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Chesto Means Business

Cambridge mulls an extreme step to address need for affordable housing

Cambridge has emerged as ground zero in the struggle to create more affordable housing amid Greater Boston’s sizzling real estate market.

Sure, other communities — Newton and Arlington among them — are debating controversial zoning changes that could spur taller, bigger buildings. And in Boston, city councilors are weighing a new tax for high-end properties that would funnel money to affordable-housing construction.

But a step that the Cambridge City Council could take might be considered even more radical.

City officials are essentially deciding whether to establish an entirely new citywide zoning code, but one that just applies to 100-percent affordable residential projects.

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Developers of these affordable units would be able to build taller and denser projects than what would normally be allowed in a particular neighborhood. Apartment buildings could go up in places currently limited to just one- or two-family homes.

The proposal drew passionate pleas from both sides during a City Council committee hearing on Wednesday. To many people, this zoning change is a long-needed concept that should be replicated in other Greater Boston cities to keep up with the intense demand for housing. To others, it’s the kind of well-intentioned urban planning that could wreck a neighborhood.

Both sides say they want more affordable housing in the city. Supporters say the critics simply don’t want it enough.

The truth is, Cambridge already does more than most communities. About 15 percent of the city’s housing stock is considered affordable, compared to a statewide average of nearly 10 percent.

But affordable-housing developers, many of them nonprofits, say this dramatic zoning change could be essential to compete in a city where 1,100-square-foot condos can hit the market for nearly $1 million.

Deborah Ruhe, head of Just-A-Start, is among the affordable-housing developers who can’t keep up with for-profit rivals in the bidding battles. She says two properties slipped through Just-A-Start’s grasp in the past year alone, because her group couldn’t make the numbers work at the prices the sellers wanted. Vastly increasing the units that Just-A-Start could build on any given parcel changes the math.

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Mayor Marc McGovern also worries about equity: The zoning change could spread the creation of affordable housing around more fairly, he says, so these projects aren’t overly concentrated in certain areas of Cambridge.

Opponents, meanwhile, say there are several tools currently available to affordable-housing developers, without forcing projects onto neighborhoods where they are not well suited. And the critics say traffic congestion, already notorious in parts of Cambridge, would only worsen.

Doug Brown, of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance, says he worries the new rules would allow four to eight times as much construction on any given site. Sure, the zoning code should be tweaked, he says. But pushing a system that creates two sets of zoning rules through, he says, would be unfair to property owners who can’t benefit from the bonuses provided to affordable-housing developers. And it could further chase out the middle class, he says, if older single-families and two-families are sold and knocked down to make way for much bigger developments.

The drama in Cambridge is playing out as Governor Charlie Baker’s administration lobbies the Legislature to support a housing bill that would allow cities and towns to make major zoning changes with a simple majority vote, as opposed to a two-thirds majority. When Cambridge’s nine-member council finally votes on this zoning ordinance, probably not until after Labor Day, it could be a close one. The proposal might hinge on whether five votes are needed instead of six.

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Managing an increasingly scarce resource requires ambitious ideas. The Cambridge City Council needs to decide whether this one is too bold, or just bold enough.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.