Process / Background
Cambridge is ready for this. In 2019, the city's three-year master planning process, Envision Cambridge, included its Urban Form recommendations an action to "adjust zoning in residential districts to be more compatible with prevailing patterns of development". That same year, nearly all current city councillors expressed their support for ending exclusionary zoning and parking minimums in a candidate questionnaire. And in December 2020, Councillor Nolan's policy order labeling exclusionary zoning a "historical artifact" and resolving to study its elimination passed the City Council unanimously.
Where has this been done before?
Minneapolis (2019), Portland (2020), and Sacramento (2021) are three major cities which have recently passed citywide plans or ordinances that end exclusionary zoning and sharply reduce or remove parking minimums.
I have an amendment suggestion. Is it too late for that?
Absolutely not! What we have submitted to City Council, is a starting point for a public consultation and collaboration process. Submitting to City Council starts the clock on a series of public hearings, including at the Ordinance Committee, where councillors will propose, debate, and adopt amendments. We will almost certainly be proposing and supporting amendments of our own, based on community feedback.
Impacts of Zoning Change
How will this decrease the cost of new housing?
Current zoning rules massively limit the number of units that can be built on a lot, either explicitly through apartment bans or implicitly through minimum lot size per dwelling unit restrictions. The result is that new growth is essentially impossible, and so across Cambridge, most neighborhood redevelopments under the status quo create a small number of large, luxury detached houses, each of which can cost nearly $2 million when new. The MMH petition, if passed, will instead allow more units of housing to be built on a lot. This will lead to more opportunities for medium-sized multi-family housing units, which are much more affordable either to rent or to buy.
Will this create income-restricted affordable housing?
Yes. Cambridge currently has an income-restricted affordable homeownership program, called Homebridge, which uses city funds to help low-income and middle-income households purchase market-rate homes at affordable rates. However, Homebridge is stymied by the lack of reasonably priced market-rate options; since the program's creation, it has only financed about 70 home purchases. The reason there are no reasonably priced market-rate options being created today is because zoning does not allow for them. The Missing Middle Housing zoning petition would reactivate the Homebridge program by creating more reasonably priced market-rate options. It would have similar effects on other public assistance programs, like CHA mobile vouchers (where 50% of eligible voucher-holders currently fail to find a unit in Cambridge).
Additionally, while producing income-restricted affordable housing requires city money, Missing Middle Housing zoning would also create new opportunities for the city to use Affordable Housing Trust money. By offering subsidies to property owners to redevelop their homes into missing middle housing, with the restriction that one or more of the units must be deed-restricted affordable, the city can create more affordable housing on small sites, something not possible under current affordable housing development models.
Where is this new housing going to go? Aren't most lots already full?
Buildings are constantly churning in Cambridge, and something is always being replaced by something else. Right now, all over the city, but especially in the Residence B districts of North and West Cambridge, neighborhoods are losing units of housing through that churn, and becoming ever more exclusive, as two-family or multi-family buildings are converted to single-family residences. The goal of the Missing Middle Housing is to encourage "good churn" over "bad churn", and ensure these conversions go the other direction.
You'd also be surprised at the number of lots which are not yet fully built out - many still exist, particularly ones with larger parking areas. If MMH is not passed, these lots, like many in recent years, might soon be filled in with an additional single luxury house; but if it is passed, these lots are opportunities for missing middle housing.
How much redevelopment do you expect after this is passed?
We don't expect very much redevelopment to happen immediately; neighborhood change is a gradual process. Construction costs are expensive, so redevelopment usually only happens when there is a strong incentive for it. In many neighborhoods the allowed building sizes under MMH would be essentially at the scale of what already exists, creating little to no incentive to redevelop. In traditionally exclusionary parts of the city, there will be an increase in what is allowed over what exists, but even then change will likely be slow. (see "This is What a Street Looks Like 39 Years After Legalizing Fourplexes".) The primary impact of this amendment is not to encourage more redevelopments, but to ensure that when redevelopments do happen, they happen better; i.e. in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way which adds to, rather than takes away from, Cambridge's housing supply.
How will this affect displacement?
The biggest cause of displacement in Cambridge is our housing shortage. There is not enough missing middle housing to go around, so people who want missing middle housing are pushing existing residents out of the limited amount we have. You can think of it as a cruel game of musical chairs, which leaves low-income tenants out to dry.
The MMH petition will reduce displacement by adding new units of housing - in this analogy, by adding more chairs. Every new unit of housing that is built is one fewer existing unit of housing taken from an existing Cambridge household, particularly since the units are most likely to be built in the wealthiest, whitest, and most traditionally exclusive neighborhoods of Cambridge. The MMH petition will NOT allow any new additions to or enlargements of medium-to-large buildings where the most vulnerable tenants generally live.
In addition, one especially awful form of displacement is when multiple units are combined, or a building is down-converted, and the neighborhood loses units of housing. The MMH petition now includes an amendment to ban nonconforming downconversions.
Lastly, the sad truth is that while MMH will help address displacement as much as it can, zoning is not the best tool for doing so. A landlord can evict tenants and convert a building into condos, or evict tenants and remodel a building before finding new tenants, or arbitrarily raise rents, no matter what the zoning status of the building is. In 2019, the Mayor's Task Force on Tenant Displacement issued a report detailing recommendations to the City Council for addressing displacement - none of which were zoning, and any of which can be implemented in parallel with the Missing Middle Housing amendment. We hope the City Council will take them up soon.
How will this interact with the 100% Affordable Housing Overlay?
The Missing Middle Housing petition and the Affordable Housing Overlay are complementary approaches to zoning reform - they solve different problems in different places.
The Affordable Housing Overlay is best-suited to large sites (> 10,000 sqft), where nonprofit developers can take advantage of economies of scale. Due to state funding eligibility rules, as well as the per-site overhead in applications, approvals, and paperwork, nonprofit developers cannot feasibly develop small sites.
By contrast, the Missing Middle Housing amendment is best-suited to small sites (<= 5,000 sqft), where individual property owners without lots of development experience can most benefit from clear, easy-to-follow rules. Furthermore, we have now released amendments limiting the maximum MMH project size to 6,000 sqft, a number worked out in collaboration with CDD, to ensure that MMH does not increase competition for the sites most viable for the AHO.
Will this actually legalize triple-deckers? I thought they were illegal for fire code reasons as well!
Yes. State building code requires turning staircases to be wider than they have been built in most older triple-deckers, and the ground floor unit to be accessible, but it is still very possible to build modern, accessible triple-deckers - as long as they are allowed by zoning.
What regulations will ensure that new construction is energy-efficient and safe from flooding?
Most of these regulations are in the state building code, which applies to all buildings and is updated periodically. The new state climate legislation will also soon allow Cambridge to opt-in to a stricter "stretch energy code", with net-zero emissions standards. In addition, Cambridge has a separate Climate Resiliency Zoning Task Force, which will soon be issuing recommendations on how to alter zoning to require stronger flood protection and responsible open space usage. The Missing Middle Housing Zoning Petition's 40' height limit combined with its 3-story maximum means that builders will have flexibility to elevate their ground floors if necessary for flood mitigation.
How will this petition affect parking availability for car owners?
This petition will only affect the construction of new buildings, and even in new buildings, property owners would still be allowed to build parking on their property if desired, so the impact on parking availability will likely be minimal, especially as car usage nationwide is trending downwards. Every new parking space that is built is a lost potential bedroom or piece of open space, so it's important not to force their creation when they are not needed.