Could Cambridge’s Initiative Be the Roadmap for Bringing Back Housing Affordability?

Real estate may be local, but experts are looking at housing reform success stories within regional hot spots to address the affordability crisis that’s overtaken much of the country.

Magda Maaoui, a postdoctoral fellow, recently highlighted one such case study for The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University: the Cambridge, Mass.,100 Percent Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO) initiative.

First introduced in 2020, AHO is currently in place with an amended Affordable Housing Overlay 2.0, which launched last October. The amendment allows for taller affordable housing developments in higher-density zoning districts, major squares, and mixed-use corridors, and reduces required setbacks across the city.

Thus far, AHO developments with 727 units are underway with another dozen in review. This is an increase over the 50-60 new units the city was previously producing on an annual basis. These will be rental properties, per Maaoui, serving more than 2,000 residents with a majority (98%) earning under $78,500 per year. Most (63%) are two- to four-bedroom, family-sized units.

Progress is being made in areas of Cambridge with previously low affordable housing availability, ticking one of AHO’s primary boxes—rebalancing uneven ratios of affordable constructions and encouraging development in West Cambridge.

Also on the docket is building 3,175 units between 2018 and 2030 and easing up on permitting processes to encourage competitive bidding for projects that meet certain criteria (thus reducing carrying costs by shortening the period between the site purchase and when construction begins).

Though it’s had some wins, several challenges persist with AHO.

It’s no surprise considering much of the pushback to this type of reform comes from longtime neighborhood residents, homeowners in particular, who believe incoming development could impact a neighborhood’s character, aesthetics, and property value, according to Diana Drogaris, outreach coordinator for the National Zoning Atlas, a collaborative project digitizing and explaining 30,000 U.S. zoning codes.

Drogaris, who is also a member of the legal constructs lab at Cornell University, says the AHO may disappoint detractors as it could open up housing options to new residents, “but it might also disappoint supporters since it defines affordability to be 80% of Cambridge’s area median income, targeting one-person households making over $100,000 and families making about $150,000.”

However, many fears are unfounded, Drogaris adds, stating that policymakers should better convey that “housing demand transcends neighborhood or jurisdictional boundaries.”

What makes AHO different? Maaoui says the permitting and zoning changes are looking to not just flip housing affordability for the better within Cambridge, but solve the issues that communities nationwide are facing. She notes that cities such as Boston, Somerville, Berkeley, and Salt Lake City are all considering a similar strategy.

While regional obstacles may differ, the overarching challenges persist on a wide scale, says Drogaris.

“The challenges in addressing the affordable housing crisis should be familiar as they are the same issues exacerbating it: skyrocketing land and construction costs, severe regulatory burdens, stagnating supply, corporate consolidation of housing units, unscrupulous landlords, and unregulated rent hikes.”

The key, says Drogaris, is preventing excessive or inadequate development pressure in any single area.

“Policymakers must collaborate within a region to ensure equitable distribution of development.”

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