"Affordability and Over-Development in Cambridge"

By Dennis Carlone, city councillor:

It has truly been an honor to serve as city councillor for the past two years. I believe today, as I did when I was elected, that I bring the most relevant skill set necessary to do the job. My work as an architect and urban designer provides me with a unique understanding of our city’s affordable housing crisis, as well as the skills to help solve it. I have also come to believe that there are two visions for the future of Cambridge. One believes that the status quo in our city government is good enough – that our housing crisis can be solved simply by increasing the height and density of our buildings. Respectfully, I disagree. Affordability in our city is fast becoming a crisis for the average resident. Cambridge is already one of the densest cities in the country; dramatically increasing the height of buildings will not solve our problems. Moreover, the massive and uncoordinated real estate development of the city is threatening to destroy the communities we call home. I have made several proposals on how we can solve this crisis – and I have done so without the support of the group of incumbents known as the Unity Slate.

The status quo and where it leads

It’s true that the economic forces driving up the cost of living are inevitable, but the City Council does have the power to help mitigate those forces. In the past six months, the council voted to approve a project in Central Square called Normandy-Twining, named after the development companies involved. These companies petitioned the city’s zoning code so they could build a significantly taller and more massive structure – literally rewriting the zoning code. I steadfastly opposed this project alongside fellow non-Unity Slate councillor Nadeem Mazen. This project will be a 195-foot-tall structure completely out of place within Central Square. But perhaps what is not seen are the significant problems that will affect the neighborhood because of the building.

This oversized and out-of-place building will increase the market value of the land that surrounds it, because now other landowners and developers will expect to get the same kind of zoning exception. This subsequent increase in land value means higher rent prices, which means property tax burdens increase and, piece by piece, Cambridge becomes an unaffordable, high-rise, high-income city. In the council’s review of the increased zoning petition, there was zero economic analysis and zero urban design review – two necessary components to understand the proposal properly.

We can do better. The city is only now beginning a comprehensive plan for development, which I had to fight for in my first year on the council. We must study the potential impact of our development by incorporating quality urban design measures. Only at that point can we zone each section of the city appropriately so neighborhoods and business districts are enhanced rather than damaged.

Zoning is the council’s most important responsibility. The next term will be filled with deliberations on what that master plan should look like. As that debate is happening, you can be certain development companies will be lobbying hard to protect the current system. For that reason, my campaign has not and will not accept campaign contributions from any real estate development companies.

The effects of zoning and how we should reform it

Under our present zoning code, developers are not required to build housing in mixed-use zoning districts. They prefer building laboratories and office buildings because of their greater economic value. But this compounds the city’s need for housing, because those commercial buildings will have more workers looking for housing in the city.

Once we have a quality master plan in place, the city will be better able to integrate new, appropriately scaled development with existing residential areas. This will stabilize land values and stabilize housing costs – all through well studied and understood rezoning. New development needs to be viewed as a public-private partnership, which means including additional affordable housing, new open space and other necessary community-building amenities. The city has to be an active partner to achieve real progress. If not the city, then who?

Affordable housing

Public surveying and polling has confirmed that the No. 1 issue in Cambridge is the need for significantly more affordable housing. This year, the council debated the “linkage fee” on new commercial and institutional development due to development’s proven impact on housing availability and price. This impact fee goes directly to the Affordable Housing Fund. I proposed that this fee be raised to $24.30 per square foot, which the city administration’s study concluded was new development’s impact on existing housing. I lost. It was raised to $12 per square foot, half the actual impact rate. This alone would have been the difference of an additional $5 million per year toward affordable housing.

We could raise even more money if the city would stop refunding property taxes. The city returns about $10 million per year to taxpayers, which is the equivalent of only $140 per year on a $1 million home. This $10 million could and should be used for civic needs such as affordable housing, improvement to community public space, and expanding pre-kindergarten education to cover all Cambridge children. We can invest in municipal infrastructure such as municipal broadband, clean energy, more schools and facilitating transportation improvements.


Cambridge is at a crossroads. We need to decide if we want to be a city of wealthy high-tech, high-density businesses and residential towers or if we want to work toward protecting the communities that make Cambridge great in the first place. Good development enhances a community rather than overwhelming it, and allows families to thrive.

If you believe Cambridge should be a place where government protects neighborhoods, prevents overdevelopment from destroying our sense of community and invests in our civic future, I ask that you vote Dennis Carlone No. 1 on Nov. 3. Thank you for your consideration.


This editorial appeared originally in the Cambridge Day. 

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