Affordable Housing Overlay Deconstructed (Part II) (6 Responses)

This is the second in a two-part post (read the first post).

Here are my questions and suggestions for changes to the 100% Affordable Housing Overlay zoning:

1. It’s a market-based approach — the density multiples are calculated on today’s market values and construction costs. What happens when prices increase? Will we need even greater densities for affordable developers to remain competitive? Will it raise market prices if other buyers know they are bidding against developers who don’t have to seek any approvals for more units?

2. The Overlay’s goal of increasing housing diversity (both in scale and form and by income) within neighborhoods is in conflict with the city’s own growth policies that prioritize incremental development consistent with existing patterns.

Envision Final Report: “Residential neighborhoods should be areas of low expected growth, largely retaining their existing fabric while allowing for complementary infill development, consistent with the broader city goals.” (pg. 42)

“Envision Cambridge recognizes that development should happen much more slowly and incrementally in these areas, and that the essence of each neighborhood is unlikely to change. Such stability is a good thing for the livability of the city. However, even the most stable neighborhood areas will experience economic and demographic changes, and redevelopment will occur on some sites within those neighborhoods. Cambridge should take advantage of these small changes in the urban fabric to support citywide goals, including an increase in and equitable distribution of affordable housing throughout the city.” (caption pg. 44)

This stated principle is directly descended from the first three policies of the Cambridge Growth Policy document quoted beow:

Cambridge Growth Policy – Toward a Sustainable Future (1993, updated 2007)

[Full Document – with graphics and narratives]

Policy 1: Existing residential neighborhoods, or any portions of a neighborhood having an identifiable and consistent built character, should be maintained at their prevailing pattern of development and building density and scale.

Policy 2: Except in evolving industrial areas, the city’s existing land use structure and the area of residential and commercial neighborhoods should remain essentially as they have developed historically.

Policy 3: The wide diversity of development patterns, uses, scales, and densities present within the city’s many residential and commercial districts should be retained and strengthened. That diversity should be between and among the various districts, not necessarily within each individual one.

3. For me, the lack of any broader planning priorities or specific criteria within the AHO that would guide affordable developers in their site selection is troubling. There are undoubtedly sites in all neighborhoods where such projects would: 1) create more units and increase income diversity, 2) align with and further our broader planning and environmental goals, and 3) enhance neighborhood livability and social cohesion. And there are unquestionably sites where significantly out-of-scale buildings would not meet all three criteria.  Over-prioritizing the production of affordable housing at the potential detriment to other considerations undermines comprehensive, holistic urban planning and as some have noted takes a “sledgehammer” approach. The AHO should include a clear set of site selection criteria for developers to ensure that these developments are compatible with other planning goals. Criteria to consider and weigh before a site is selected: proximity to rapid transit, public open space, retail, and services. Increasing parking to make up for lack of nearby transit is inconsistent with our mobility goals. If the site is not close to transit, the density multiple should not be as great — or at least no greater than neighboring non-conforming buildings. And since parking is counted as open space it means larger buildings that need parking would have less usable green space for their residents to enjoy. The minimum 15’x15’ open space requirement in current zoning should be retained and the 30% open space should not be reduced to 15% for parking.

4. AHO developments should NOT be exempted from the Tree Protection Ordinance. There is a great deal of concern about the potential impact of AHO redevelopment on the mature tree canopy on sites with larger yards, which account for a significant percentage of the city’s tree canopy. Why would we put that irreplaceable asset at risk when there are other choices? There should not be a double standard that pits housing against trees.

5. Like our incentive zoning and inclusionary housing ordinances, the AHO needs a look-back provision to evaluate the impact and adjust the requirements, as needed. This type of policy has never been tested, in Cambridge or elsewhere, and we cannot predict the ways the AHO could be applied that might surprise and disappoint us or the loopholes it could create. The Council needs an annual progress report so that the ordinance can be adjusted and amended, as needed. This is a 10-year plan and it should sunset then if the 1,000 goal is met.

6. The BZA should have a chance to review projects, too. The BZA is the board that hears applications for comprehensive permits for affordable developments under the state’s 40B law — why isn’t the BZA part of the public review process since they also are the board that hears requests for zoning variances?

7. Controlling only for the number of stories (height) ignores that street contexts do differ greatly. The AHO must include some controls on density along with the long-promised design guidelines. I suggest that the allowed density (FAR) be no greater than 3x that of the base district.

8. If parcels are combined into “super lots” (eg lots that more than double the average lot size for the block), there should be a requirement to create separate structures rather than one very large building. This is a particular concern for small-scale streets that have a high degree of architectural uniformity of scale or are short, one-way streets. And there must be greater transitions between building scales — 35’ is not enough of a buffer when a 7-story building could be next to an existing 2-story house.

9. If AHO units are created below grade, they should NOT be able to extend into the setbacks. Otherwise it will be harder to plant trees and basement egress could be too close to neighboring properties. This is consistent with what is required in Res C2-B zoning.

10. Tenants earning up to 120% of AMI should be offered the right to return to units that are redeveloped under the AHO. HUD defines Middle-Income as 80-120% but the Overlay is only available for those up to 100% AMI. Those earning between 100-120% AMI should be offered relocation assistance including financial assistance for moving costs and security deposit for their next lease. The AHO should not displace middle income residents who are already being squeezed out of the city.

11. Moving lower-income people to more affluent neighborhoods doesn’t automatically create social capital and it doesn’t create wealth. The AHO should prioritize creating homeownership units by setting a percentage of the projects/units produced that must include homeownership.

12. There has to be some minimum setback from an abutting residential structure so that AHO projects don’t compromise light and for its neighbors. There are many non-conforming houses that are built very close to lot lines. Consider setting a minimum of 15’ from an existing structure to the side and 20’ at the rear.

13. Cambridge residents should have priority over those working in Cambridge for AHO units. The universities and major employers that are creating much of the demand for new housing must step up with land and a revolving loan fund to help create more housing for their employees and affiliates.

14. Require all affordable housing developers to submit a pro forma for each project, as is currently required under 40B regulations. By allowing for-profit developers to access relaxed AHO rules, and by eliminating the existing financial disclosure requirements mandated under Section 40B, the Overlay does not protect against profiteering.

15. If parking is to be reduced or even eliminated for proximity to transit, then measure the distance to transit (a subway entrance) by the walking route’s distance, not as the crow flies. Bus service and frequency is apt to change and not within the city’s control so it should not be used as a measure of transit proximity when considering the need for some parking. Consider that every AHO development may need at least one off-street space for resident drop-off and pick-up.

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    Jan Devereux
    City Councillor
    Cambridge, MA