Cambridge Planning Board - Aug 4th, 2020
Meeting held via video-conference. Several items were on the agenda, but I only took notes for one: a hearing on the proposed affordable housing overlay (AHO). See https://www.cambridgema.gov/CDD/Projects/Housing/affordablehousingoverlay for background.
The Community Development Department (CDD) provides the planning board with a presentation.
(CDD staff) Cambridge has made numerous efforts to increase the number of affordable housing units in the City. We performed a Nexus study in 2015 and increased incentives for development. Developers contribute $20/square foot for commercial development into an affordable housing trust fund. A percentage of building permit fees also go into the affordable housing trust fund. Cambridge continues a pledge to allocate 80% of CPA funds to affordable housing each year. The city increased its inclusionary zoning requirements in 2017, from 12.5% to 20%. This proposal will make new sites available, allow denser development, and streamline the permitting process.
All units built via the AHO must have 100% of units deeded to low or moderate incomes. At least 80% of units have to be for 80% AMI or lower, and no unit can be over 100% AMI.
Affordable housing development is hard, and financially challenging. We expect every project built under the AHO to require significant subsidies from the city or state. Affordable housing developers have to compete with market rate developers for building sites, which is another challenge.
We'd like to ensure that affordable housing and be distributed throughout the city. The AHO applies to all zoning districts, including ones where it's currently not possible to build affordable housing (i.e., districts that do not allow multi-family housing).
Three of the AHO's goals are: (1) to reduce risk and make it easier to procure sites, (2) to expand affordable housing into areas where there currently isn't any, and (3) to make projects easier to permit, thereby reducing uncertainty. These are three important factors that make affordable housing development challenging.
Housing construction costs continue to rise, which is making it harder for Cambridge to meet its affordable housing goals. This proposal doesn't address construction costs, but it does address zoning and permitting challenges.
Staff shows a "redline" (Homeowners Loan Corporation of America) map of Cambridge, alongside a map showing the location of Cambridge's affordable housing. Most affordable housing lies in formerly red or yellow areas. Some areas weren't rated by the HOLC (they're shown in white). These were industrial areas where they didn't expect housing to be developed. Some of the unrated areas were owned by universities.
Zoning is not a static document. It should evolve as our needs evolve.
(Jeff Roberts, CDD staff) The planning board heard this petition in 2019, and recommended adoption. The city council didn't take action on the petition last year. This year's AHO proposal is a city council initiative.
(Marc McGovern, Cambridge City Councilor) Mr. McGovern is the lead petitioner on the refiled AHO proposal. He'd like to see more affordable housing, more equity, and more economic and racial diversity. He wants to make it more viable to build affordable housing. Since being introduced last year, the AHO has involved 36 public meetings and received over 300 public comments. 73 amendments were proposed, and 45 of them adopted for this proposal. The zoning change will be accompanied by a 40-page design guidelines document. Redlining was a racist and classist policy, and most of our affordable housing is located in formerly redlined districts.
The rising cost of rent is due to a supply and demand problem. This leads developers to pursue higher-end projects. Minimum lot size and parking regulations also drive up the cost of housing.
(CDD Staff) Some zoning districts are more restrictive, which makes it hard to build affordable housing. We're providing the AHO as an alternative path to 40B.
All units must be deed-restricted to income level. At least 80% of units must be restricted to 80% AMI or lower. AHO projects would be allowed in all districts. Ground floor non-residential uses would be allowed if such uses are permitted in the underlying district.
The AHO relaxes a number of dimensional regulations. AHO projects would be allowed 1--2 extra stories (depending on the underlying district's height regulations). There's a step down requirement when an AHO project abuts a lower-height district. It allows reduced setbacks in the more restrictive districts. All at-grade open space must be permeable. There are no minimum parking requirements. A TDM plan is required if a project provides less than 0.4 parking spaces/unit (0.4 spaces/unit is typical for Cambridge's existing affordable housing). We've tried to make it easier to re-use existing buildings, by creating density (i.e., more units) within the building. The conservation commission and historic districts commission will maintain their existing jurisdictions over these projects.
There are a number of design standards, such as requirements for windows, and for breaks in the building facade.
There's an advisory review process for AHO projects. An AHO developer must hold one neighborhood meeting, and attend two hearings with the planning board. Board opinions are advisory, because the goal is to allow affordable housing development by right. CDD developed a set of design guidelines for affordable housing projects.
The chair opens the meeting to public comment.
(Lee Farris) Ms. Farris is speaking on behalf of the Cambridge Residents Alliance. They believe that a reduction in the number of eligible parcels could be achieved, while still allowing affordable housing development. They'd like 20% of development to provide ownership opportunities. AHO developments need to abide by Cambridge's tree protection ordinance. They'd like to see a minimum of 15' between buildings, and a 5' step back on the top floor. They oppose three changes that were made to the 2019 petition.
(David Sullivan) Mr. Sullivan wholeheartedly supports the refiled overlay. These developments should be by-right, rather than discretionary. That's important in preventing project delay and litigation. It's also important for the overlay to be city-wide in scope.
(Ruth Ann Rudell) Ms. Rudell is speaking on behalf of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee. She'd like to see AHO projects subject to existing bicycle parking standards. Secure bicycle parking and storage is important for low-income households, particularly if they don't have room to store bikes in their houses. The bicycle committee supports the affordable housing overlay.
(George Metzger) Mr. Metzger is an architect and he's worked on affordable housing projects. He supported last year's proposal. This ordinance addresses the issue of inequity, and it corrects patterns that have denied opportunities for multi-family development. Minority and low-income individuals should be able to live in a city of their choice. He urges support and quick passage of the petition.
(Peter Daly) Mr. Daly is the executive director of Homeowners Rehab. He supports passage of the petition. His company recently built a 98 unit affordable housing project, and over 2000 people applied for units. There's a tremendous demand for affordable housing in Cambridge. People sometimes ask Mr. Daly why more affordable housing doesn't get built. We need sites, and we're often outbid by market rate developers.
(Kathleen Higgins) Ms. Higgins very strongly supports the AHO, and urges passage with no amendments. This is vital and much-needed. The events of 2020 make the AHO passage more important than ever. We need more homes and more density. Density doesn't spread COVID, overcrowding does. This will lead to secure, safer homes.
(Suzanne Blier) Ms. Blier says research shows that design to the surrounding area is critical to the success of affordable housing projects. This proposal doesn't give enough consideration to the Residence A and Residence B districts. It's important to limit floor-area ratio to what's already in the community. I hope you'll agree to a design review board, to provide a mechanism for neighborhood review. There are other ways to address racial inequities.
(Esther Haynig) Ms. Haynig offers strong support. The need for affordable housing is increasing exponentially. Housing cost is a major issue for Cambridge. Racial inequities can be found in Cambridge. It's important to make affordable housing more financially feasible. Ms. Haynig recommends passage.
(Elizabeth Gumbosi) Ms. Gumbosi supports affordable housing, but thinks the petition could be improved. Residents need a way to appeal design decisions. We cannot allow the loss of trees. We need open, green space, not density.
(Christoper Schmidt) We've seen a movement towards rectifying inequities and policies that have locked people out of neighborhoods. We shouldn't be saying "you're not welcome here". Some value trees more than houses, but I can't agree with that. Keep creating more homes. Create affordable housing in every neighborhood. Mr. Schmidt hopes the petition moves forward tonight.
(Laura Curry) Ms. Curry asks that the board follow recommendations that were put forward last year. This proposal is really the only way to get enough housing to meet Cambridge's needs. Exclusion has created patterns, and some folks are going to feel uncomfortable about changing those patterns.
(Tina Alloo) Ms. Alloo is speaking on behalf of CEOC. CEOC participants are were dire straits trying to pay their bills, and that was before the pandemic.
(Momentarily lost my connection)
(Robert Kamacho) Mr. Kamacho is concerned that the planning board is considering an AHO that doesn't follow best practices. Removing planning board oversight is a travesty. Surrounding cities should live up to their demands. Why aren't other cities and towns building more housing? This proposal is an abdication of the planning board's responsibilities and a ploy by developers.
(James Zull) Mr. Zull speaks in favor of the AHO. Our housing shortage is only becoming worse. The AHO proposal has been extensively vetted. It's time for Cambridge to move forward with more affordability and equity.
(Marilee Meyer) Ms. Meyer says these ideas were discussed at Envision meetings and there was never any support for this. She doesn't like the planning board having an advisory role. Apartments rented to family members should be considered affordable housing. This is not an incremental approach. 80% AMI is not affordable. Density is not our friend.
(Francis Donovan) There's a critical need for affordable housing, but we need livable density.
(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak lives in Arlington, MA and he's been following the progress of this petition. He expresses gratitude to everyone who's worked to craft the AHO petition, and believes it's focused on the right priorities. Particularly in treating affordable housing as by-right development. He'd like to get his colleagues in Arlington interested in a similar proposal, because Arlington has a real need for affordable housing too.
(James Williamson) Mr. Williamson had to overcome tremendous hurdles to participate in this process. He lives in affordable housing and the internet access is not good. If he were a lawyer, he'd put this whole process in question. What about the vacant lot on Cherry Street? What about the three luxury and boutique hotels that have just gone up? Affordable housing projects don't get to have trees. The bicycle racks are largely empty at Jefferson Park. You should ask people who live in affordable housing how their housing is.
(Heather Hoffman) Ms. Hoffman wants to talk about trees. Poor people have souls too. Removing trees and open space is like redlining. If all we can do is make boxes, then this is a lousy proposal. What's our goal? Does this get us anywhere close to it? We need a proposal that produces real houses.
(Susan Sleisinger) Ms. Sleisinger thanks the planning board for their work. Affordable housing has produced homes where people can live in safe, uncrowded conditions. There's an urgency for this petition. If we passed this last year, there'd be projects in the development pipeline. I've never seen a process as inclusive as this one. At some point, a decision has to be made. It's time to undo restrictive zoning, create more affordable housing, and more diversity.
(Linda Vick) Ms. Vick lives in affordable housing, and feels that Cambridge needs more of it. Her son has a disability and he gets great service in Cambridge. We need more diversity. Be cautious of who's hired to build affordable housing. Ms. Vick suggests hiring only non-profit developers.
(Leah) Leah supports building more affordable housing. She has questions about parking. We need parking, but we need affordable housing too.
(Doris B) Doris lives in Rindge towers. Housing has really helped her family. People from all over live in the towers, and the housing is very beneficial.
(Jason Alves) Mr. Alves is speaking on behalf of the East Cambridge Business Association. The AHO doesn't protect existing commercial spaces. He'd like to see a requirement for commercial space in the business districts.
(MK Greenage) MK speaks on behalf of affordable and inclusive housing. At what point is affordable housing no longer affordable?
The public comment period ends.
(Marc McGovern) Mr. McGovern says that all parts of Cambridge have different types of housing and different architectures. It's beautiful and diverse. Our goal was to allow affordable housing in neighborhoods where it currently can't be built. Some of the amendments proposed would weaken the petition's viability. Not everyone wants the overlay, but let's not kill it with death by a thousand cuts.
The chair asks if board members have questions for staff.
(Hugh Russell) Mr. Russell thinks it will be hard to meet a 2.0 FAR and have design guidelines. What happens if a developer says they can't meet the guidelines?
(Staff) Design guidelines are not expected to be regulations. They're a set of goals to meet, on balance. Developers will be required to attend two hearings with the planning board, which will give the board an opportunity to ask questions, and ask developers to explain their design choices. Adherence to guidelines is also something the affordable housing trust fund would look at.
(Lost my connection again, and missed a minute or two)
(Ted Cohen) Mr. Cohen says the ordinance is explicit with respect to the advisory review process. It contains language to address Mr. Russell's concerns.
(Mary Flynn) This version of the petition is improved. It includes a FAR cap of 2.0. Ms. Flynn asks how staff determined that a maximum FAR of 2.0 was appropriate for low-density districts.
(Staff) The FAR cap was a recommendation from the City Council and Ordinance Committee. CDD weighed in on the level of density required to make affordable housing projects feasible. These projects need a certain number of units, and we translated that into FAR. A four-story building that covers 50% of a lot would have a FAR of 2.0.
(Mary Flynn) Ms. Flynn would like to see an example of what this would look like in the A-1 district. She's not sure how a large multi-family project would fit in.
(Lou Bacci) Mr. Bacci asks if the board would exceed guidelines in order to make the FAR fit.
(Staff) You'd treat it as any other project that was subject to design guidelines. Guidelines express intent, and not every project will meet every guideline.
(Staff) We're working on diagrams to show how this would work in the A districts. The ordinance committee requested diagrams for that district.
(Steven Cohen) Mr. Cohen asks what the role of the planning board will be, other than to make suggestions. Is there anything of a mandatory nature here?
(Staff) The planning board review is advisory.
(Staff) Design guidelines address subjective elements that are open to interpretation. They're not objective regulatory standards.
(Steven Cohen) Mr. Cohen can see the need for parking varying according to the project and its location. Some folks need cars, and why aren't there bicycle parking requirements.
(Staff) The original proposal had parking minimums, but the City Council and Ordinance Committee removed them. The goal was to make affordable housing development more flexible. The current thinking in zoning is to have developers determine their parking requirements; they'll need to provide a suitable amount of parking in order to make a project work. Bicycle parking is required, and the number of spaces can be waived only in certain circumstances.
(Tom S.) I never though that bike storage would be an issue of equity. This petition isn't perfect, but it's been well reviewed, and there are reporting requirements. We'll get to review it in five years. I'm good to go on this.
(Ted Cohen) While in quarantine, I've learned more about the history of zoning and discretionary permitting. Promoting diversity throughout Cambridge is good. By right development is good. Design review is as good as a comprehensive review. Waiting for the perfect proposal is not a viable option. We can adjust the overlay regulations during periodic review. It's time to move forward.
(Lou Bacci) What are the minimum income requirements for affordable housing?
(Staff) There are maximum income limits but not minimum income limits. Limits are often set by the funding agency, predicated on the type of funding available, and the restrictions that come with it. The city also works with the Cambridge Housing Authority to make use of housing choice vouchers.
(Lou Bacci) This has holes, but it may be the best we can do.
(Steven Cohen) Affordable housing programs are important. They're fundamentally good, but the details are important. I hope the design review works out okay. I'm concerned about the lack of parking requirements and developments that might not provide adequate parking. This is a good necessary proposal, but I'm worried about the details.
(Hugh Russell) I thought about last year's review. A super-majority supported it. Our housing situation has gotten more critical. I'm convinced there are incentives to produce good projects. If not, we can tweak the process. I'm in favor of the petition.
(Mary Flynn) I agree with the favorable recommendation. I support making the overlay city-wide, but I'm concerned with bulk in the lower-density districts. There's enough here to make me feel comfortable.
(Nikolas Bowie) I support the proposal. We're in a moment of paying attention to things that have created the housing shortage and segregation. It's our responsibility to look at our zoning, and at the role that planning boards have played in segregation. We consider redlining bad today, but it was a common practice for decades. That was the result of individuals not being critical of their roles. I encourage members of the board to read "Neighborhood Defenders". People who comment at planning and zoning meetings tend to be white, male, homeowners, and overwhelmingly opposed to new housing. Zoning is a set of laws that make it illegal to build things that people want. A lot of Cambridge was built before there were design reviews or zoning. We need to think about people who don't attend planning meetings, because they don't live here yet. I support the proposal.
(Catherine Preston Connolly) Ms. Connolly appreciates the reading recommendations. A lot of the concerns have been covered. The five year review is intended to address the fact that we're moving into new territory. I'm pleased with how tonight's discussion went. We're paying more attention to our role in structural inequities. I also support a favorable recommendation.
There's a motion to support a favorable recommendation (thereby allowing the petition to come before City Council). Motion passes 7--1.
(Left the meeting at this point)