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Möge Tee, the fourth bubble tea shop in Harvard Square, is now open for business. With this new store joining the ranks of other post-pandemic players like Blue Bottle and Tiger Sugar, the Square has never been more welcoming and alluring to budding beverage connoisseurs — the kind willing to drop upwards of $6 on a tea or latte, that is.
To be clear, we have nothing against bubble tea. We believe food can serve as a practical, delectable entrance point to a variety of cultures and we reject the potential conflation of diverse food options with inaccessibility as both misguided and demonstrably false. But even as we maintain the value of cultural food options in the Square, the new bubble tea shop’s opening reminds us of a problem that has long plagued Harvard Square: the affordability crisis.
With a cost of living 75 percent higher than the national average, students and residents in Cambridge suffer from a lack of cheap food options — and only exceedingly wealthy student groups can readily afford to own off-campus social spaces, atrophying social life. It often feels like Harvard Square is built for wealthy tourists, with storefronts featuring a saturation of luxury brands and restaurants that many Harvard students would likely never consider stepping foot into (or risk draining their wallets by doing so).
Amidst a national reckoning on land use, we, too, must reckon with the larger, structural forces that shape the shops we pass, but hardly enter, on our way to class. We’re talking about zoning codes.
Cambridge zoning regulations have a distinct set of rules governing fast food. Regulating everything from the restaurant exterior’s sensitivity to the “visual and physical characteristics of other buildings” to effects on double parking and neighborhood safety, Cambridge has effectively constructed a massive roadblock to new quick-service and affordable food establishments.
Some of the results: $1.6 million for the average Cambridge family home. $14 salad at Sweetgreen, but no McDonalds in the Square. Packed bars without empty tables as early as 10 p.m. An abundance of beverage shops with menu items priced at or higher than half the hourly minimum wage.
In one of the most liberal cities in America, low-income residents and low-price businesses have found themselves victims of a wealthy gatekeeping policy — one with disproportionate negative effects on unhoused residents, whose housing insecurity is overwhelmingly due to rising rent prices in the city.
We don’t claim to know the full solution to our pricing woes. But one step is dizzyingly obvious: Allow more houses and restaurants to be built, thereby lowering property prices. The city of Cambridge and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts need to loosen their overly restrictive zoning regulations. And they need to do this now.
It’s equally obvious that zoning codes are not the only upward pressure on urban prices, and that cheaper commercial properties do not necessarily translate to cheaper options for consumers. But, by definition, zoning laws constrain what can be built and who can afford commercial and residential space. This isn’t just a Cambridge problem; it’s happening all across the U.S.
At a time when affordable housing supply trails demand by nearly four million units, restrictions like large minimum lot sizes, single-family occupancy requirements for residential units, and arbitrary height ceilings have the effect of preventing our cities from meeting the demand they face — causing housing prices to balloon as a result.
Liberalizing these draconian regulations — which were initially enacted to keep out residents of a lower socioeconomic status — would go a long way towards creating a more equitable Cambridge, from cheaper housing to more affordable food options.
Until then, Harvard should subsidize food options in the Square, particularly for low-income students who are left with nothing but overpriced salad bowls and burgers that figure somewhere in the double digits. Extending dining hall hours, too, would help prevent students from being forced out into an increasingly unaffordable food scene once the servery doors close for the evening.
It isn’t any lack of want by students that prevents us from having more options for nightlife, affordable food, and other amenities in Harvard Square. We want more bars, a bite that doesn’t drain our wallets, and a college town environment that feels like a community and treats people as such, buoyed by relationships that exist past a credit card transaction.
We love Grendel’s Den. But we wouldn’t say no to a Toad’s Place by its side — nor any amendment to zoning regulations that would result in a more lively, accessible, and inclusive Square for all.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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