Support for Cambridge's Affordable Housing Overlay District proposal

April 25, 2019 via email

To the Honorable Members of the Housing Committee of the Cambridge City Council:

As a bona fide housing nerd, I have watched several broadcasts of your hearings this year and have followed the discussion regarding the proposal for a citywide Affordable Housing Overlay District. Thank you for your efforts to bring this proposal forward, and thank you to all of the Cambridge residents who are engaging in the civic process.

I want to offer my support for the concept of the Affordable Housing Overlay District, and I hope that you will vote this evening to move the proposal forward to the next stage of the process. As you know, this proposal is intended to make it easier for developers to build 100% affordable housing throughout the city. This is a wonderful goal, and it is a goal I am proud to support. The City of Cambridge has faced an ongoing emergency in the shortage of affordable housing ever since the demise of rent control in the late-1990s, and this proposal has the potential to be one part of a more comprehensive solution.

Moreover, I encourage all interested members of our community to engage in a thorough discussion of all the various details of the Overlay's draft zoning language during the pending Ordinance Committee process. Many questions about this proposal remain to be addressed, and many residents have suggestions for how the proposal might be adjusted and made better. My hope is that we can all agree to support the basic concept of the proposal and move to focus the discussion on how best to refine the details of the draft ordinance in the coming months.

I also think it is important to put this proposal in perspective. The Overlay provides a form-based alternative to traditional zoning requirements and limits certain process and legal rights in an effort to incentivize and support the production of 100% affordable housing in all parts of the city. In the context of the ongoing affordable housing emergency, I think we have an obligation to pursue this strategy, even though it infringes on the expectations of some residents. I also think we should be honest about the limitations of this strategy. In my opinion, zoning regulations and appeals processes are not the main drivers of the housing emergency in Cambridge. Rather, the emergency is primarily being driven by factors such as profound wealth and income inequality, an economic system that too often doesn't work for working people, the continuing impacts of structural racism and racial oppression, and decades of austerity at the state and federal levels. We can look to adjust the zoning code in an effort to support the production of 100% affordable housing, but to truly achieve the goal of Housing For All, we must also look beyond zoning to other areas such as progressive fiscal policy, strong tenant protections, comprehensive planning, community land trusts, the use of public land for affordable housing, and many others.

Currently, affordable housing developers are telling us that availability of funding is a major limiting factor in their ability to secure land and produce 100% affordable housing in Cambridge. I want to congratulate the City Council on the recent announcement of an additional $20 million for housing programs in the fiscal year 2020 budget — this is the kind of step that will help ensure the Overlay serves its intended purpose in a truly additive fashion.

For my part, I am working on the state level to advance a range of strategies and concepts to advance the goal of guaranteed housing for all and housing as a human right. Key strategies include regional housing production, strong tenant protections, new progressive revenue, support for low-, moderate-, and middle-income homeowners, robust efforts to end homelessness, transfer fees and vacancy taxes, and massive public investment in the production and preservation of affordable housing, along with increased funding for sustainable transit options, infrastructure improvements, and the additional services needed to support a growing population.

In closing, I hope we can all continue working together to advance policies to ensure that everyone in Cambridge and across our Commonwealth has a place to call home.

Yours in service,

Rep. Mike Connolly