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Cambridge Council Housing Committee Discusses Affordable Housing Expansion Plan

Cambridge City Hall is located in Central Square.
Cambridge City Hall is located in Central Square. By Julian J. Giordano
By Erika K. Chung and Emily L. Ding, Crimson Staff Writers

Cambridge City Council’s Housing Committee met Wednesday to discuss proposals to loosen height restrictions and increase floor space in affordable housing.

The proposals would amend Cambridge’s 100%-Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay — a law that aims to mitigate zoning and parking restrictions on affordable housing developers — to allow for the construction of 13-story affordable housing developments along some major Cambridge streets and 25-story developments in some Cambridge squares, including Harvard Square.

Wednesday’s meeting included City Councilors, representatives from the Cambridge Housing Authority, and members of the public. The proposed amendments expand the overlay’s dimensional requirements and could lead to the construction of more housing units.

City Councilor Marc C. McGovern began by stressing the urgency of Cambridge’s affordable housing crisis and how the city has taken little action to address it.

“We have a housing emergency. People agree to that, I think,” McGovern said. “And that’s not going to be solved by nibbling around the edges. The reality is that we get into debates about adding 19 feet of height to a building to create housing.”

McGovern said the city has thus far fallen short of affordable housing goals set out by Envision Cambridge, the city’s sustainable growth plan. Over 20,000 people are on the city’s affordable housing waiting list, 7,000 of whom live or work in Cambridge.

“We are nowhere close to being on track to reaching our Envision goals, which state that we need to build 12,500 housing units by 2030,” McGovern said.

Some residents opposed the zoning expansion. Marilee Meyer, a board member of the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association, said while she supported affordable housing in general, a 25-story tower in Harvard Square would be “inappropriate.”

“Location does matter,” Meyer said. “Infrastructure capacity is an issue and the AHO would require teardowns citywide, adding to greenhouse gasses.”

Some residents who spoke in support of the changes urged increases in housing density. Sara E. Barcan ’89, executive director of Homeowner’s Rehab Incorporated, said the plan would make it easier for developers to create large-scale affordable housing.

“The idea that we might be able to design our building as densely as possible and still provide some open space to residents and to the community is just extremely attractive, and I think will help all of us further those goals that we all share,” Barcan said.

McGovern also discussed the benefits of the amendments in housing zones across the city. He provided Cambridge Housing Authority projects 116 Norfolk, Jefferson Park Federal, and 52 New Street as examples.

“What CHA told us is that if they had more flexibility, particularly around height and density, they could’ve built a better project here, which would have been an additional unit, as well as additional open space,” McGovern said of the 116 Norfolk project.

The proposed changes, which would trim restrictions on building height, setback, and floor-to-area ratios for affordable housing developments, are the product of collaboration between the Cambridge Housing Authority and developers.

City Councilor Burhan Azeem described the scale of new AHO projects under the amendments.

“The six-story districts are going to nine stories, and the seven-story districts will now go to 13 stories,” he said.

About a dozen streets would also be affected by the amendments. Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan said the committee focused on a “corridors and squares” approach — concentrating affordable housing initiatives on main corridors in each Cambridge neighborhood as well as squares that have been zoned for commercial development.

“The corridors and the squares were selected because those are where we have our transit hubs,” Zondervan said. “We can build affordable housing near MBTA stops, along bus routes, bike and pedestrian infrastructure that we’re putting in place there.”

Toward the end of the meeting, residents and advocates gave public comments, with each allotted 2 minutes.

Allan Sadun, co-chair of A Better Cambridge, told the committee “to take full advantage of every site.”

“It’s extremely cost ineffective to build small-scale affordable housing, but by allowing medium- to large-scale affordable housing on a number of priority sites and areas in every neighborhood, these amendments give affordable housing developers options,” Sadun said.

Resident Annmarie Flynn said she does not support the high-density construction that the amendments would promote.

“I don’t think that squishing everybody together is a good idea,” Flynn said. “If we are going to build housing, make it something that’s nice, make it desirable housing. Don’t make it just affordable and go with the cheapest possible way to pack in lots of people.”

McGovern said affordable housing planning should be focused on the people, rather than other concerns.

“We get so caught up in the numbers,” McGovern said. “All of this inertia when we really forget that housing is about people: who is going to get to stay in our community and who is not?”

—Staff writer Erika K. Chung can be reached at erika.chung@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @erikakychung.

—Staff writer Emily L. Ding can be reached at emily.ding@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilylding.

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