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City Council Puts Ending Single-Family Zoning Back on the Table

The Cambridge City Council meets on a Monday last month. The Cambridge City Council is again considering a proposal to end single-family zoning.
The Cambridge City Council meets on a Monday last month. The Cambridge City Council is again considering a proposal to end single-family zoning. By Emma A. Lucas
By Laurel M. Shugart and Olivia W. Zheng, Crimson Staff Writers

Once again, the Cambridge City Council is considering a proposal to end single-family zoning across the city.

On Monday, councilors discussed a new policy order requesting that City Manager Yi-An Huang ’05 direct the Community Development Department to develop zoning language that “effectively promotes multi-family housing” all throughout Cambridge.

Nearly one-third of residential land in Cambridge is zoned for single-family and two-family houses, which many advocates and city officials say has contributed to the city’s affordable housing crisis and is a relic of racist mid-century housing policies.

In December 2020, the Council unanimously resolved that single-family zoning is an“unnecessary artifact” of historically exclusionary policies. But though discussions continued into the following Council term, the body has yet to take concrete action to end single-family zoning.

On Monday, several councilors stressed the gravity of Cambridge’s housing shortage.

“We’re losing many folks in our community because of the cost of housing,” said Mayor E. Denise Simmons, a co-sponsor of the policy order.

“Housing is the number one issue in the city, and affordability is one of the most important issues that this Council has been trying to deal with for a while,” said Councilor Joan F. Pickett.

The policy order received support from housing advocacy group A Better Cambridge, whose co-chair Justin N. Saif ’99 told The Crimson on Monday that the change would “open up all of Cambridge to more folks that were historically excluded.”

But Pickett exercised her “charter right” to table the discussion until the subsequent meeting, citing a need for more discussion amid mounting concerns from community groups on the impacts of the proposal.

In a statement last week, the Cambridge Housing Justice Coalition said the change would only exacerbate existing housing inequalities.

“Unless we are very careful, the result will be expanded construction of expensive private market housing that won’t help and may well harm the no-, low-, and moderate-income people who are most affected by the housing crisis in Cambridge,” CHJC wrote.

These concerns were echoed by Lee Farris, the president of Cambridge Residents Alliance, who said in an interview that the change would not incentivize multifamily housing in Cambridge’s most expensive and least dense neighborhoods.

“I live in the Port,” Farris said. “It’s already one of the densest, if not the densest neighborhoods in the city, and the housing prices are lower here than they are per square foot in the less dense areas.”

“So what is the city going to do to make sure that all of this new housing just doesn’t get squeezed further into the densest neighborhoods?” she added.

If the policy order were to pass, it would likely kick off a prolonged process of public deliberations between the Council and city staff with the hopes of developing a concrete set of amendments to the zoning code.

But though this process could open up the door for further opposition from community groups or residents, Vice Mayor Marc C. McGovern said he was confident that there was a broad coalition in support of the ultimate goal of making zoning more inclusive.

“I think a lot of different groups that often are at odds with each other around development and housing,” McGovern said. “One thing that people tend to agree on across the board was that we need to end exclusionary zoning.”

“This is getting the ball rolling and getting it started, which we’ve been talking about for a long time,” McGovern added.

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

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

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City PoliticsCambridge City CouncilCambridgeMetroHousing