Cambridge is a poster child for rich, anti-housing cities region-wide. But a quartet of city councilors there are trying to challenge that orthodoxy in a dramatic way. 

Former mayors Denise Simmons and Marc McGovern joined with City Councilors Quinton Zondervan and Burhan Azeem to propose that fully-affordable housing developments be allowed to rise as high as 25 stories in Central, Harvard and Porter squares, and as high as 13 stories along a few select corridors like busy, transit-rich Massachusetts Avenue. 

With Cambridge’s transit access and job centers, the idea is a no-brainer. A transit-oriented fully-affordable housing project at 2072 Massachusetts Ave. offers an even more pointed example of what the councilors’ idea is necessary. Despite being roughly the same height as neighboring buildings and a few minutes’ walk from Porter Square, the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal shot it down earlier this year citing concerns about density and traffic after a few neighbors essentially exercised a heckler’s veto. Realistic as-of-right zoning is needed so that a minority of existing residents can’t pull up the drawbridge and declare Cambridge “closed” to new arrivals. 

As McGovern told the council last week when introducing the idea, Cambridge is not going to solve its housing problems with 3- and 4-story all-affordable buildings – currently permitted city-wide with Cambridge’s landmark affordable housing overlay. Over 7,000 people who already live or work in Cambridge, McGovern noted, sit on the city’s affordable housing waitlist, many of whom have been holding on for years in hope of finding reasonably-priced accommodations in a city that’s been content to squeeze developers so tightly that all they can afford to build is luxury product. 

But just as importantly, Azeem, Zondervan, McGovern and Simmons are looking to the future with their measure. Construction costs show no sign of easing, and while the Federal Reserve will likely lower interest rates modestly next year, especially if the economy tips into a recession, it’s unlikely that the record-low interest rates of the last 10 years are coming back. They were a historical fluke, driven by the Fed’s long run of rock-bottom interest rates and “quantitative easing” mortgage bond-buying program; both existed only because Congress had been unable to agree on a way to stimulate the American economy in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. With plenty of money in the form of federal infrastructure and green energy bills set to slosh through our economy for the next 10 years, the Fed likely won’t face pressure for another round of “QE.” 

This makes the added density vitally important. Land costs are incredibly high in Cambridge, a reflection of the city’s desirability. The more units this cost can be spread across, the cheaper it is to build. With interest rates set to stay higher than we’re used to, the more density you can add, the better.  

Of course, a dramatic change like this will require significant community process, and it’s possible the building heights the quartet envisions will shrink. But we salute their boldness in shooting for the stars. More political leaders should follow their example. 

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Bravo for Cambridge Councilors

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min