In Support of Berkeley's AHO

Berkeley, California is considering an Affordable Housing Overlay, and I helped review their proposal in partnership with A Better Cambridge. Their proposal clearly takes lessons and inspiration from Cambridge's effort, and I believe would be a great tool in their toolbox as they move forward. A Better Cambridge sent a letter in support of their effort, which is reproduced below.

Congratulations to Berkeley on their efforts!

Dear Berkeley City Councillors,

We write to you from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we were some of the leading advocates for Cambridge’s recently-passed 100% Affordable Housing Overlay. Cambridge’s AHO, like the proposal before you, was designed to expand opportunities for community development corporations to purchase and develop new sites as 100% affordable housing. Seven months after it has passed, there are already over three hundred new units of affordable housing in the AHO development pipeline. We are excited to learn that Berkeley is considering moving forward with a similar zoning provision, and want to express our support.

In Cambridge, there were three important elements of our Affordable Housing Overlay:

  • By-right permitting: Known as “ministerial approval” in California, Cambridge’s 100% Affordable Housing Overlay focused explicitly on allowing developments without a discretionary approval process. These discretionary approval processes have been a major issue in establishing sites as viable for development of affordable housing. Due to complex funding packages which involve a variety of local, state, and federal funding sources, affordable housing is completely dependent on having fixed timelines, and setting a fixed standard that all developers can follow is crucial to allowing the reliability to allow development of such sites.

  • Significant density bonus: In high-demand markets like Cambridge and Berkeley, affordable housing developers are facing extreme competition for sites. In practice, this means that the gap between the purchase price a market rate developer and an affordable housing developer can pay to develop the same number of units makes it completely impractical to acquire new sites for development. Under Cambridge’s Affordable Housing Overlay, developers have a significant density bonus over market rate developers, which allows for competitive site acquisition.

  • City-wide applicability: Historically, affordable housing has been heavily concentrated in areas which are seen as less desirable. In Cambridge, there is a strong alignment of deed-restricted housing with areas of the city which are historically “redlined”, or former industrial areas that previously were not open to housing at all. In practice, this means that residents of deed-restricted housing often have lower access to high-opportunity neighborhoods, and this lack of access creates an on-going disparate impact on these residents. In order to open up access to these high-opportunity neighborhoods for affordable housing opportunities, it is necessary to ensure that affordable housing can be built everywhere, which means a consistent, citywide standard that can correct for these historical inequities in affordable housing placement.

Having reviewed Berkeley’s proposed Affordable Housing Overlay, we believe that it meets all three of these requirements. It ensures approvals are ministerial, avoiding costly and problematic delays in permitting; it provides significant density bonuses over market rate housing; and it applies citywide.

We look forward to Berkeley setting an example for other California cities in making changes that will help provide for greater opportunities for affordable housing citywide. Congratulations on bringing this forward, and we look forward to its quick passage!

All the best,

A Better Cambridge