Last week four protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement chained themselves to Cambridge City Hall for nine hours. While Greater Boston has managed to mostly avoid the violence that led to the first protests, the region is not without its racial divide. The Cambridge demonstrators were not protesting a shooting, but calling for the City Council to adopt four policies related to affordable housing: an increase in the amount of affordable housing developers must build from 15 percent to 25 percent; having the Massachusetts Institute of Technology build 5500 units of housing for its graduate and post-graduate students; using city-owned land to build affordable housing; and establishing a rent-to-own program.
Of these ideas, the most actionable one is having MIT build grad student housing. A plan by MIT to convert the Metropolitan Storage warehouse on Massachusetts Avenue into dorms was scrapped for its difficulty. The last residence they built was Ashdown House in 2008. According to The Cambridge Day, an MIT plan for 26 acres in Kendall Square would only build 300 units of housing while the Graduate Student Housing Working Group recommended building housing for up to 600 of them, while the Graduate Student Council called for housing all 4,000 plus graduate students on campus.
Building 5500 housing units on 26 acres might make heads in the Department of Urban Studies and Planing spin (they released a report not too long ago predicting that Uber would finally abolish those pesky pedestrians, which makes one wonder if their degrees are printed on toilet paper), but it would work out to 211.5 dwelling units per acre, less than the North End in 1960 — and the North End was a mid-rise, mixed-use neighborhood.
Having the city use its land to build housing could work with modifications. As noted previously, construction costs in the Boston area are around $159 per square foot. This would be a lot of money for a municipality to borrow. In Munich, which unveiled a scheme to build over parking lots in March, the city is keeping costs down by using extensive prefabrication. Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development has used a model where both for- and non-profit developers can respond to requests for proposals on city-owned property, with the for-profit developers building mixed-income housing.
In addition to building over city-owned land, Cambridge could possibly work with private or institutional landowners to build affordable housing. For example, the city could conceivably buy air rights over the private Porter Square and Fresh Pond Mall parking lots.
A rent-to-own program would require the cooperation of landlords and may be difficult to implement. Alternatively, existing public housing could be converted into cooperatives or the housing built over parking lots could be a co-op from the beginning.
The inclusionary development ordinance that exists has been somewhat succesful. A recent study recommended that it be increased from 15 to 20 percent. The problem with inclusionary development is that it can increase development costs, discouraging the construction needed for the program to work.
Cambridge made big strides earlier this year when the city council legalized accessory dwelling units. But what the city really needs is upzoning. Much of the city away from the main roads remains one-to-three family homes on large lots with moderate to wide setbacks. There is ample opportunity to increase the number of homes with smaller lots, row houses and more multifamily structures. In addition, the city should abolish its parking minimums, since they both increase rent and food costs for poor families.
Parking shouldn’t be holding back housing.