault of anyone who resides in those neighborhoods, but we have a chance now to help rectify that injustice, by making it easier to build affordable housing in areas where it currently doesn’t exist.”

Allan E. Sadun, co-chair of affordable housing advocacy group A Better Cambridge, wrote in an emailed statement that while his organization is pleased with the board’s decision, he hopes to see more follow-up measures enacted, such as stronger tenant protections and the elimination of parking minimums.

“Cambridge's housing problems go beyond a shortage of affordable housing - we have a shortage of all kinds of housing, plus a displacement crisis coming up whenever Governor Baker's eviction moratorium expires,” Sadun wrote.

Cambridge resident and former City Councilor David E. Sullivan said he was “delighted by the vote” and believes that the overlay has “a very strong likelihood” of being passed by the City Council.

“Six members of the City Council have made it very clear that they support this, and the overlay needs six votes out of the nine members of the City Council for it to pass,” Sullivan said.

If passed by the City Council, Sullivan said he believes the affordable housing overlay will “ensure that every neighborhood of our city is open to people of all races and all incomes.”

“We need more housing of all kinds in our city, but we especially need housing for low- and moderate-income people,” Sullivan said. “They are being priced out of our city, and this is an important way, not the only way, but an important way to get more housing.”

“I think it is a matter of not only economic justice but also social justice,” he added.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

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