Why zoning reform?

The effects of the national housing shortage are falling particularly hard on Cambridge, where demand is high because of the universities and our growing economy. The best remedy for a shortage of housing is more housing, but Cambridge's outdated zoning regulations are a major factor in keeping that from happening.

More residents think affordability of housing is the biggest issue than any other concern. (Click on graph above for larger image or here for full survey results).

The Housing Shortage

In a recent survey, Cambridge residents cited housing affordability as the issue that affects their family the most and the top issue that residents want their city government to address.

Our city is not alone in facing rising housing costs driven by a severe housing shortage. In the immediate pre-pandemic period, the U.S. had fewer homes for sale than at any time in the past 40 years. This shortfall of supply relative to demand is a major reason that the cost of home ownership is increasing faster than incomes, and bringing rental costs along with it.

Cambridge is a great place to live, so many people want to live here. We are fortunate to live in a city with a healthy economy. This makes it possible for some in Cambridge to afford homeownership (as well as pay taxes that keep the city running). When people can't find a house, the result is a bidding war, which puts upward pressure on housing costs all around. If they still can't find a house, they may buy an older, less expensive house and renovate it into an expensive house, which puts upward pressure on housing costs all over. Why are they having so much trouble finding houses? Because they've run smack into the Cambridge zoning code. See our Zoning History page for details.

Let's legalize the housing we have

After decades of increasingly restrictive zoning changes, at least two-thirds of our existing housing fails the "is this legal?" test. (Zoning changes generally don't apply to existing buildings unless/until they're altered).

Most of our one- and two-family homes, as well as our iconic three-deckers, could not be rebuilt on their present lots due to our zoning regulations. These limits mean that many types of multi-family housing are impractical or even impossible to build on many residential lots today. As Cambridge government tries to ameliorate the effects of the housing shortage, its own laws get in the way.

A fourplex built in 1910. We need to make these legal again.

Today's housing for today's households

Cambridge households vary by age, size and income, but developing housing to meet those varied needs is severely hampered by our current zoning rules. Lack of smaller, low-cost studio apartments leaves students competing with families for larger units. In almost all zones, our rules favor a narrow range of housing, so only limited options are economically feasible. Most new construction tends toward 1500-2500 square foot 3-bedroom homes.

Buildings that might offer less expensive housing types are eliminated by a combination of zoning rules and land costs. These restrictions limit everyone's residential options. We are intensifying economic segregation in Cambridge.

Permitting wars

It's often said that the U. S. is a nation of laws. Our adherence to the rule of law usually results in clear impartial requirements, fairly enforced, in cases where a government license or permit is required for some activity. When it comes to zoning, though, our commitment to transparency and fairness has been severely eroded.

Our zoning laws have become so restrictive, and the need for exceptions so routine, that we've long had a special board to deal with common housing changes. Instead of a simple 'yes' or 'no' decision based on straightforward criteria, we have a complicated process of filings, hearings, negotiations and sometimes court actions.

In the last six months, the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeals heard 81 cases in its twice-a-month meetings -- involving an elaborate process of notifying abutters, posting signs and inviting anyone, from anywhere, to offer an opinion on the matter. Homeowners must contend with the housing preferences of their neighbors and of BZA board members. Unfortunately, subjective considerations -- race, income, nationality -- can become entwined in what should be a fair and straightforward process. For too many families, the path to a new deck or dormer runs through lawyers and lawsuits, with some cases lasting for years.

The Missing Middle Housing proposal allows the building of a wider range of multi-family housing without expensive, unnecessary and sometimes unfair delays.