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.
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. In many neighborhoods these changes primarily allow construction at the scale of what already exists, so there will not be a lot of available gain from redevelopment - in most cases, certainly not enough to outweigh construction and demolition costs. 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?
There are two kinds of displacement - direct displacement, i.e. when a building owner evicts tenants to redevelop a building, and indirect displacement, i.e. when Cambridge's housing shortage and associated high costs force tenants to move out. The best way to think about indirect displacement is as a cruel game of musical chairs, which leaves low-income tenants out to dry. Missing middle housing will decrease indirect displacement by adding new units of housing. Every new unit of housing that is built is one fewer existing unit of housing taken from an existing Cambridge household, particularly since the strongest impacts of the MMH petition are in the wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods of Cambridge.
Direct displacement is an important issue facing Cambridge, but it is mostly not a zoning issue. No matter whether a building conforms or does not conform to zoning, it is already possible for a property owner to displace tenants and remodel the interior of a building, as long as the building exterior does not change, and this is unfortunately already happening. It is also possible for property owners to raise rents arbitrarily in a building, regardless of whether it conforms to zoning. Since we do not expect redevelopment rates in built-up parts of Cambridge to increase as a result of the MMH petition, we do not expect the MMH petition to significantly affect direct displacement rates.
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 (< 10,000 sqft), where individual property owners without lots of development experience can most benefit from clear, easy-to-follow rules. Due to inclusionary zoning requirements, as well as a rule banning multi-family developments larger than 12 units without a special permit from the Planning Board, the MMH zoning rules are unlikely to be used for large sites.
On sites where both the Missing Middle Housing petition and the Affordable Housing Overlay might apply, we expect the Affordable Housing Overlay to win out. The AHO allows four stories by-right, with an FAR of 2.0, whereas the MMH petition would allow only three stories by-right, with an FAR of 1.25.
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.