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Cambridge Affordable Housing Overlay Has Tentative Majority Approval Among Elected Councilors

Several Cambridge politicians have proposed measures to increase the amount of affordable housing in the city.
Several Cambridge politicians have proposed measures to increase the amount of affordable housing in the city. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Declan J. Knieriem, Crimson Staff Writer

A large enough majority of Cambridge City Councilors elected Nov. 5 support the city’s proposed affordable housing overlay in its current form that the council may now be able to pass the long-debated legislation into law.

The overlay — which became a central issue over the course of the campaign — is a zoning reform proposal to streamline affordable housing permit approval processes and reduce costs, thereby incentivizing developers to build affordable units in Cambridge. Municipal zoning laws require a minimum of six votes to pass the council, and during the current session overlay proponents were unable to garner sufficient support. The measure was tabled in September ahead of the biannual election.

After the November election, however, six of nine incoming councilors back the proposal as it stands, according to interviews and Crimson survey sent to candidates.

Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern, who has been a strong proponent of the overlay, said in an interview that he is hopeful for the legislation’s passage in the coming term. He added that it is critical to address Cambridge’s “extremely difficult” affordable housing situation.

“If we do not deal with that, and we leave it up to market forces, then the only development we're going to see is high end developments,” he said.

McGovern, along with incumbent councilors E. Denise Simmons, Sumbul Siddiqui, Alanna M. Mallon, and Timothy J. Toomey Jr. have previously supported the overlay and indicated their intention to vote in its favor. These five incumbents are joined in their support of the overlay by newly elected challenger Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler.

McGovern added that much of the disagreement came from the “nitty gritty,” and said he believes the councilors should be willing to compromise in order to address the housing crisis.

“No one’s ever gonna get 100 percent of what they want,” he said. “I'm not getting 100 percent of what I want. But, you know, at the end of the day, are we going to stand by our commitment to build more affordable housing or are we going to find excuses not to?”

In order for the proposal to be considered in the coming term, it will need to be reintroduced and go through the typical legislative channels before a vote can take place. This process involves being considered during at least one Ordinance Committee hearing.

Newly elected councilor Patricia “Patty” M. Nolan ’80 — who opposed the current version of the overlay during the campaign — said she would like to see “some version” of the overlay passed by the next council. She added, however, that aspects of the proposal would have to be changed in order to gain her support including permit applicants' right to appeal zoning decisions.

“I expect an overlay come to before us, but I hope that it doesn't pass as written, because I think we can do better,” she said. “I think there's overlays that would produce less time delay and less restrictions and less problems for developers who want to do 100 percent affordable housing and probably produce more units.”

Both McGovern and Nolan said they would like to see a compromise where councilors could come to a unanimous — or nearly unanimous — consensus.

David E. Sullivan, a former city councilor, said he believes the council will pass some form of the overlay in the next term, describing the election itself as a “referendum” of sorts on the proposal.

“I think the voters spoke clearly,” he said.

Nolan disputed the idea of the election as a referendum, saying she found many residents remained “concerned” with the proposal as it stands.

“The election results did not show that people supported the overlay,” she said. “There was actually a lot of concern. As I was door knocking, even from people who supported, people who were in front of the overlay, they still were concerned about the overlay as written.”

— Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

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