November 16, 2021 was a big day with two meetings (the Ordinance Committee of City Council, and the Planning Board) for the Advancing Housing Affordability (AHA) Zoning Petition that was submitted at City Hall on September 1. Fritz Donovan, as first signer of the AHA petition, along with Suzanne Blier presented the case. At the Planning Board we were also joined by Professor Daniel Bluestone of Boston University. The City Council Ordinance Committee decided to keep the AHA “in committee” for so that further work can be done on it. And they asked CDD to work with the Planning Board to come up with guidelines for new Single and Two Family District zoning language. The Planning Board, aware of the Council’s decision, gave a unfavorable vote to the AHA “as written” with the idea that the AHA proposals would be taken up by CDD and the Planning Board at a future meeting. At the same time, the Planning Board lauded the goals of the AHA petition and Hugh Russell noted that Part III of the AHA petition sought to address the root of our housing problem. This latter issue will be key if we are to have any sustainable plan going forward to address this.
One of the things we are asking for is that housing be added to the Parking, Transportation, Demand Management Ordinance where key decisions for commercial and institutional employers are made. With CDD now requiring that sometimes 20% of new commercial employees live in Cambridge, but not requiring that these groups address city and area housing needs has exacerbated the problem and made it untenable, particularly since what was supposed to be a new City Plan (Envision) has yet to be used to create a city wide housing plan, so we end up with more and more long term residents being displaced, and both rental and home ownership prices sky-rocketing. The AHA Powerpoint is now on the CCC website.
The AHA petition began in earnest in the summer of 2020 with the first Donovan petition to modify single family housing. Due to circumstances of timing we were not able to have the necessary meetings and withdrew that petition and started in earnest again in the spring of 2021 to reevaluate what we had proposed at that time, broaden the scope, and bring more participants into the process. We held weekly meetings by zoom and invited various professionals as well as members of the diverse Cambridge political groups to join us. We shared agendas, and meeting minutes with a wide variety of individuals, not all of whom joined in the meetings themselves. By midway through the process, we had a core group of about 8 to 10 people from across the city which helped us address citywide impacts. We also did a fair amount of reading both of local scholarly work and of materials put out by groups such as the Harvard Joint Center for Housing, the Greater Boston Housing Report and others. We brought in a number of experts before submitting the petition in early September.
Four key issues framed in discussions leading up to this petition .
• 1. The demand for housing in Cambridge is infinite. We need a far reaching and textured plan.
• 2. Impact of our rich innovation-based technology on increased property values, investments & needs
• 3. Increased population & arrival of wealthier residents (employees of new bio- and info-tech jobs and others) plus property investment fueling escalating long-term housing costs and resident displacement.
• 4. Cambridge has the brain power and financial resources to deal successfully with this problem, but the plan must be both local and regional.
Issues around housing and property needs in Cambridge go back to our very origins, and change quite significantly over time. On this slide we can see some of the changing housing pressures. Multi-family housing that originally met the needs of our many emigrees and workers (and their larger families) today are housing also an array of millennials and students. We are also seeing wealthy couples (some of whom raised their children in the suburbs) moving to Cambridge because of its rich cultural amenities. What served the city well for decades as multi-family homes are being converted to single family residences, and increasingly existing single-family homes are being torn down (or coupled with larger additions) to accommodate a single family with a 2021 sense of what their spatial needs warrant. Added to the increased investor capital targeting Cambridge commercial and residential properties we see the numbers of seniors living here growing (increasing about 40% over the next two decaades, now about 13,200 seniors – about 21% facing cost burdens according to the Cambridge Housing Needs Assessment [http://www.housing.ma/cambridge/report] Many wish to continue to enjoy their life here, aging in place, but who would like to or need to have renters (younger or older) to share their homes with them, or the income from creating a condo within the shell of their existing homes. The AHA petition seeks to address this too.
One of the things we learned from a Harvard Joint Center for Housing seminar is that this coming decade will be especially difficult for housing. As noted above, a large demographic of current homeowners (seniors, baby boomers – those born between 1945 and 1970) will eventually be facing decreasing numbers, freeing up their homes for others. Millennials who are now putting off having families (for reasons of work, housing, and preference) may move toward children in the decade ahead. Where will they choose to live? The city or the suburbs, it is not clear. In short, we will likely see significant changes in the next few decades. What we choose to do on housing must be sustainable for the decades and centuries ahead, in the same way that our rich legacy of Cambridge architecture has achieved this. Add to this, environmental concerns and the reasons to smartly repurpose the housing we have becomes all the more important.
Cambridge’s very hot job market is also an issue - causing problems that are in many ways a blessing. We have great universities that draw students, staff, and affiliates. These education centers (and others in the area) have made Cambridge an intellectual hub that spawned our rich bio-tech and info-tech sites for innovation-linked work. With these jobs come new workers with sizable salaries (above current residents) along exploding investment demand. A zoning petition cannot address all of this, nor should it. Instead, what the Advancing Housing Affordability petition seeks to do is to address several smaller pieces of this puzzle, ones that we believe will help us today AND into the future. The city can’t do this alone, and the area piece is part of this.
In our series of meetings over the spring and summer, we took off from the initial Donovan petition but also sought to find new ground and were very open to moving in other directions. Each meeting we summarized where we were (what items we had broad support for) and what other issues remained for us to explore. By August 1, for example, we had broad (but not universal) support for the single and double family housing piece of this and were grappling with what that would specifically entail. We also had broad support for increased density and height on Mass Avenue and were exploring how to address specific sections and blocks of this corridor. We also were keen to add more housing to our major grocery store sites. In the end, we dropped these two latter proposals concluding that the City (CDD) itself is better able to provide a thoughtful way forward on this because there are so many moving parts. We had diverse perspectives on parking minimums because the impacts are felt so differently across the city, and with CDD now doing a study of parking, we also felt this would be better left with them. But we did feel it would be important to propose a key climate piece to the parking issues. As the issue of affordability of housing came into play thinking not only about the single family and two family housing piece of this, but also larger causes and impacts it was here that a more area wide approach began to be explored.
We are asking to modify single-family and two-family residential zoning. While this would principally impact zoning districts A-1, A-2, and B our intention is that this is also citywide. As you can see on this map – the lighter and darker yellow areas - we are speaking about a significant section of the city.. Currently 15% of Cambridge units are in single family homes; 33% are in two- to four-family buildings. Through 2020 we’ve built 35 of projected 38 needed single family units and 280 of projected needed 360 multi-family units. (source: Cambridge Basic Housing Needs Assessment). The AHA would help meet core current needs for new multi-family homes in cost effective, sustainable way. We have about 5,000 single family homes in Cambridge. If 20% of these owners choose to do this, we could get a net increase of about 2,000; s at the 10% (net 1,000 new units) and at 30% (net 3,000 new units) levels. With two family residences the numbers would be even higher.
Our intent is to allow homeowners to allow more units within the shells of their existing structures with modest changes to the rear or rear sides of the buildings to make these additional units possible, but to keep the street facing facades intact. If one is adding three or more units within a structure then the affordable unit component would be in play similar to inclusionary zoning now. Consistent with the Solicitor’s discussion of this at a recent meeting, we have included an FAR enhancement that could be part of a new or existing ADU. We have chosen to keep the current district guidelines with respect to open spaces and setbacks both because they are consistent with the neighborhoods and because we are deeply concerned about the loss of city green spaces and trees not only for environmental reasons but also because in a city as dense as ours (fifth most dense in the country with a population over 100,000), our close neighbors’ green spaces and trees are also what makes our own residences far better.
New entries might be added at the rear of the right side (where there now is an exit) and not be visible to either Hawthorne or Mt Auburn Street. Should the owner choose to add three units (either as apartments or as condos) one would have to be affordable. In this way the beauty and sustainability of this home could be maintained for generations more, alternating at times between single family and multi-family use as demand and necessity require. While the AHA petition would allow 500 square feet units (the size of a small one bedroom it would also allow much larger units depending on the context and need. We also know that landlords with relatively few units, including those who rent units in the buildings where they live tend to have close relationships with their tenants and often rent at lower rates. This piece of the AHA would encourage more of this without creating rooming houses because of the maximum of 3 units with each structure. What would be the cost to add a new unit? There are many variables. We spoke with one developer who noted that there are many variables, including the possible need for a fire escape or secondary egress, but for a c.700 square foot unit, the cost would be roughly $175-200k per unit with about $40k in soft costs and maybe an addition $100k in infrastructure. That cost could be readily absorbed in a second mortgage – either for a rental unit (earning $24,000 for a $2000 a month unit, and paid off in eight-ten years; or sold outright as a condominium).
Another option is the "Three PLUS ONE " Plan proposed by Prof. Daniel Bluestone. Using current buildings is the best, fastest, least expensive and easiest way to add units. One way is to add 1 more unit to existing triple-deckers. The city could create and make available to contractors an adaptable design templates for plus 1 units for triple-deckers. If we had 15,000 triple-deckers, adding 1 more unit to each would create 15,000 new homes – inexpensively, quickly, & sustainably. One could also streamline permitting & disseminate the adaptable design templates broadly. Perhaps we go the extra step and retrofit each building for energy efficiency as well. As he notes "The most effective thing we can possibly do is figure out how to use and reuse the places that we've already built."
The changes taking place in Cambridge are quite stunning. Here we show you what has happened over two years in one mid-Cambridge home. Over the course of a two-year renovation project it has become three condos Could the AHA have made a difference in bringing an extra rental or condo unit into this renovation? We believe so. We also believe that if the second part of our proposal, for rain permeable parking, were in place we and the city would have been far better off.
In PART II of the AHA we seek to modify open yard residential parking creation to require rain permeable materials. This will be important in this era of climate change in allowing more rainwater to seep into the earth to nourish our trees and keep our gutters clear. As Cambridge gets more and more built up this is increasingly more difficult. There are many different styles of pavers – some resembling brick or stone, others incorporating greenery. And they are easy to install. As to price, these new rain permeable pavers are competitive with other paving forms.
Part III of the AHA Petition seeks an areawide approach. We are proposing an area wide plan for major Cambridge employers to house 85% of employees and affiliates in the area by the year 2040. As a model, we draw on our 1998 Parking Transportation Demand Management Ordinance (PTDM), and the annual Town Gown Reports. We are urging the City to expand the 1998 Parking, Transportation Ordinance to include housing. This ordinance includes an Annual Review framed to meet pre-set citywide goals. In place for twenty years, the 1998 Parking, Transportation Ordinance has had a major impact on the city’s ability to add so much commercial development to the city over the past decade. The one missing piece is housing and the need to address impacts that commercial and institutional employee and affiliate expansion has brought.
The Parking Transportation Ordinance now covers 30% of all Cambridge Employees, plus educational facilities, Research and development, a hospital, & 10,000 graduate and primary students. Adding housing to the 1998 Parking Transportation Ordinance with a goal of retaining current residents, diminishing housing costs, and better reusing existing homes is a natural next step. The larger goal we propose is accountability for 85% of employees and affiliates of larger employers by the year 2040.
Is 100 employees/affiliates the right number for such a proposal? This would have to be decided. The 1998 Parking Transportation Ordinance uses “large projects” and “small projects” as criteria. That could work here as well. We also have asked that the City itself as a large employer be included in the AHA.
Adding housing criteria to the 1998 Parking, Transportation Ordinance, under Article 6, links onto Article 19 of zoning. Here housing could be added as a possible choice for the Planning Board to consider when they request information and undertake related discussions to address shared city equity goals and would enable us to enhance equity results. In Zoning, there already is the ability to address percentages, so if for example a company is 5% below the requirement (or another significant amount) it could come with a penalty. One could also ask employers to sign an affidavit from ISD or CDD – with their plan –and attest that they have achieved the yearly goal of X or Y percentage under penalty of perjury. The AHA is clearly different from, but could complement linkage fees by providing core data on related outcomes. And, for example if CDD is requiring that 20% of a company’s new employees live in Cambridge, for company of 4,000 employees they would be requiring 800 units. With the AHA we could ask where and at what rental or purchase cost would these new city units be found in the city (or in the area), and what would their impacts be on current residents and housing costs more generally. As the city expands commercially and our institutions’ staff and affiliate numbers increase, we want to be able to understand how the local housing market is impacted and what is happening to it on a year-by-year basis. With this (and a better handle on investment impacts) we can be sure we are addressing the problems early on and not just guessing or adding to the housing problem.
Cambridge has seen extensive institutional growth in recent years at our universities in numbers of undergraduates, graduate students, post docs, and staff over the last 25 years. This has significant impacts on the city. We need their help with addressing the future. With c. 8,000 undergraduates, grad students and post doc students living in Cambridge rental units (with stipends increasing with annual costs) this reduces city housing availability and helps to raise costs each year. If universities help by providing more area housing, these units could go to others, with larger increases if 85% of undergraduates, affiliates (post-docs), and staff are addressed as well.
Our extraordinary universities have helped to add housing at key moments in our city’s history. Now is an important time to do so again whether in Cambridge or in other nearby communities.
Local and area housing policies would benefit from an area-wide approach. Working remotely (types of work & % of employees): creative private/public shared buses or parking partnerships: reuse of parking sites (for a fee) off hours (nights, weekends, summers): These are ways that our institutions and commercial partners can help. The AHA intent is not to have 85% of employees/affiliates live in employer housing by 2040, but for these groups to come to the table to address housing impacts as they do now to address transportation, parking and infrastructure following key goals and annual reviews for accountability. We know that the 1998 Parking Ordinance goals and annual reviews have made it much easier to add new commercial developments. As to housing, we do not expect any large employer to create a Facebook Bay area type complex with 300 affordable units, 120 of which are geared to seniors, but beginning to think about area-wide solutions and their impact on Cambridge will be critical to meeting our housing needs going forward. The AHA Petition also complements the annual Town and Gown Report process.
The possible area wide issues, inputs, and engagements already in play are considerable. These include addressing the local and area unhoused (Mass and Cass is one part of this) but also local and regional bus and subway routing, cost, and frequency, as well as the effort to add safe bike lanes for a more bike-able future for some city workers, residents, students, and visitors.
In Conclusion, our challenges are many and include more and different housing demands than in the past - from millennials and students, to employees with more capital, to suburban couples seeking a place to live and retire in the city, to local, area, national and international investors. Our plan, the AHA petition, offers three pieces of a larger whole: Part I Modifies 1 and 2 family zoning to add more units within the existing structures requiring an affordability piece for three or more units; Part II would require Rain Permeability materials for onsite outdoor residential parking. Part III seeks an area approach to our housing problems by expanding the very successful 1998 Parking Transportation Ordinance (PTDM) to include Housing with a goal of addressing on an areawide basis 85% of our employees and affiliates by the year 2040, and with the PTDM’s review procedure to determine how well these goals are being met.
We look forward to working with the City Council, the CDD staff and the Planning Board to bring some of the core ideas of the Advancing Housing Affordability Petition to fruition in the months ahead.