Affordable Housing Matters

Recent news about the Cambridge plan to raise the “linkage fee” from $4.58 to $12, and then $15 over three years:

On affordable housing, I think we can:

  • Increase the linkage fee more aggressively ($20-24 instead of $10-12), to the number that would healthily fund the mission of the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust (CAHT), according to the consultant report.
  • At the same time, put more rigor into the standards, benchmarks, and tools expected of the CAHT and other city-funded affordability programs.
  • Ensure that we create diverse and inclusive communities, while taking opportunities to improve the site planning and design of city-owned or sponsored properties, and not perpetuate segregated “projects.”
  • Continue to include transportation access, open space access, economic mobility, educational opportunities, and general quality of life factors, as important tools to confront affordability issues.

I’m not an affordable housing expert, and while I recognize and agree that we face an affordability crisis today, our approach cannot be to throw money at said crisis and hope it works. Consider, for instance, the state’s crisis- and justice-driven 40B policy (it allows developers to skip virtually all meaningful local regulation if they agree to return a certain %age of affordable units in towns that lack a significant number of affordable units). Its potential application at e.g., a wetland site in East Arlington, highlights the fact that 40B, ostensibly a win-win affordable housing creation tool, can be used as a mechanism for developers to maximize returns on difficult properties with potentially grave implications for communities. This is an important precedent to consider as we look at local zoning reform that would address affordability. We must keep context in mind, and in fact, make it central to the conversation.

A budget alone isn’t the answer. As I stated at last week’s ordinance committee meeting on raising the linkage fee, we need to look no further than our public schools for the failure of more money to deliver results. Our school budget is the healthiest in the Commonwealth, and we spend more per pupil than any other school system, but deliver at best mediocre benchmark results. Similarly, we actually do spend healthily and regulate progressively on affordable housing. We have inclusionary zoning that beats most municipalities. A massive majority of Cantabridgians view affordable housing/affordability as the number one issue in the city. In that context, the easy thing is to increase funding for things with Affordable Housing in their names, but that’s not good enough.

Market conditions change and shift. We can’t lose sight of the dynamics that once kept prices low in Cambridge; essentially, that the job base disappeared and parts of the city fell into urban decay. Purposeful devaluation of our city is not something to work toward. We can and must continue to increase the attractiveness of living in the city, livability standards, quality of life—and at the same time, purposefully plan for our city to be inclusive.

Some of the solution to affordable housing comes from increased density. Mass + Main, despite some drawbacks, provides residential units to help meet some market demand. Importantly, though, it contributes to the “place” of Lafayette/Central Square. We must be placemakers and we must celebrate (and require) good design at the same time we push for a greater quantity of overall, and particularly affordable, housing units.

That’s because it’s not about the numbers alone. Sure, we can meet the demand for number of units the old urban renewal way, and demolish a few blocks of some neighborhood or another and build Soviet dormitories. Putting aside the motivations of context, preservation, direct displacement, mixed use, lifestyle, planning, design, etc., it would indeed be physically possible to “house” 10,000 or 20,000 more people, and we could do it in 18 months. But it would be a disaster with a reverse result: a devaluing of and disinvestment from, our city. A poorly planned coagulation of housing may meet the numbers requirement, but if nobody wants to live here, then what would we be doing it for? If nobody who brings a tax base wants to be here—e.g., middle and upper class property owners, institutions, employers—then the system is unsustainable.

Bishop Allen Apartments, a multi-faceted success

2015-07-21 15.05.09
Work in progress at 62 Norfolk Street

We must pursue affordable housing in context.

One of my favorite projects is that of the Bishop Allen Apartments, a historic rehabilitation project by the Just-a-Start corporation under the preservation incentives of 40T, with funding from a wide variety of partners like the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust, and even a grant from the Cambridge Historical Commission. Just-a-Start managed to preserve housing units (32 family-sized units), while restoring the historic envelope of four quad-deckers set just off of Central Square. Cast off is the atrocious vinyl, and returned to the neighborhood and city are affordable units that keep people here, and good historic restoration work that enhances the built story of Central Square and Cambridge. We need more of this.

Bishop Allen Apartments “before” photos on the lower right
2015-07-21 15.03.00
One of the completed Bishop Allen Apartments renovations

A radical idea would be to take a look at poorly treated properties, especially those with historic value, and consider takings and conversion to city-owned affordable units, or, depending on the costs involved, partnering with e.g. Just-a-Start, or even a private developer, to convert and produce housing with a high ratio of affordable units. Maybe that’s not realistic, or a solution to the problems of displacement in the current market, but I think it’s worth exploring. It’s a shame to see so much of our historic envelope fall into dilapidation (and remain entombed in asbestos or vinyl)—similarly, it’s a shame to see so much unused space vis a vis our city’s many surface parking lots and poorly-planned large sites—while demand for housing overall, and particularly affordable housing, is so massive. We must be progressive and active in building coalitions to deliver results. We must also be comprehensive, and plan, beyond being reactive to a crisis.

Will raising the linkage fee drive away development, leaving less overall for affordable housing?

Maybe. However, there are a few thing to consider:

  • The crisis is in affordable housing, not in lack of commercial construction.
  • There is no evidence that this or any type of fee/cost has been a major factor driving commercial development from the city.
  • We can be less extractive and more collaborative, which could change the entire conversation and win buy-in.
  • If cost to construct or develop commercial properties was a primary rationale for development decisions, there are suburbs nearby with much more, and much cheaper land. Cambridge is attractive for many reasons—especially our city’s diversity and other context—but certainly not the cheap cost of development.
  • The difference between $12 per sq. ft. and $24 per sq. ft. is similar to minor, routine fluctuations in construction materials and labor costs. Of course, this is a different type of economic/cost factor (being fixed).

There is important perspective to keep in mind, that this baseline linkage fee is not insignificant but it’s also not enormous. The need outweighs the modest burden, and if we are serious about the City being better for everyone by having a diverse socioeconomic community, than we can focus on context and buy-in, instead of playing a balancing act around how much to extract/extort without making developers too upset. That’s the wrong approach. Imagine a program where developers are excited to contribute to affordable housing programs, and eager to be involved, instead of merely tolerating a nuisance fee. We can get closer to the former, and away from the latter, with the right attitude, and by taking a truly careful look at the comprehensiveness of our policies, our approach to communication, and working to build buy-in. Filling budget holes is neither exciting nor progressive, even if it’s necessary. We must aim for an exciting program that fits seamlessly within our wider goals.

Affordable Housing Matters