On January 4, the Planning Board will take up the Community Development Department (CDD)’s proposals for ending exclusively single family and two family zoning, a plan that likely will make the city more expensive for homeowners and renters alike. Like the MMH, this would also bring far more demolitions of existing homes in order to enhance profits for outside investors and developers bringing more luxury home purchasers to the city.
The City Council asked the Cambridge Community Development Department (CDD) to work with the Planning Board and come up with a plan to end end exclusively single family zoning districts. CDD's presentation asks "Where to Start?" (see chart above) and proposes 3 possibilities for discussion on January 4:
The Planning Board will be taking up these options and we need them to have your input and further questions: If they go with Option 1 (which the CDD seems to be suggesting) it will mean they want all districts (A, A-1, and B) to have the the same density and green space (set back) requirements as the C and C-1 district (our former factor and factory worker area). Often here we see small homes crammed into smaller plots of land with little green space, a result that citywide will lead to the creation of new market rate (luxury) single family homes (or luxury condos), fewer trees, more house tear downs, and higher housing costs for renters and home owners alike as infill projects, tear downs, profits and housing prices soar.
What CDD seems to be proposing (see the above link) is to accept the zoning for C and C-1 districts citywide and applying it to all our housing districts. This they consider the least difficult way to address the question of ending exclusively single family residential zoning here purportedly to redress what they see as a legacy of racism and to add more market rate housing for the many new people who want to live in Cambridge. Since the CDD is not proposing any affordability requirement for new units or homes in the the city, CCC believes that this would exacerbate existing housing and race issues, largely to the benefit of market rate housing investors and developers, making housing more expensive for everyone.
Alas, none of the three CDD options addresses housing affordability, the #1 issue for many people in the city. What about affordability needs? Is the city's planning department proposing to make a citywide up-zoning change without any new affordable housing requirements, in essence making our problems even worse? It seems like it. While this “one district size fits all” approach seems to be aimed at creating a uniform Cambridge city-wide “look” with purportedly more equity and opportunity for local residents, the opposite is more likely to happen, as new projects price out current residents and add new inequities for longstanding tenants and owners, as more developers scoop up properties as investments and build new larger market rate units here for maximum profit. Is this really what current residents want? Is this what is best for the city’s future, particularly since this not only means increasing housing costs for everyone, but also increasing gentrification, loss of critical rental properties, and serious environmental harm?
What does Option 1 mean comparatively for our neighborhoods? This is answered best by looking at the allowable units for each our current residential districts per acre. Currently in our A-1 district we have 7 units per acre; A-2 has 9 units; B has 17 units; C has 24 units; C-1 has 29 units. If C-1 criteria is accepted citywide the number of allowable units in A-1 districts could increase 400% (along with property values and taxes). In B districts the allowable units would nearly double (along with property values and taxes) while in these districts we also would experience a sizable loss in trees and green spaces. This change would necessarily also come with a very significant alteration in how these neighborhoods “look” from the vantage of housing setbacks (smaller front yards, side yards, and back yards), new likely boxier building types, increased numbers of residents, increased wealth of residents, and increased issues around parking.
If C and C-1 residential zoning standards are advanced citywide for all residential zoning districts, this would mean that setbacks and existing green spaces in A, A-1 and B districts would change - in some cases substantially. Front yards citywide minimums would change to 10’ and new buildings would likely stand out from adjacent residences that have deeper front yards at 15’ or 20’ or under current district guidelines. New side yard minimums at 10’ and back yards at 20’ would similarly separate new denser housing from older neighboring homes - a change that would be accompanied by a sizable loss of green spaces, trees, and sunlight.
Design review? Neighborhood impact review? Not in any of the proposed plans. And, since these changes would come with no design review or design oversight, unless an older building is being replaced, the impacts on neighbors and neighborhood dynamics and experience could change significantly as more and more back and side yards are built in with large new housing infill projects, many out of scale with the current neighborhood. We also would see significant new infrastructure needs as neighborhood density will increase – from water, sewage, and electrical grid needs (including generators), to schools, police, libraries, and parking. Alas, since the city planning department (CDD and City Council) seems interested in decreasing parking requirements for new units citywide, just as the density of each neighborhood would be increasing, parking issues would likely become even more of a concern and problem.
What about the CCC-supported Advancing Housing Affordability (AHA) Petition proposal? It appears that the CDD has chosen not to address the AHA proposal in their options. The AHA had suggested modifying single family housing requirements by keeping the current structures (but allowing more units within them). The AHA maintained current district open space and set back requirements but allowed modifications through special permit if (with 3 or more units) affordable units were being added. The AHA changes would have seen our neighborhoods grow in a more incremental, thoughtful way so that we could evaluate changes more effectively over time. CDD's Option 1 is NOT a mid-way point solution between the MMH and the AHA but follows very closely the MMH guidelines for more market rate (luxury) housing development city wide, no affordability requirement, and more density in existing neighborhoods with less green space and trees and parking. The main difference between the MMH and Option 1 is the allowable heights of new buildings (39 feet versus the current 35 feet) and minimum unit sizes.
WHERE CCC STANDS: There are much better ways to add far more housing. Why not use them? if we focused our residential density increases on the main corridors – say Central Square Massachusetts Avenue east of City Hall – we could easily add the same number of NEW residents in high rises AND require them to have inclusionary (affordable) units (20% minimally) so we would be able to GET HIGHER HOUSING NUMBERS and new housing numbers without having to demolish existing homes, remove green spaces, increase historic home tear downs and add to property values city wide. Building up this corridor would be the smarter way to go.
What comes next? After the Planning Board discussion (and decision?) the issue will be sent back to the City Council Ordinance Committee for a recommendation and the possibility (likelihood) of either a new residential citywide zoning petition (ordinance) or further study by the City. This is one of those issues where CCC recommends further study for affordability, neighborhood, environmental, and housing cost impacts.