Much ado about housing

bill cunningham

THURSDAY, APRIL 25, 2019—“Housing” is once again the hot topic in Cambridge and the Boston area. It is also in the spotlight around the country. There has not been this much talk about housing crisis for a long time. Indeed prices and rents are higher than they've ever been, being driven up—or rather pulled up—from the top. The wealthy have got much wealthier—and they are willing and able to pay almost any price for their digs. In turn the near-wealthy have to pay more too if they don’t want to be left behind in the prestige dust. Lower income and even middle income renter households are in a much worse position—they are being pushed out of their neighborhoods entirely. 

These middle-income people are the key. As Frederick Engels (remember him?) said around 120 years ago, for some people there is always a housing shortage, but we only read about it in the newspapers when it affects the middle class.

Since last fall there have been at least a dozen large public meetings about affordable housing with sponsors such as Just-A-Start, CHAPA, the Cambridge Residents Alliance and A Better Cambridge. In January Mayor McGovern established a Task Force on Tenant Displacement. 

In the past, this level of crisis has always led to rent control. And in fact rent control is being debated around the country right now. But we don’t hear much about it in Massachusetts, and in Cambridge—we hear nothing at all. Why not? After all, when lots of tenants face immediate displacement there is really no other way to deal with their problem.

However the most important current housing proposals are Governor Baker’s bill to modify zoning regulations to make it easier for real estate developers to build, and the Affordable Housing Overlay proposal to do the same thing in Cambridge—but here, it would be for 100 percent affordable housing only. 

There is nothing particularly new in all this talk about zoning reform. The real estate lobbies and their academic minions have long blamed the Commonwealth’s housing problems on zoning and other land-use laws, especially since the 1994 defeat of rent control—which they also blamed for the housing shortage.

Last year the Governor’s zoning bill was blocked by State Rep. Mike Connolly, who insisted that any statewide housing reform must include new tenant protections. Connolly planns to introduce a rent control bill in this year’s Legislative session; another representative has already done so. Governor Baker has already re-filed his zoning reform bill, without adding any tenant protections.

The public meetings on housing we have attended mostly focused on zoning reform. Perhaps the best example of this was an event sponsored by CHAPA (Citizens Housing And Planning Association) on November 7.  Titled “Who is the ‘M’ in NIMBY?” it rolled out a report by a team of B.U. researchers who spent a few years attending local zoning appeals meetings, mainly in the Boston suburbs. The researchers found that the great majority of those attending these zoning hearings were homeowners (not renters), mostly white, male, higher-income residents. And most of these people opposed any variances that would lead to greater density in their neighborhoods (hence NIMBY—Not In My Back Yard). The researchers concluded that these people were the reason not enough new housing was being built. They didn’t note that only property owners have standing in zoning hearings anyway, and all the other factors (ethnic, gender, income) are most common among homeowners. They just assumed that low-income tenants, women, and “non-white” people generally will welcome new dense development, which has not been true in Cambridge.

The “Overlay” zoning reform proposed for Cambridge has some good points. One is that zoning relief would apply only to 100 percent affordable projects—unlike Inclusionary Zoning which tends to create class isolation within large buildings. Its sponsors don’t expect Overlay to yield nearly as much new housing as Inclusionary does. And even after years of discussion and hard work, there are still too many points on which the proposal is not clear. Very few people seem to understand the complexity of the proposal (normal enough when it comes to zoning). And of course it is politically divisive, but that in itself is not a bad sign. It may be, as the old Marineused to say, “They’re shooting at us boys, we must be going in the right direction.” We might ask who is doing the shooting in this case? But maybe the worst thing about the Overlay proposal is that it is taking up a huge amount of attention, leaving very little room to consider rent control, stronger condo conversion protections, or understanding why the public housing program is being financialized out of existence. And even at that, the Overlay may well not even pass, at least not this year.

CHAPA Nov 7 Who is the ‘M’ in NIMBY: study by Katherine Levine Einstein, Maxwell Palmer, David Glick

GUEST COLUMN: Demystifying Cambridge’s proposed Affordable Housing Overlay Becca Schofield and Alexandra Markiewicz  CC 4/1/19

Affordable housing overlay myths revisited: Responding to group’s support of proposal  CD Monday, April 22, 2019