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Cambridge passes controversial changes to affordable housing law, allowing for taller buildings

The skyline of Cambridge. Cambridge City Council passed new amendments increasing height limits for housing developments. PHOTO COURTESY OF PERCIVAL KESTRELTAIL VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Cambridge City Council amended their 100% Affordable Housing Overlay, a plan which now allows for taller and denser affordable housing developments, in a 6-3 vote Monday despite multiple city councilors and city council candidates opposing the proposal.

The amendments, referred to as AHO 2.0, expanded upon the original law adopted in 2020 to now increase the height limit of affordable housing developments to 12 stories in specific areas such as Massachusetts Avenue, Concord Avenue and Cambridge Street and up to 15 stories in areas such as Harvard Square and Central Square, Cambridge City Councilor Marc McGovern said. 

Councilors Burhan Azeem, Denise Simmons, Quinton Zondervan and McGovern, all voted in support of the amendments, alongside Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon. Councilors Dennis Carlone, Paul F. Toner and Patricia M. Nolan voted against.

Carlone said the amendments “[do] not make sense,” and they needed a more “holistic, long term solution.”

“What I’ve learned over time is that people in affordable housing wish to live in housing that looks like their neighbors, and they don’t want to stand out as affordable housing,” Carlone said. “It just doesn’t make sense in the way the zoning is written … the zoning becomes Russian Roulette zoning.”

McGovern said he does not understand why people are so strongly opposed to the law. He said 616 units have been approved in AHO projects since it was launched three years ago, over 200 of which are family-size units, which people in Cambridge “desperately need.”

“In some ways, I really don’t understand what all the hoopla is about,” McGovern said. “This is not going to solve our affordable housing problem, but it’s also not going to turn Cambridge into Manhattan and destroy the city … [It’s] not going to make a difference to the average homeowner in Cambridge. It really isn’t.”

City Council candidate Joan Pickett said she felt these amendments were a missed opportunity to have “a broader conversation.”

“What many people wanted, including myself, is to actually step back and look at the more complicated issues around affordable housing,” Pickett said. “It’s not just about height and it’s not just about setbacks, it’s about ‘how are we financing it?’ ‘What is the responsibility of the universities to provide housing for their students?’ … all of those issues still remain undiscussed.”

McGovern countered arguments against the amendments regarding funding.

“I’m trying to solve a problem, I’m trying to meet a crisis, and yet other people are just … going to vote against everything that might help do it,” McGovern said. “So do you really want it or not?”

Hao Wang, another city council candidate, said he opposed the amendments because they had “no civic engagement” and they did not preserve the parts of Cambridge with “rich history.”

“I came from Beijing, we had industrialization,” Wang said. “During that process, we lost a lot of our historical and cultural heritage, and many decades later, many people started to regret that. If we are not careful, we will lose our Cambridge rather quickly.”

Azeem, who supported the amendments, said he believed the amendments will bring a more vibrant community to Cambridge.

“I’m just excited to welcome our new neighbors,” Azeem said. “I think that it’s really great that we’re welcoming new people and making the city a little bit more affordable, and having people who can benefit from all the great things that Cambridge has to offer.”

Carlone said affordable housing requires much more thoughtful decisions than the amendments that were put forward.

“The point is, this is one easy solution, but when you have complex issues affecting the price of land … a simple solution rarely is the right solution, long term,” Carlone said. “I firmly believe that the dedicated nonprofits, long term nonprofits, don’t even want this. They want an extra floor two, and this has killed that now.”

McGovern said affordable housing is a “ethical and moral issue” for him.

“We’re talking about housing, we’re talking about housing people, why is this so controversial?” McGovern said. “Housing is key to everything. When you have stable housing, your physical health is better, your mental health is better, your academic outcomes are better, your job outcomes are better, your quality of life is better, kids do better. Everything is better when you have stable housing.”

Wang said he wants to make Cambridge a better place for young people to live.

“I want our young, newly graduates [to] live and work and play in Cambridge, which calls not so much about affordable housing, more about commercial development, market rate housing and better arts and better nightlife,” Wang said. “I think we should work together to make Cambridge a better place for young graduates.”

Adithya Iyer contributed to the reporting of this article.

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