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Proposal to Abolish Single-Family Zoning in Cambridge Moves Forward

The Cambridge City Council's Housing Committee voted to begin drafting a zoning proposal that wpuld pave the way for multifamily zoning across the city.
The Cambridge City Council's Housing Committee voted to begin drafting a zoning proposal that wpuld pave the way for multifamily zoning across the city. By Julian J. Giordano
By Laurel M. Shugart, Crimson Staff Writer

The proposal to abolish single-family zoning in Cambridge is moving forward through the City Council, heralding a radical shift in the city’s housing policy.

In a Wednesday meeting, the Council’s Housing Committee unanimously voted to begin working with the city’s Community Development Department to draft a zoning proposal that will allow for multifamily zoning across Cambridge.

Though the proposal must be approved by the full Council, the unanimous endorsement of the Housing Committee — whose five members already constitute a majority in the nine-member body — indicates that the proposal is all but certain to be adopted.

Nearly one-third of residential land in Cambridge is zoned for single-family and two-family houses, which advocates, academics, and city officials say has contributed to the city’s shortage of affordable housing.

Harvard Economics professor Jason Furman ’92, formerly a top economist in the Obama administration, testified at the Wednesday meeting in support of the order.

“I think this is the biggest piece of the puzzle when it comes to housing in Cambridge. No policy is going to work if there’s not enough housing,” Furman said in a Monday interview.

While many critics of multifamily zoning suggest other ways for the city to increase housing supply, city officials said Cambridge has already exhausted many other avenues to do so.

“The big move that created the greatest amount of new housing was to allow residential development or allow housing in areas that were previously zoned commercial. This is something that Cambridge did 20-plus years ago in the year 2000,” Assistant City Manager Iram Farooq said in the meeting.

“That option of kind of a low hanging fruit is not so available to us,” she added.

Vice Mayor Marc C. McGovern said multifamily zoning would create more housing opportunities for middle-income residents who do not qualify for current low-income housing options.

“We talk about not wanting to be a city that’s 80 percent rich and 20 percent low-income,” McGovern said. “But if we don’t build more housing to allow for middle-income people to stay here, that’s exactly what we’re going to become.”

“The demographic of people we’re losing the most of are people who earn too much money to qualify for subsidies, but not enough money to actually stay here,” he added.

Though city officials and advocates alike acknowledged that ending single-family zoning will not solve the housing crisis alone during the meeting, they welcomed the change as a key plank in the city’s efforts to tackle the housing crisis from all angles.

“This is also part of a broader national trend towards reducing exclusionary zoning,” Furman said during his testimony, adding that empirical research consistently finds that restrictive zoning policies “reduce supply, reduce the number of people that can live in the areas in terms of rent and pricing.”

“Part of my enthusiasm about being here is that I would love Cambridge to set a national model for this, and people to see what you all do, to see what it does to make lives better in our city and want to adopt similar ideas elsewhere,” he added.

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

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