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The Cambridge City Council voted 6-3 to pass a set of hotly debated amendments to the city’s 100%-Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay in a meeting Monday evening, setting the stage for taller, denser affordable housing developments throughout the city.
Introduced in February and sponsored by Councilors Burhan Azeem, Marc C. McGovern, E. Denise Simmons, and Quinton Y. Zondervan, the amendments — dubbed “AHO2” — increased height limits for buildings with 100 percent affordable housing from current maximums across the city, with the highest limits of 15 stories in Harvard, Central, and Porter Square.
The amendments are also set to expand open space around the city by allowing developers to consolidate housing into taller buildings and by removing the requirement for setbacks — the distance between developments and their adjacent property lines — for most buildings.
Councilors Dennis Carlone, Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80, and Paul F. Toner voted against the amendments, citing concerns about the means through which the amendments would expand housing.
Passed in 2020 and set to expire on Oct. 29, the original housing overlay encouraged the development of affordable housing units by streamlining the permit approval process and reducing costs for building developers.
Since the passage of the original AHO, 616 units of housing have been approved under its provisions.
Councilor E. Denise Simmons said she supported the AHO2 amendments because they provide “long-needed opportunities for affordable housing.”
“There are no silver bullets that will resolve our affordable housing prices. But with tools like improved Affordable Housing Overlay, we are creating opportunities for this critically needed housing to be built, homes to be built,” Simmons said.
“We are creating new opportunities for people to work in our schools and our fire department and our medical centers and our city hall to remain living in community,” she added.
Nolan, who voted against the amendments, stressed that she was not anti-housing and said her record reflected strong support for affordable housing policies. Nolan said she opposed the amendments in part because the city did not conduct a review of the original AHO following its implementation, a practice not in line with “good governance.”
“The review would show that most of the 616 units — most of which are just under development, not yet developed — will expand existing affordable housing developments, which was not the main intent of the AHO and, arguably, all of those would and could have been built without the AHO — perhaps with a little more time and cost,” Nolan added.
Nolan said she also opposed the lack of flexibility in building height in the AHO2 amendments, referencing changes she proposed with Toner and Carlone that would have increased height restrictions in certain AHO “corridors” and set aside units for the middle class. Changes Nolan proposed failed twice in 6-3 votes in September and October that preceded and predicted Monday’s final vote.
The opposing councilors said they realized the amendments would likely pass but still registered their discontent.
Zoning should “give reasonable knowledge of what can be built next to where you live, you know what your neighbor can do,” Carlone said.
“But this is Russian Roulette zoning. No one knows what site is going to be purchased,” Carlone added.
Other councilors celebrated the end of what they viewed as a long fight.
Councilor Burhan Azeem said the vote on the amendments was long overdue, noting “over a dozen hearings, a lot of conversation, and a notable number of amendments” since the amendments’ introduction in February leading up to their passage this October.
Azeem also praised the impact of the Affordable Housing Overlay since its passage in 2020, adding that he is excited to be a part of expanding Cambridge’s housing.
“I imagine 616 families in front of us today that got to live in our city — just seeing them fill up an auditorium,” he said.
—Staff writer Samuel P. Goldston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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