Affordable Housing Debate Continues — Next Hearing 8/30 (One Response)

The inclusionary housing study that was released last spring had its fourth hearing before the Housing Committee on August 15. As a committee member I regret that I was unable to attend this hearing due previously planned travel, but I have since watched the video of the sometimes contentious two-plus-hour debate. There’s a good summary of the meeting in Cambridge Day.

Having waited well over a year for this study to be completed and released, people are justifiably frustrated that the debate over the proposed changes seems to be dragging on. With the Planning Board and the Affordable Housing Trust having backed the study’s recommendation to increase the required percentage from 11.5% to 20%, we had seemed to be heading toward consensus at last month’s hearing. But after expressing only tepid opposition up to now, the development community surprised the committee by coming to the most recent hearing armed with a presentation that asserted that a 20% inclusionary requirement would make housing development so unprofitable that capital would flow into commercial and lab developments instead. According to their hired-gun experts, land values would drop, fewer new housing units would be produced, and rents would rise, pricing even more people out of the city. No one would be happy. In the words of one local developer we risk “breaking” a system that has produced about 900 affordable units since its introduction in 1998. And yet I wonder how many more inclusionary units might have been produced in say, the Alewife Quad, if certain property owners hadn’t spent the last decade or so flipping large parcels for multi-million dollars profits, and had instead capitalized on historically low interest rates and favorable market conditions?

The inclusionary percentage the big developers say works quite well for them hasn’t been raised since the program’s inception 16 years ago, and it’s no secret that we have been rapidly losing low, moderate and middle income residents as property values, rents and investor profits for soar. Even placing 20% of units in the inclusionary program means that 80% of new units will be unaffordable to most people. Our local workforce needs local housing and shouldn’t have to pay 50% or more of their income on rent. Lots of people are already unhappy. Doing nothing is not an option.

So, what we need for our next meeting is a road map for “Getting to 20%” and ultimately beyond, and creating carrots and sticks that will produce more balanced and sustainable housing growth. The four Housing Committee members present at the hearing (Carlone, Mazen, McGovern and Simmons) seemed to agree that 20% is the goal, and that the focus of the August 30 hearing should be to consider a menu of “offsets” that will respond to some of the developers’ concerns.(Councillor Maher, who is not a committee member, was non-committal.)

I’d like us to consider lowering the parking ratio citywide (to reduce both construction costs and CO2) and offering some tax incentives before we rush to further increase the current 30% density bonus; more density on a site generally translates to reduced setbacks and greater height (resulting in less open space, a less human scale, and higher construction costs for steel frame buildings). I’m open to phasing in the increase, as suggested by CDD, and indexing the percentage to some economic measure, though I’m pretty confident that the Cambridge market will remain strong given the scarcity of developable land and the fundamentals of knowledge economy (our largest employers, MIT and Harvard, aren’t going anywhere). Setting a higher rate for mixed use Planned Urban Developments (PUDs) than for standalone housing projects is worth considering as well. The finalist candidates for the city manager position, whom we’ll be interviewing next month, should be prepared to discuss affordable housing strategies.

The Housing Committee will meet again on August 30 at 5:30pm before (we hope) voting to send our detailed recommendations along to the Ordinance Committee for further consideration this fall. Any zoning change requires a 2/3 vote of the full council to pass.

We’ve been fishing for five months. Now it’s time to cut bait.

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    Jan Devereux
    City Councillor
    Cambridge, MA