As Cambridge Residents Head to the Polls, Housing Remains Top Issue
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As Cambridge voters prepare to go to the polls this Tuesday, there are few doubts about the most pressing issue on their minds: housing.
In an opinion survey last year, a political consulting firm found that 44 percent of Cambridge residents said housing was the most important issue for city government, with bike lanes and safety coming “in distant second” at 20 percent. More than half of the 24 Cambridge City Council candidates’ websites listed housing as the first issue on their platforms — and only one did not name “affordable housing” at all.
Dan Phillips, co-chair of A Better Cambridge — a pro-affordable housing advocacy group — said he believes “there’s a lot that hinges on this election for housing in Cambridge.”
“A lot of it, I think, is going to depend on turnout and whether people in Cambridge really turn out to vote for more housing.” Phillips said.
In 2022, Cambridge’s affordable housing waitlist was more than 20,000 names long. In 2023, according to the Community Development Department, Cambridge contained roughly 8,500 affordable housing units, representing 14.8 percent of the almost 58,000 total units in the city.
Meanwhile, the median home value in Cambridge is nearing a million dollars, and the median rent is $3,350 a month, according to Zillow — both higher than the state and national averages.
Under Cambridge’s landmark affordable housing law, the 100%-Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay, 616 units of affordable housing have been approved for development. None have yet been completed as of last month.
The AHO, passed by the Council in 2020, streamlines the permit approval process for developments containing only units that are rent-capped and income-restricted, with the goal of reducing costs for affordable housing developers.
Tuesday’s election comes on the heels of major recent updates to the city’s housing and development laws.
Last month, the Council passed a set of amendments to the AHO, known as the AHO 2.0, paving the way for taller and denser affordable housing developments in certain areas of Cambridge. The Council also voted 8-1 to eliminate parking minimums for new constructions last fall.
Both decisions have drawn controversy from several candidates, who argue they promote developments that clash with neighborhood character and make the city less liveable. Proponents say the AHO 2.0 will increase the number of affordable housing units, allowing more low-income families to live in the city.
Justin N. Saif ’99, the other co-chair of A Better Cambridge, said this election is significant for future Cambridge housing policy, noting that two current councilors who voted to pass the AHO 2.0 — Vice Mayor Alanna M. Mallon and Quinton Y. Zondervan — are not seeking re-election.
A Better Cambridge has endorsed nine City Council candidates leading up to this year’s elections. Phillips said voters should examine the voting record of incumbents to determine whether they would follow through with their promises surrounding affordable housing policy.
“You’re going to find the words ‘affordable housing’ on pretty much every candidate’s website somewhere,” said Phillips, the co-chair of A Better Cambridge. “No one in their right mind would say that they oppose that directly.”
“But when you look at the voting record, you can see who supports and doesn’t support expanding the Affordable Housing Overlay,” he added.
Of the Councilors seeking reelection, Burhan Azeem, Marc C. McGovern, E. Denise Simmons and Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui voted in favor of the AHO 2.0 amendments, while incumbents Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80 and Paul F. Toner voted against the measure. Dennis J. Carlone, who also voted against the amendments, is not running for reelection.
Carl Nagy-Koechlin, executive director of the Cambridge affordable housing developer Just A Start, said there was a “consensus related to the need for more affordable housing” and that “Cambridge’s economic diversity is an important priority for almost everybody in the city.”
Still, there are “disagreements about how aggressive to be” with affordable housing policy, he said.
Magda Maaoui, a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, said Cambridge’s affordable housing programs have been “models for other parts of the country.”
Cambridge “has a lot of potential” to be “leading the way in terms of housing reform,” she said.
—Staff writer Emily L. Ding can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X @emilylding.
—Staff writer Jack R. Trapanick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on X @jackrtrapanick.
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