Craig’s Thoughts on the Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO)

In a tight housing market, finding places where people can have confidence they, and their families, can live their lives is super important. Also important is the need for people to understand what the AHO will and will not allow. Whatever it is that we finally vote for, or against, should be something we all understand and right now that isn’t the case. We have scheduled our next Ordinance Committee hearing for 1 August at 5:30 PM at City Hall. Other significant zoning changes have required a refiling and I would not be surprised if a zoning change as big, as complex and as impactful as this one requires a refiling to get it right.

My thoughts on this issue include:

  1. We need to be clear about what the AHO will allow and where it will allow it. When City staff presented data that understated the potential size of future buildings by as much as 20% (because staff was not counting the ground/basement floor as livable space even thought it’d be allowed), they displayed a disturbing miscomprehension of just how complex this zoning change would be. Simply because many affordable housing developments have not, in the past, used that ground/basement floor for living space does not mean future developments will not put housing there should the AHO pass. In fact, the lack of authoritative Board review or recourse to legal appeal seems specifically aimed at throwing old norms and rules out the window, so for anyone to present what was typically done in the past as somehow indicative of what will be done in an AHO future without a big “But we really don’t know” caveat seems, at best, a cavalier attitude towards approaching this zoning change. I find this approach to such a major planning discussion very disappointing.
  2. Many people, including the Mayor, said we’d see, at most, 100 units of housing under the AHO (in fact, it wasn’t quite clear to me that this number didn’t also include other programs). If people think the AHO is something that will only create 100 units of affordable housing a year, then that number should be codified in the zoning. If the expectation, or even the hope, is that the AHO will create more than 100 units of affordable housing a year, then people shouldn’t use the 100 unit number as any sort of marker.
  3. I still don’t know how international markets, MassDevelopment bonding authority or similar financial resources would impact affordable housing development under the AHO. While City staff repeatedly seemed to state that the money to finance developments would pretty much all come from some City source, with other governmental funding sources providing additional funding, it’s not clear to me that once we’ve significantly changed the development rules, we won’t see other financial markets and developers looking at Cambridge’s affordable housing programs as a place to get a decent return on their investments. That may, or may not, be a good thing depending on your viewpoint, but it’s something we should all understand.
  4. Housing challenges extend far beyond Cambridge, yet many communities are at their Prop 2.5 tax limit, forcing them to vote for over-rides or debt exclusions to hire more teachers, build new schools, expand library hours, install bike facilities or do any of the myriad of other things people reasonably expect from their local governments. If we expect these cash-strapped communities to help accommodate the local impacts of a global migration to coastal cities, especially cities with the Black Hole-type of gravitational pull that Cambridge has, then we need to have a larger regional discussion about how these municipalities might access the fiscal resources they need to service their new residents. And if we don’t want to have this sort of intense local growth, with its attendant pressure on housing and transportation, than the Council should start thinking more about saying “No” to large scale redevelopment requests put forward by local property developers and owners like the CRA. There’s a downside, in many ways a big downside, to saying “No” in terms of restricting growth, impacting global research on important things like cancer cures, changing local tax rates and more, but we can’t continue to build out Kendall Square and Alewife and not expect related pressure points to manifest themselves.
  5. Our zoning code’s limiting unrelated roommates to three is outdated. Some cities are exploring how to help more people live in community based on sanitary code issues rather than zoning constraints and Cambridge should explore that as well. No one wants to live next to the party house but limiting a 4 bedroom home, for example, to three unrelated residents seems silly. There are even a number of apps now that help people manage group living, down to paying extra for the boyfriend that stays over several nights a months and things like that.
  6. I think a sunset clause of, say, two or three years, seems reasonable. Alewife remains a cautionary tale of a zoning change that, arguably, worked too well. The whole Triangle/Quadrangle/Route 2 area has exploded in growth since the zoning was passed 12 or so years ago (I was the only ‘no’ vote on that amendment) and we cannot put the breaks on it though pretty much everyone I’ve heard express an opinion says it’s growing too fast and we’d like to see a recalibration there, especially as it might help us with creating communal open space, creating more resilient communities in that area and similar nuts-and-bolts issues. If we pass the AHO and it takes off with an impact that is unexpected, absent a sunset clause, it seems unlikely the Council would be able to make important changes.
  7. Parking as an development requirement is increasingly an anchor that is holding us back from planning a future-looking city. Coming from a guy who does not own a car and has a lot of off-street parking, is able-bodied and whose kids have grown, I realize that I’ve got no skin in this particular part of the game, but, while car registrations have edged up just a bit in the past few years, over time we’ll see different ways  of moving people around and for us to be so locked into parking requirements is really hobbling creative ways to think of our joint future. To summarize a really good book on development, Edge Cities, developers figure out how to accommodate the parking requirements and then build around them. That seems really silly and backwards looking to me, even though, in the moment, it is really important when your kids are asleep and you don’t want to circle the block five times looking for spaces. Over time, though, a combination of parking apps and new ways of owning/using vehicles is likely to mitigate this problem.

I have other thoughts but those are the high points right now.If you want to submit something to the Ordinance Committee (where public comment will be allowed but may be limited to a couple of minutes depending on the crowd), please email


2 Responses to “Craig’s Thoughts on the Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO)”

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  1. Craig Kelley says:

    In theory, nothing. Get to six, change the zoning. In reality, as we’re seeing at Alewife, it can be really hard to get to six even when pretty much anyone with an expressed opinion says that that part of Cambridge is growing too fast and has vastly exceeded the thoughts we had on growth there when we passed the zoning about 12 years ago.

    I think the intellectual whip-lash here is coming from advocates who say “The AHO will only produce about 30-40 affordable units on top of the existing 60-70 units a year that are currently produced outside of our Inclusionary Zoning” while other advocates seem to think that the AHO is going to provide a lot more housing to help meet the demand of thousands of people on the CHA wait list. If we limit it to 40 units qualify for the AHO a year, than I suspect a lot of concern that this zoning proposal will open up vast new funding streams and lead to massive new housing construction booms across the City would diminish.

    Arguably, if we had tighter requirements and fewer guidelines , even at the cost of the City’s putting more money into our affordable housing programs, we could build even more than 40 units a year but make them far more compatible with existing local architecture. I think that, too, would decrease a lot of the angst. The idea of plopping a 30 unit housing development on, say, Fayerweather Street seems like a bad architectural fit, to say the least.

    If we did those two things, maybe a sunset clause wouldn’t be needed.

    And if were weren’t so unwilling to share revenue streams with nearby towns like Belmont or Arlington or Waltham, towns that are often at their Prop 2.5 tax limit, I think we’d be more successful at addressing this regional challenge on a regional level.

  2. Aram Harrow says:

    Putting in such an early sunset provision would make it hard for developers to plan projects that take awhile to arrange. It may also accelerate construction as developers race to meet the deadline, which would make a backlash more likely. It is presented here as a mild, cautious, amendment but it seems like a fairly radical modification to the AHO that needs a lot more thought. I am also confused about why it is necessary. What stops a future council from repealing the AHO at any time in the future?

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