Cambridge Might Increase Housing Stock to 20 Percent Affordable

Cambridge has created 100 units of affordable housing over the past year, a trend it’s looking to build on in 2017.

The Cambridge City Council hopes to increase the percentage of affordable housing to 20 percent of the city’s total residential housing units by June of this year.

Cambridge implemented inclusionary zoning, a tool utilized by urban planners to create more affordable housing in the city, after a 1998 statewide ballot ended rent control. This zoning provision calls for developers of residential buildings to set aside a percentage of project units as affordable housing.

Mark McGovern, vice-mayor of Cambridge, said inclusionary zoning was the city’s way to preserve affordable housing. He went on to say that this is what is going to keep the city diverse.

“Each city works differently when utilizing inclusionary zoning,” McGovern said. “Developers in Boston can pay the city a fee not to produce units. Cambridge, on the other hand, demands that the units be built.”

McGovern acknowledged that the city lost its moderate low-income population within the past 15 years. The city did not spend enough time, resources or implement any measures to help maintain the middle class within the city, he said.

McGovern also noted that the city’s African American population has remained the same, but their economics have changed. “African Americans account for 12 to 13 percent of the city’s population,” McGovern said. “They are now wealthier than previous generations.”

According to McGovern, the inclusionary zoning program amendment calls for a density bonus, which is an incentive that would allow more units to be built per unit of floor space.

“The density bonus of 15 percent affordable housing units permits developers to build 15 more units,” McGovern said. “For every affordable unit, a developer gets to build another rental unit.”

McGovern elaborated that the proposal before the city council is to increase the housing unit development rate to 15 percent by June, then to 20 percent thereafter. He went on to say that there are projects like Boston Properties’ Kendall Center that have separate agreements pending the inclusionary zoning amendment approval, which would be 25 percent.

“These projects are multi-use projects,” McGovern said. “They can offset the cost because they contain rental-business-residential components.”

McGovern remarked that the process for approval is under way. The inclusionary zoning amendment will go before the ordinance committee of the city council to be reviewed. Then it goes to the city planning board. Each committee will draft recommendations that will be forwarded to the complete nine-member city council.

The city council will then vote twice on the inclusionary provisions.

“The first time we will take a vote on the initial recommendations. This will followed by discussions, which are public, and then a final vote. It requires a vote of six councilors to approve the amendments. It then becomes law, which all parties must adhere to,” McGovern said.

McGovern pointed out that the city council has sent the inclusionary zoning amendment to both the city council ordinance committee and the planning board. The ordinance committee has until Feb. 13 to finalize recommendations and make a report available to the city council. The planning board—a volunteer group of city residents, officials and business people—has received the proposal and is conducting a  zoning-development-housing analysis. They will make comments in a report to the city council.

The city council has until March 20 to move the zoning proposals to a vote, which is 12 business days before it expires.

Robert Sondak is a vendor and a writer for Spare Change News.

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