Kelley Lacking Vision on The Housing Crisis

Last night, Councilor Kelley sent out a fundraising email, indicating he believed that the Affordable Housing Overlay was flawed because it "lacked vision" on how to solve the desperate need for affordable housing units in Cambridge. He made a number of suggestions that he believed would act as "new" housing ideas. The reality is that these proposals are neither new, nor sufficient: while good ideas on their own, they would likely create nowhere near the amount of housing that the Affordable Housing Overlay could have enabled.

Councilor Kelley's "new" housing ideas are:

  • redefining “family” in our zoning code
  • taking a more aggressive stance on enforcing our recently-passed Short Term Rental ordinance to keep housing available for traditional renters
  • working with the State Legislature to change the tax exempt status of institutions like Harvard and MIT to create new funding streams for housing efforts
  • creating a loan program to encourage affordable Accessory Dwelling Units

While some of these are good additions to the problem, most are not "new", and none would make nearly the difference that the Affordable Housing Overlay could have.

Councilor Kelley's largest objection to the Affordable Housing Overlay was that too much affordable housing would be created. His only proposed amendment during the Ordinance process was to push aggressively to reduce the amount of housing created—limiting it to just 40 units of housing created per year. With a backlog of tens of thousands of people looking for homes currently on our roster, Councilor Kelley's attempted changes during the Affordable Housing Overlay hearings combined with his proposals here demonstrates a fundamental disconnect from the severity of the housing crisis in Cambridge.

Redefining "family" in our zoning code

Councilor Kelley's first recommendation has been a consistent one from him: He has pointed out that our zoning code defines a 'family' as being a group of people living together only if it is not four or more unrelated persons living together. This antiquated definition was likely written to prevent certain types of living that were deemed objectionable in the past. From the point of view of correcting an unnecessary moral dictate that serves no particular purpose, Councilor Kelley's desire to remove this element from our zoning code is reasonable.

However, the expectation that this would have any significant impact on housing affordability or affordable housing production seems completely unsupported. This is especially true given that the 4 unrelated individuals component of the zoning code is clearly largely unenforced, as many residents of Cambridge sharing the relatively small number of existing 3 bedroom apartments can tell you.

Putting more people into the same homes is not a solution to our housing needs.

More Aggressive Enforcement of Short Term Rentals

Short term rental units are a common target for those seeking to increase housing affordability. However, attacking short term rentals usually attacks a symptom of the problem rather than the root of the problem: simple lack of supply. This is no less true in Cambridge than anywhere else. Attacking short term rentals will do little to increase housing affordability, and will do nothing to provide increased access to housing for low income residents.

There are about 50,000 housing units in Cambridge. Cambridge has 245 short term rental units on the official list registered with the city; and a search on Airbnb for short term rental units in Cambridge shows about 300 units available for a particular date a few months from now. Using available datasets from the web, there might be as many as 850 active short-term rentals listed on AirBNB in Cambridge. If there were, that suggests only a maximum of about 2% of Cambridge's housing being in use as short term rentals.

This is smaller than the number of new housing units produced in Cambridge between 2016 and 2017, according to 5-year ACS Census estimates. This would suggest that more aggressive enforcement against short-term rentals—putting them all into the long-term housing stock—would likely have about the same impact on housing affordability as we saw between 2016 and 2017: a time period in which Zillow estimates the average housing cost went up by 14%.

Enforcing short-term rental rules may have community benefits, but it would have no significant effect on increasing housing affordability.

Create New Funding Streams From Universities

Councilor Kelley suggests that we should work with the state to take more money from Harvard and MIT as a way of funding new housing opportunities. This skips over the fundamental problem with affordable housing development: under current zoning code, there is no room to build significant sized buildings targeting low-income households without zoning relief.

Cambridge has many options it can explore for increasing funding for housing purposes. It could raise property taxes slightly or increase commercial linkage fees; some have called for transfer fees, especially for large commercial purposes. But more money doesn't make room for more houses.

Saying that we should spend more money on housing is one thing, but in order to spend that money, you have to be willing to say where those homes should go. New money doesn't change zoning rules to allow more homes; and current zoning means that average prices per unit under existing zoning have become the sticking point.

New money doesn't make room for more homes: zoning changes do.

Loans for Affordable Accessory Dwelling Units

Providing low-cost loans for creation of accessory dwelling units is an option the city should definitely pursue: providing help to homeowners interested in creating these types of units could help generate more production. However it would not go nearly far enough towards creating the amount of housing that we need.

Currently, there are approximately 6000 parcels in Cambridge which contain buildings which would be eligible for addition of an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) based on size.

Under the ADU changes made earlier this year, any of these buildings could add an ADU through a special permit request to the planning board. If financial motivations were sufficient, it seems likely that we would see a number of these types of conversions: with the high price of rent in Cambridge, even a modest sized additional unit would likely pay for itself in short order at market rates. More than 90% of these properties have an assessed value at least $250k higher than their purchase price, and could likely take out a loan against the property to add the unit. However, since the ADU changes went into place there has been only one such special permit requested.

That is: Even with a significant financial gain available, almost no single/two-family homeowners are interested in adding ADUs.

Adding an ADU to a single family home may add complexity to a later sale: because the property now falls into an unusual category of being something that is neither a two family nor a single family, selling becomes more complex. If these ADUs had an affordability restriction attached, it is likely that would reduce the interest in creating ADUs even further.

To give a comparison of the scale of this proposal, you can imagine how much capacity is provided by this proposal: In total, it could allow the potential room for about 6000 units, largely in Cambridge's residential districts. By comparison, the Affordable Housing Overlay—which some criticized for not being aggressive enough about providing new affordable housing options—would have changed zoning such that Cambridge's residential districts would have room for about 82,000 new units.

Encouraging creation of ADUs is a valuable step the City should invest in, but it is not a response anywhere near the scale needed to address our housing crisis, and affordable ADUs in particular are unlikely to be successful because of the complexities of selling such a property.

Objections to the Overlay

Councilor Kelley objected to the Overlay in his email on many of the same terms that he always has, stating that "The AHO’s lack of enforceable guidelines, the inability of neighbors to influence local development [and] the potential impact of national financial markets on local projects" are what make it inappropriate to pass into zoning.

These objections have the same flavor as objections to the Overlay always have: a belief that neighbors, or the planning board, should be able to block development of affordable housing developments based on aesthetic reasons or personal taste. It is clear from his statements and his proposed amendments that Councilor Kelley believes that creating more affordable housing is fine—so long as there's not much of it, and neighbors get to decide where it should and shouldn't go.

In short: more housing is fine, just so long as anyone who wants to can say "I don't want that near me."


Councilor Kelley objects to too much affordable housing being created, and proposes a bunch of small half measures to create a few more units but do nothing to seriously provide for either our City's low-income households or to prevent further rent increases. While his recommendations are not flawed on their own, they just do too little to actually create affordable housing in Cambridge. We need to do more—a lot more.

The Affordable Housing Overlay would have created potential room under zoning code for tens of thousands of new units—and it likely still didn't go far enough. Councilor Kelley's proposals would create room for only a few thousand, and given evidence to date, they would likely produce almost no new units. None of these proposals are bad. They should all be considered as part of a solution. They're just nowhere near enough.

Hope is not an affordable housing strategy.