Cambridge has an affordable housing crisis. We are not immune to the high cost of housing that is plaguing communities not just in Metro Boston but around the country. As we continue to thrive we become a more and more desirable place to live. Kendall Square is no longer filled with factories and workers on the assembly line earning low salaries. Instead, Kendall has become the hub of the innovation economy, bringing in more and more higher paying workers who want to live in Cambridge for all the same reasons we all do, because it’s a great place to live. The result is that we have seen a boom in population. A boom that our housing production over the past decade has not kept pace with. The result has been skyrocketing prices as people enter bidding wars for homeownership and rental properties.
Since joining the Council, I have made affordable housing my priority. Along with Mayor Simmons as co-chairs of the Housing Committee, I have taken the lead on:
• Tripling the amount of money commercial developers must pay the city from $4.58 per square foot to $15 per square foot. This change will generate millions of dollars that we will use specifically to preserve and create affordable housing. The Volpe site alone will bring $26 million in incentive funds to the city.
• Nearly doubling the percentage of affordable housing residential developers must provide the city from 11.5% to 20%. Although this ordinance passed unanimously, it was Mayor Simmons and I who held over half a dozen public meetings on this subject, worked closely with the Community Development Department to draft the ordinance, worked with developers to avoid legal challenges, and ultimately drafting the recommendations that became the final ordinance. In addition, I ensured that the ordinance included a provision requiring developers to build 3 bedroom, affordable units to help our low-income families remain in the city.
• I called on the city to take Vail Court by eminent domain, which we will use to build affordable housing.
• When the developers of Mass and Main came forward offering 14% affordable housing, instead of the required 11.5%, I pushed them to 20% affordable housing, the highest percentage in the city at the time.
• When Boston Properties came forward with 1 million square feet of development, of which 400 would be housing and offered 14% affordable instead of the required 11.5%, I pushed them to an unprecedented 25% affordable housing.
I am proud of my work on this issue and I will continue taking concrete action to create and preserve affordable housing in our city. Here is what Ellen Shachter, a Cambridge resident and long-time affordable housing attorney and advocate had to say:
“Many candidates share my progressive values, but Marc is the one candidate who best knows how to both maintain his principles and work with others to get important things accomplished on the critical issues facing Cambridge.”
Here are some of the things we can do to address this crisis:
• Affordable Housing Preservation: As much as we need to focus on the creation of more affordable housing, we must also ensure that we keep the affordable housing that we have. The biggest threat facing the city is that of Fresh Pond Apartments (Rindge Towers). These buildings are home to over 500 low-income families who are at risk of losing their housing when the agreement between the owner of the property to keep those units affordable ends in 2020. Over the past two years I have met with the residents of these apartments on numerous occasions, have sat down with the owner of the property and as Finance Chair for the City Council, have worked with the City Manager on financial strategies to help ensure these families are not displaced.
• Build More Housing of all Types: Each year the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, the Boston Foundation and the Warren Group produce the Greater Boston Housing Report Card. One of their findings is that if cities reach a 5.5% vacancy rate housing prices come down. Currently, Cambridge’s vacancy rate is 3%. People are moving to Cambridge in droves and we don’t have the housing to meet the demand. So, what happens when bidding wars ensue? Lower income residents lose. If we do not build more housing of all types to meet the demand, then prices will continue to rise.
• We Need to be More Aggressive in Purchasing and Obtaining Property: Cambridge is 6 square miles. When you account for the land owned by our universities, municipal property and open space, there is not a great deal of land left to be developed. Therefore, I have been calling on the City to be more aggressive in acquiring and building on city owned property.
Three examples have been the property at Vail Court, the property on Concord Ave. near the Belmont line and the city owned parking lots in Central Sq. I called on the City to initiate eminent domain proceedings to acquire the dilapidated property on Bishop Allen Drive. The city has taken this action and this property that has been a blight on the community for over a decade will be converted in affordable housing. As chair of the Finance Committee I took part in conversations regarding the purchasing of property on Concord Ave. The city then partnered with HRI, an affordable housing developer, and soon they will be starting construction which will yield over 90 affordable units. I also joined then Vice-Mayor Dennis Benzan, on a policy order directing the city to assess building below market rent housing on city owned parking lots in Central Square. When the city controls the property, we are in a better position to partner with affordable housing developers to create more below market rent housing.
• Evaluate our Zoning: We need to evaluate our zoning and look at ways to offer incentives for the creation of housing. Recently, I worked closely on a zoning petition to add incentives for housing development in Central Square. The “Central Square Restoration Zoning” offered incentives to property owners so long as they built housing. We need to have our zoning work to encourage housing development not discourage it.
• Create an Office of Housing Stability: Cambridge has many great services, yet in a city that is geographically small, it is often difficult to find and access these services. We have been described as a city with “lots of dots but no lines.” We need to follow Boston’s lead and create an Office of Housing Stability. This will be a one stop location for residents to obtain information regarding all available housing programs, with a primary goal of preventing displacement. This office will provide information to both tenants and landlords regarding their legal rights, offer mediation, crisis intervention and referral services.
• Lead a Regional Conversation: Metro Boston is unique. If we were to pick up Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Everett and Chelsea and move us to almost anywhere else in the country, we would be one large city. Instead, the Metro Boston area is made up of little fiefdoms with our own forms of government, our own identities and often in competition with each other despite all of us dealing with similar issues. For the past year I have led a regional conversation on homelessness and if re-elected I will lead such a group to address our regional housing crisis. We must work together. Cambridge will not solve this problem alone, and neither will Boston or Somerville. We need to get policy makers, department heads and experts in the same room and develop a regional plan to addressing housing affordability.
• Strengthen our Condominium Conversion Policy: Some folks say that the greatest displacement comes when new housing is built. That has not been my experience. What I have seen while on the Council has been many individuals and families displaced because their three-family home was sold to a smaller developer who converted rental property to condos. People who have called Cambridge home for decades forced out because they have gone from a rent they could afford to a condo selling at top dollar. Currently there are state protections but they don’t go far enough. We may not be able to stop condo conversion but we can offer greater protections to residents being hurt by them.
• Create Gap Vouchers: Many low-income residents who receive Section 8 still cannot afford to reside in Cambridge. The gap between the maximum Section 8 will pay and the minimum market rent is so great that even with subsidies many are forced to leave Cambridge. I will call on the city to look at creating a “Gap Voucher Program” where funds are put aside to help low income residents make up the difference.
Now, these are not the only things we need to do. We need to address land costs, housing speculation, graduate student housing, vacant properties and ultimately jobs and wages so that people can earn more money to meet the cost of rising housing prices. There is no silver bullet answer to this crisis, but if re-elected, I will continue to be a leader in addressing this crisis.