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Cambridge’s Landmark Affordable Housing Policy, Explained

Cambridge City Hall is located at 795 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge City Hall is located at 795 Massachusetts Ave. By Julian J. Giordano
By Laurel M. Shugart and Olivia W. Zheng, Crimson Staff Writers

The 2019 election cycle in Cambridge was defined by the introduction of the Affordable Housing Overlay, an ambitious — and hotly contested — proposal to expand and expedite the construction of affordable housing across the city.

Debate over the policy reignited late last year when the City Council passed a set of amendments to the AHO which could drastically increase the height of affordable housing developments in certain high-density areas of the city.

But despite the fervent debate over both the initial ordinance and the 2023 amendments, many residents still do not fully understand the AHO, which consists of a detailed set of modifications to the city’s already-complicated zoning code.

The Crimson broke down the amendments and the original policy to explain exactly what the AHO allows, what it has done to alleviate the city’s entrenched affordable housing crisis, and why exactly it has generated such controversy.

What Did The Original AHO Do?

The AHO — passed by the Council in 2020 after heated debate — is designed to help developers build affordable housing projects more cost effectively across Cambridge, including areas where existing affordable housing opportunities are scarce.

Under Cambridge’s zoning code, each piece of land is tightly regulated, with restrictions on the type of buildings permitted in addition to their height, density, size, and other characteristics.

But under the AHO, developers can bypass existing zoning restrictions to build developments containing 100 percent affordable units with more density and height than is typically allowed.

Though the specific height limits for AHO projects vary across the city, in general, they are allowed to exceed normal height limits by between five and 85 feet. The AHO also allows for projects that are twice as dense than normal developments or more.

Unlike typical large or multifamily developments, which require approval from the city’s Planning Board, AHO projects are not subject to Planning Board approval. Instead, developers are only required to hold at least two community meetings and undergo a design consultation and revision process with the Planning Board.

How Did The City Council Amend The AHO?

In October 2023, the City Council passed a set of amendments to the AHO — colloquially known as AHO 2.0 — expanding the height limits for fully affordable projects in densely populated areas of the city.

The amendments allow for AHO projects to reach up to 12 stories high along major thoroughfares in Cambridge — including Alewife Brook Parkway, Broadway, Cambridge Street, Fresh Pond Parkway, Massachusetts Avenue, Memorial Drive, and Mt. Auburn Street — and up to 15 stories in Central, Harvard, and Porter Squares.

As with the original AHO, projects developed in these corridors and squares do not require city approval to move forward; rather, they must undergo a public feedback process.

“CDD staff works with affordable housing providers and developers as they advance proposals through the AHO process, with community meetings and then advisory design review at the Planning Board,” wrote Chris Cotter, Housing Director for the city Community Development Department.

The AHO 2.0 projects have no maximum density and a much more flexible required unit size, allowing developers to maximize the amount of affordable units on their land in previously-forbidden ways.

What Has The AHO Done So Far?

Since the AHO was adopted, developers have proposed affordable housing projects totaling more than 700 rental units.

Vice Mayor Marc C. McGovern, who sponsored the original AHO, estimated that the rate of affordable housing development jumped from 40 units per year prior to an average of 200 units per year under the AHO.

“I think it’s been very successful,” McGovern said.

The biggest project is a renovation of the existing affordable developments at Jefferson Park Federal, led by the Cambridge Housing Authority. After renovation, the development is projected to offer 278 units across six four-story buildings.

Community development corporation Just A Start Corporation is also developing a 106-unit project on 52 New Street, with most of the apartments designed for housing families. The development is set to be completed in October of next year.

Earlier this year, nonprofit housing developer B’nai B’rith Housing presented a plan for a 110-unit project for seniors at 87-101 Blanchard Road.

Other projects include a 62-unit development at 116 Norfolk Street from the CHA and two projects from affordable housing developer Homeowner’s Rehab Inc.: a 29-unit development at 1627 Massachusetts Avenue and an indeterminate number of units at 30 Wendell Street.

How Are Developments Considered Affordable?

Developments are considered affordable under the AHO if every unit in the building is available to households earning, at most, 100 percent of the area median income, which is calculated by the Department for Housing and Urban Development.

The median income in the area of Boston, Cambridge and Quincy ranges from $104,500 for a one-person household to $149,300 for a family of four.

AHO projects are also required to reserve at least fifty percent of units for households making no more than 80 percent of the median income.

Initial occupants may continue to rent AHO units even after exceeding the area median income as long as their household income remains below 120 percent of the median income.

“Access to affordable housing directly benefits low- and moderate-income households who would otherwise be unable to afford market-rate housing in Cambridge,” Cotter wrote in an email.

How Has Cambridge Reacted?

The AHO has been widely praised by Cambridge housing activists, notably the advocacy group A Better Cambridge. However, it has been met with criticism by both civic leaders and neighborhood groups in every stage of its amendment process.

Some residents have said that loosened building restrictions and fewer opportunities for community feedback under the AHO 2.0 could have adverse environmental consequences.

In the most recent design guidelines for AHO projects, developers are encouraged to incorporate materials and green walls to minimize heat absorption to reduce the environmental impacts that large developments pose.

But Cambridge resident Suzanne P. Blier said the AHO’s provisions for trees and green space are insufficient “in a time of enormous climate change.”

“We know that the most important things in terms of keeping things cooler are trees and green spaces,” said Blier, a Harvard professor of architectural history.

“Very tall buildings have heat island impacts,” she added.

Though Blier leads the Cambridge Citizens Coalition — a residents group which has been critical of the AHO and its amendments — and is a Harvard professor of architectural history, she said she spoke to The Crimson only in her capacity as a concerned resident.

Stockard said it was important for the city to seriously consider the environmental impacts of AHO developments. “I would try hard to do an analysis from that point of view, without letting it limit the density,” he said.

Some residents and advocates have also voiced concerns that new AHO developments, especially ones that reach the increased height limits under the AHO2.0, would be incongruent with the historic nature of Cambridge.

Blier said that residents wanting to live in Cambridge prefer the city’s older buildings to newer developments.

“If you speak with a realtor, you realize people moving into Cambridge really are looking for that single family home or that larger condo and they're preferring older to brand new,” said Blier, “There’s a disconnect, really, between the market demand and what is being proposed within the city policies.”

But Magda Maaoui, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies studying the AHO, said the idea that “you’re going to have something that’s completely non harmonious in tomorrow’s fabric” was a “misconception” with the policy.

She said that beyond the socioeconomic impact, the city put “a lot of care” into analyzing the policy “aesthetically, from a design perspective.”

Burhan Azeem, a Cambridge City Councilor and long-time proponent of affordable housing, also dismissed the concern that the AHO would only serve to create “very tall buildings everywhere.”

“We are talking about needing about 50,000 new units built across Massachusetts, every year for the next decade or two, to make a dent in our housing crisis,” Azeem said.

“The AHO will maybe produce a couple 100,” Azeem said, “It’s not going to change their city overnight.”

—Staff writer Laurel M. Shugart can be reached at Follow them on X @laurelmshugart or on Threads @laurel.shugart.

—Staff writer Olivia W. Zheng can be reached at Follow her on X @oliviawzg.

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