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Missing Middle Housing Petition Seeks To Allow for More Multi-Family Housing Construction in Cambridge

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UPDATED: April 15, 2021 at 3:15 p.m.

A new affordable housing proposal has ignited debate over the role of single-family homes in Cambridge.

Titled the “Missing Middle Housing Petition,” the proposal is sponsored by the affordable housing nonprofit A Better Cambridge and the Boston Sunrise Movement, and calls for zoning changes to allow for the construction of more multi-family “middle housing,” or four-plexes, triple-deckers, and townhouses. Over the last week, the petition has been met with mixed responses from City Councilors and residents.

At an April 8 Ordinance Committee meeting, the City Council voted to keep the petition in committee pending further review and feedback from the Community Development Department, the city’s planning agency.

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The proposal will expire if it is not brought to a vote before the end of June. According to Allan E. Sadun, a co-chair of A Better Cambridge’s board, however, the petition process remains on track despite the approaching deadline.

“We need to pass by the end of June, but that’s plenty of time to work out amendments,” he said. “So that’s what we hope to be spending the month of April doing, knowing that the Council has our back.”

Sadun said the petition originated from “a desire to do something” about the housing shortage in Cambridge.

“We have exclusionary zones in the residential districts of Cambridge that are there for historically racist and classist reasons that are preventing Cambridge from building needed sustainable and affordable housing,” he said.

The petition seeks to implement parts of Envision Cambridge — a long-term planning vision for city development released by the Community Development Department in 2019 — though the plan lacks specific zoning and affordable housing recommendations, according to Sadun.

“It’s up to the Council and to the public and advocates to translate Envision into zoning statements,” Sadun said.

Under current zoning law in Cambridge, the construction of new apartments is illegal on approximately one-third of all land in the city. If passed, the petition will allow multi-family housing of up to three stories to be built on any Cambridge street and remove off-street parking requirements.

Sadun said the petition addresses the intersection of the climate and housing crises in Cambridge, arguing that tackling the housing shortage will take cars off the road and reduce overall carbon emissions in the city.

“Multi-family housing, in inner core cities like Boston and Cambridge, is the single most effective thing we can do to cut down on carbon emissions in the state,” he said.

Some Councilors, however, had their doubts about the petition. Councilor Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80, who previously co-sponsored a policy order instructing the city to look into removing single and two-family zoning, said in an interview that the petition was “very well-intentioned,” but that she had some “serious concerns” about it and believes it provides “no guarantee” of more affordable housing or environmental benefits.

“That petition started in a way that put all this stuff on the table without doing the hard work before to establish what are the goals,” she said.

Nolan also said she finds the name of the petition “odd,” since Cambridge does not seem to be missing middle housing — single-family homes account for less than seven percent of Cambridge housing units.

Christopher Schmidt, a member of A Better Cambridge who helped write the petition, argued it would lead to more new housing options for middle-income earners, including teachers and firefighters.

“I think it is totally reasonable to point out that this type of housing isn’t really missing in Cambridge at the moment,” he said. “What it’s missing from is in new construction.”

According to Schmidt, middle-sized housing units are being replaced by single-family dwellings.

“No one is saying you shouldn’t be allowed to build something, but you should not be incentivized to create only expensive housing that is bad for the environment,” he said.

While some City Councilors want to amend the petition, others — including Nolan — think the city should engage in a “comprehensive plan” to examine the zoning code overall.

Nolan said she was frustrated the city has not taken the time to do so, and instead has relied on “pop-up proposals,” such as the Missing Middle Housing Petition.

Nolan added she wants a zoning overhaul to come from a “broad swath” of Cambridge residents, not just from a few local groups, as in the case of the petition.

“If this was allowed, does it affect our community-scape in a way that would mean that Cambridge is not as open and welcoming and the kind of city that we want to continue to live in?” she asked.

CORRECTION: April 15, 2021

A previous version of this article quoted Councilor Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80 stating that the petitioners had not consulted the Community Development Department in advance of filing. In fact, they have consulted with the CDD several times throughout the drafting and filing process.

—Staff writer Ryan S. Kim can be reached at ryan.kim@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer David R. Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidrwshaw.

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