A Better Cambridge Forum: housing and development

I participated in three forums this week: Green Cambridge, A Better Cambridge, and Black Lives Matter in Cambridge.

Some thoughts after the A Better Cambridge forum.

On housing

Affordable housing, fundamentally. First, we need to be clear about what we are talking about. Generally these discussions focus specifically on public housing, subsidies, and other bureaucratic programs like inclusionary zoning. Frankly, though, I think the real theme, as it were, that concerns Cantabridgians, is the affordability of housing. That is, the cost of housing (buy or rent), at market rates (or otherwise).

That is, for the most part and for most people, the prevailing issue is that the market has appreciated at a dramatic pace and has hit levels that are unaffordable to a great deal of the economic spectrum.

Then there is affordable housing per se: agency owned/facilitated, subsidized units, etc.

Which means we’re talking about two general areas. One, affordability of housing in the market.* Two, publicly operated, or otherwise controlled, influenced, created, or managed, income-restricted housing units.

On the former, market-rate. Cambridge is a unique market in any global/national/regional market condition. This is acute and particular. Obviously, Harvard, MIT, and Industry (biotech plus), are the main reasons for this. A secondary reason, I suspect, is the unique interrelation with the Boston urban core, geographically — being a blurred yet distinct city, urban but suburban-ish.

Anyway, in the last several years, this particular market has been particularly particular. Price appreciation as a % has outpaced the rest of the Commonwealth and much of the nation—by an extraordinary margin. There was a study I need to dig up that “indexed” Cambridge in the high 70s, a few other nearby players like Somerville, Brookline, and certain zip codes in Boston in the 30s to 50s, and most towns in MA in the -5 to +10 range. As a real estate agent, I have witnessed this dramatic rise in prices anecdotally, absolutely. Residential prices have kept a pace of at least +10 to +15% per season (Fall to Spring to Fall to Spring etc.) consistently since at least 2012, with a non-evidenced feeling of a slight (and quite high) plateau only very recently.

Obviously, it’s great to be in a position of investment, to the tune of hundreds of millions in residential real estate transactions (and the same for commercial), much of it in cold-hard cash, and much of it foreign or corporate. I.e., Cambridge is a “good” investment. It is a seller’s market (Cambridge is great for sellers) and a successful buyer is a lucky buyer (Cambridge is a great, top choice for real estate buyers). We are a premier city. The name “Kendall Square” carries enormous heft. Thousands of tourists, commuters, residents, workers, are coming and exploring and investing (in real property if they’re so lucky), every day. Our problem (too much investment) is a good one to have in many ways.

The problems do begin to unfold, however. 

(Note: I will avoid charged terms like “gentrification” and “luxury” but I will use others like “displacement” because it is descriptive and not incredibly charged.)

Displacement is a direct problem, particularly when it is on a dramatic scale.

Acute displacement is not happening because home sellers or the real estate market is inherently malicious or evil, but it is nevertheless an important problem because 1. It creates the immediate crises of upheavel, economic instability for lower socioeconomic status families, homelessness, etc., and 2. It can rapidly lead to the loss of something we should all value (and that I value as a person and candidate): inclusive, socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods and communities, by design.

We cannot let the market completely decide, nor have we. We also cannot ignore market forces, just as we cannot ignore the worthy goal of keeping people here, and even inviting new people in, from across the socioeconomic spectrum.

And a lot of the answer, I believe, lies in what we think of as housing, and the expectations and requirements we impart on the built and to-be-built stock. 

A great deal of the answer lies in density. Smart, and I mean smart, density.

I consider the failure to build at Alewife/Cambridge Highlands at even greater heights and densities, virtually car-free, and with the Damn Overpass Already, is horrendous. I could draw up a decent comprehensive plan for that area in 45 minutes and it would be better than anything the City has meaningfully done. Every developer would pay for a chunk of the overpass, limit parking to .25 per unit, get to build higher. The bike network would be triply extensive, at least, and the area would be truly Alewife T-oriented. We would forcibly take the T station/garage from the MBTA and find a developer to build a mixed-use tower on top of the station. OK, I’ll calm down a little.

It’s a worthy enough failing to spur the citywide planning process along, and I think rightfully so.

We next look to e.g., Volpe, where we haven’t yet had real vision and thus are taking a back seat to the theoretical bureaucratic monster before we even have to yet. I want the wetland and the tower/s and the eloquent contribution to the Binney Street “biotech Champs-Elysées.” We have many more areas that we might regrettably throw away to poor design, poor functionality, and if done badly, which will very poorly address our housing issues.

Addressing the housing affordability issue means, first, more units and smaller units.

Zoning reform and a predictable, cohesive special permitting/variance process has to be accomplished in these regards, because the immediate and long-term housing goals, and the grand vision for Cambridge, are more important than whatever sluggishness we are about to get thrown in the face with over the Barrett Petition (for instance).

The Barrett Petition is the type of work our city councillors/working groups, and city staff, should be doing already, in overdrive. Capturing usability, value (financial and spatial), and general opportunity in our as-built environment and through appropriate infill, is plain and obvious.

Then we get into the managed stuff. We need Affordable Housing (as opposed to affordable housing), because there is indeed instance of crisis, because there is a worthy social goal of lifting people out of poverty and other circumstances that require stable housing, and because we indeed want diversity and the market isn’t perfect enough to meaningfully deliver it in an integrated way.

We need inclusionary zoning and it needs to be stronger. I see a great logic in tying it to zoning limits, particularly height.

Inclusionary percentages should be better reflective of context and density. They should be cognizant and have a great interplay with, again, unit sizes. We still build too big in a lot of ways, and have a late-century suburban attitude at what a “family” is and needs space-wise in order to live.

The linkage fee, CPA funds, etc. to fund the Affordable Housing Trust. I have generally supported the increase of these measures – fees and taxes – at a rate that outpaces the incumbent Council majority’s preferences, because I think we are under-recognizing our unique market position (“golden age” as Councilor Carlone puts it) and our unique and acute crisis. However, I have serious doubts about this being the Ultimate Achievement (getting more money to the AHT). That doesn’t mean I don’t think it should be basically doubled at all levels right now, because the market can take it (I disagree that a $24 linkage fee, a modest residential property tax increase, and other ideas like a tiny sliding transfer tax, would kill Cambridge) and because there is indeed a significant wealth and opportunity gap chasm-ing open in Cambridge, whether it’s visible all the time or not. The least we can do is get a quick $50M to affordable housing which beside, isn’t a drain or outright cost, but an investment in less- or disadvantaged people.

However, I do think many of the the programs as they exist now are tactics and not strategies. Same thing with old-style housing projects. The point was always to be transitional, for the residents and for the city. We now face many expiring buildings and the city likes to “save” i.e., buy them, and put them in perpetuity in the bureacratic-affordable column. Sure. We need the units. But. We also cannot accept segregation and “ghetto” nor some of the poorest urban design you’ll find anywhere (both concepts interrelated in a way). Have you seen the parking lots at Rindge Towers? What a horror.

Maintenance and operations alone are significant issues when we don’t have billions in investment pouring into the city. Let alone expecting to deliver Affordable units at a significant pace.

The citywide plan must (and certainly will) address the qualitative and statistical aspects of our housing issues. But it must have actionable outcomes:

  • Inclusion by design – clear, transparent. Incentives are a top-off and not a strategy. Zoning is a tool and so is visionary planning. Get buy-in via a great vision for Cambridge – evolve from extortion-style politics to a shareable set of goals.
  • Actionable zoning recommendations that (I believe) should mostly throw out our zoning altogether, start mostly fresh, and make everything conforming on the basics – height, setbacks, etc. Begin the process of eliminating parking spaces on public space and in private development requirements. Envision small/tiny living as a norm and allow it. Seriously rethink density; our ship’s not tipping over yet. Transit. Bikes. Accessory units. More units per parcel. Good starting heights where appropriate. No meaningless or arbitrary setbacks. Coda.

Other items to go through, for another time

  • Graduate student housing, particularly at MIT
  • More attention to city-owned property (e.g., parking lots)
  • Contextual infill
  • Historic preservation and neighborhood conservation
  • Mixed-use density in commercial corridors (e.g., Mass. Ave.)
  • Regional planning – very important topic, worth its own series of articles (check out MAPC’s work)
  • Height, density (theory, philosophy)
  • Traffic and parking (a favorite topic of those who show up to things)

*Affordability means other things too, like milk and sneakers, but that’s a less pressing and less politically prevailing issue. How much does gas cost these days? I have no idea and I don’t care.

A Better Cambridge Forum: housing and development