Cambridge is facing an escalating crisis of housing affordability — despite the fact that the City's supply of housing has been growing (and continues to grow) at a remarkable rate.
Over the past 20 years, the City’s middle class has been largely displaced, and many families have had to leave their homes. The City has become wealthier, but also less accessible. Rents are skyrocketing; home values are soaring — but many residents are cost-burdened, and poverty is on the rise.
It should come as no surprise, then, that "Affordable Housing/Housing" was identified as "the single most important issue" in the 2014 biennial Citizen Survey, and that throughout the 2014-15 City Council term, matters of planning, development, zoning, and affordability have been the focus of many meetings.
Some have suggested that the problem of housing affordability is primarily due to a lack of development (See, e.g. Locally controlled planning affects cities). Officials are "throttling" the supply of new housing, or so the story goes, and "if we don't start increasing our housing stock," then the affordability crisis will only get worse.
To consider this notion — that in the City of Cambridge, the problem of housing affordability is mainly a problem of housing production — Councillor Carlone asked me to compile residential construction and permitting figures using the City's Open Data Portal and to compare those numbers to targets for future residential growth.
The result of this exercise (available for download and discussed below) is the observation that the City is actually permitting and constructing new housing at a remarkable rate.
Already the nation's tenth densest incorporated city, Cambridge is poised to realize close to a 30% increase in the size of its housing stock over the thirty-year period running from 1990 to 2020. The City also seems likely to surpass a key target for new housing production — approximately a decade ahead of schedule.
Over the past decade, some 4,087 housing units have been built in Cambridge — with 1,356 of those units built since 2010. In addition, there are some 5,408 housing units in construction or permitted for construction across the City right now.
What to make of these numbers?
Well, Cambridge does not have a comprehensive Housing Plan — or an adopted, citywide target for future housing production. (Housing is expected to be a major topic in the forthcoming Citywide Plan; for examples of other recent Housing Plans, see Boston and San Francisco).
Nevertheless, last year, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council ("MAPC"), the planning agency that promotes smart growth and regional collaboration throughout the Metro Boston area, did produce a series of municipal growth projections. The MAPC report has been described as "the most detailed and robust effort ever conducted to forecast the region's future demographic change and housing needs."
For Cambridge, MAPC cited the need for some 3,100 to 6,200 units of new housing for the 20-year period running from 2010 to 2030. MAPC further noted that the 6,200 figure is preferable, as it will help the City do its part to contribute to a "Stronger Region." Commenting on the housing forecast, the MAPC report stated:
We recommend that municipalities, state agencies, and others use the Stronger Region scenario for planning purposes to ensure consistency across many entities planning for the region's future. By working together under the framework of a Stronger Region, communities will not only help ensure that every household in the region can afford a home, but will also help the region maintain a robust and growing workforce that forms the backbone of a competitive economy.
When the 1,356 housing units that have been built since 2010 are added to the 5,408 units that are currently permitted and/or under construction, it is clear that Cambridge has already built and/or permitted 6,764 units of new housing since 2010, more than enough to surpass MAPC's "Stronger Region" housing target for the year 2030.
Overall, this is a positive sign, and it reflects the City's longstanding commitment to residential growth. However, it also suggests that it may be wise to focus even more on opportunities for increasing the percentage of affordable units in new developments. Currently, the City's Inclusionary Zoning program requires (in practice) that approximately 11.5% of the units in new developments be made affordable.
In New York City, there is growing recognition that 50% affordability is needed to preserve socio-economic diversity in this time of housing crisis, development boom, shifting demographics, and profound inequality. The City of Boston is also doing more to increase the percentage of affordable units in new developments, with a recent report boasting that, "for the first time, housing affordable to the middle class represented almost half (46%) of all new housing starts in Q1 2015."
For his part, Councillor Carlone presented a concept for targeting 50% affordability in Central Square last month, and he is committed to leveraging the power of urban design, data-driven decision-making, public-private coordination, and the City's own resources to dramatically increase the potential for affordability in new developments.
Finally, it should be noted that Cambridge stands in stark contrast to the vast majority of other nearby municipalities. According to the Greater Boston Housing Report Card, not a single permit for new multifamily housing was issued last year in 121 of the 161 communities that make up the Greater Boston area.