The Reality of the Affordable Housing Overlay

In the community, there has long been significant misinformation on the impact of the Affordable Housing Overlay. Unfortunately, much of this information is incorrect and fear-mongering. This page attempts to mitigate some of this misinformation.

The Overlay Will Result in Gradual Change

Overall, developing housing is expensive and time consuming. Even with increased subsidy from the City in this year's budget, it is still likely that there will be relatively few properties developed under the proposed 100% Affordable Housing Overlay rules. Overall, the City expects that this will impact a handful of developments each year, helping support the creation of 100 or so new units citywide; enough to help replace our rate of affordable housing construction as of a few years ago, but not enough to drastically change the character of neighborhoods or the City as a whole.

At the same time, there is a common claim that the overlay "will have no impact", that it will "only add 10-15 units per year". The reason for this misunderstanding is that the overlay is filling a gap that is presented by the continued rising property values in Cambridge: Up until now, the city has been able to continue to add new affordable homes, but that is no longer possible. The AHO is a tool that will allow development to continue, so while it may not drastically increase the number of homes over what is built today, it will prevent the alternative outcome that we were seeing of no new affordable homes being created.

The Overlay Will Produce Buildings In The Style of the Neighborhood

Affordable housing developers in Cambridge have a long history of creating buildings in the style of the neighborhood they're working in. These projects would be funded largely through public -- City, State, and Federal -- funds, and would have significant guidance from the community, the planning board, and the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust. Existing buildings developed under the guidance of the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust don't just attempt to maximize the number of units: they create thoughtful designs that are valuable additions to their neighborhood.

Examples of existing housing developed in association with the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust demonstrates these characteristics in developments that have been built around the City.

Harvard Place provides 21 units of assisted living for low-income seniors in 1999.

Main and Cherry Condominiums provide 10 affordable units.

Putnam Green, completed in 2012, In 2012, provides 40 units of affordable rental housing in Cambridgeport.

A former single-family home in North Cambridge, converted to 14 units of single room occupancy housing for disabled, formerly homeless women.

The Overlay Will Only Increase Height Slightly In Residential Districts

In Cambridge's residential districts, buildings up to 4 stories would be allowed. This applies to almost the entire city: only a small number of existing commercial districts that allow taller buildings would be newly allowed taller buildings (up to 7 stories high).

The vast majority of Cambridge would allow buildings that are only 45' (or in cases of first floor retail uses, 50') tall, and would be limited to a maximum of 4 stories.

As with most of the aspects of the overlay, Cambridge already has buildings which fall close to these requirements; almost all of Cambridge's modern buildings were built long before these restrictions were put in place.

Sample Overlay-style Buildings That Could be Allowed in Residential Districts

280 Brookline Street

This is an example four story apartment building that is almost possible under the overlay; but it is 8' too tall.

7-9 Banks Street.

This building is part 4 story and part 2 story. It would require larger setbacks under the proposal, and 5' would need to be removed from the top to qualify.

173 Auburn St.

This building would also need larger setbacks, and is 2' too tall, so the first floor height would likely need to be lower.

24 Magazine St.

This 4 story building would be allowed small setbacks because of adjoining properties, but would need to be 5' lower to qualify for the overlay.

The Overlay Only Allows Taller Development Along Existing Commercial Corridors

The Affordable Housing Overlay focuses high density housing development along existing commercial corridors -- newly allowing up to 7 stories along Massachusetts Ave., parts of Cambridge Street, and Fresh Pond Parkway. These developments must be limited to 4 stories within 35 feet of existing low-density residential districts. This style matches the 7 story housing developments that are already common in these spaces.

On streets like Massachusetts Avenue and Cambridge Street, taller buildings are already the norm in many districts. There are buildings that match the style of these denser buildings along these corridors in almost every district.

1039 Massachusetts Ave is a building which could be built under the overlay, which currently contains 26 apartments.

85 Hancock Street is a building that could be built under the overlay, which currently contains 18 apartments.

3 Concord Ave is an example of a building type which could be built under the overlay, though it would not be possible in this location.

881 Massachusetts Ave is a building which could be built under the overlay, which currently contains 56 apartments.

The Overlay Requires Maintaining Existing Retail Space

The Affordable Housing Overlay protects existing retail space, requiring redevelopment to protect that existing retail space: If a property or building has existing retail space in a district which allows it, it must be retained under the affordable housing overlay proposal.

The Overlay Requires Community and Public Input

The proposed 100% Affordable Housing Overlay requires substantial community feedback, including community meetings and multiple reviews by the planning board. It does remove the ability for citizens to sue in court to stop projects -- but no citizen lawsuit has ever resulted in a legal decision against an affordable housing project, and there is no reason to believe that the shape of affordable development projects would change after the introduction of the overlay.

The Overlay Will Enhance the Built Environment of Cambridge

Cambridge has an incredibly diverse built environment, with buildings built over almost 300 years of history in our city. That diversity is part of what makes Cambridge such a unique community today, and the proposed Affordable Housing Overlay will enable that diversity of building to continue, supporting a broad range of Cambridge families. These enhancements will tend to create additional value for the neighborhoods of these developments: In many cases, the Affordable Housing Trust is able to replace disused, abandoned, and otherwise underused properties, replacing them with high quality properties that enhance their overall communities.

The Overlay Maintains Open Space Requirements

The overlay does not eliminate open space requirements, or eliminate the need for green space; in almost all districts, it matches the existing open space requirements. There is a change to include open spaces like small front gardens: current requirements require open space to be at least 15' x 15' to count as open space, which the overlay does not require.