Don’t Let Cambridge Get Into Its Zone

Housing restrictions in Cambridge worsen housing crises in other communities

Harvard, MIT, and Lesley University employ nearly 22,000 people at sites located in Cambridge. Out of the city’s top 25 employers, eight are biotechnology companies, two are research and development firms, and five are software and internet technology companies. These companies’ workers combine to make another 19,300 individuals, meaning that even without counting graduate students, more than 40,000 people work in Cambridge at its universities and the high-paying employers in its “knowledge economy” that stem from their presence.

If each of these people lived alone, they would occupy nearly 78 percent of the total housing units in Cambridge. Even if each household had an average of two employees in those fields, it would still take more than a third of the city’s housing stock to house each person who works at a university or technology company in Cambridge.

The Fifteen Minutes Magazine housing issue published two weeks ago describes the challenges facing University employees and graduate students, and explains the state of the housing crisis in Cambridge and the terms of debate around it. The pieces shed light on a housing market where demand far outpaces supply, stemming largely from the universities.

The responsibility for meeting this housing demand, however, should fall at least as much on the city itself as on the universities. Cambridge has incredibly stable finances and the lowest residential property tax rate of any city or town in greater Boston. This is largely possible because the city receives 65 percent of its tax revenue from businesses, the highest rate allowed by Massachusetts law. The city also benefits from many community benefits programs provided by universities. In accepting these benefits, the city also accepts an obligation to meet the housing demand of the workers at these institutions, and it has not been meeting it.

While Cambridge has permitted some new units, the Boston Foundation estimated that the city has actually lost a net 95 units of housing since 2011. To its credit, the city has permitted many new units in the past few years, and is the tenth densest municipality in the United States. But this density, coupled with the dearth of housing, is also an environmental hazard, as Cambridge’s jobs-to-housing ratio of 2.6 is far above the window that the EPA describes as “beneficial for reducing vehicle miles traveled,” and does not even include the roughly 30,000 students who attend school in Cambridge but do not live on campus.


If Cambridge fails to achieve housing growth that matches its job growth, these workers and students do not simply disappear. Many pool incomes with roommates, pricing out families in Cambridge, or else move to other communities where their incomes surpass those of other current and potential residents. Either way, the result of this housing shortage relative to opportunities in employment and education is the displacement of low- and moderate-income residents as rents rise.

Cambridge is considering several steps aimed at preventing the displacement of Cantabrigians. Councillor Dennis J. Carlone argued for a council order to draft legislation that would give tenants the first chance to buy their apartments during condominium conversions, and several Cambridge City Council candidates, including two other current councillors, signed on to a petition last fall that would require MIT to provide 1,800 units of graduate student housing. While these proposals, and similar requirements such as inclusionary zoning that set aside specific new rent-restricted units of housing, are a vital part of improving affordability in Cambridge, they can only be successful in tandem with robust increases in housing supply.

There is a simple policy change that the city can make to contribute to this housing supply: moving toward less restrictive zoning. Several candidates for City Council from many sides of the housing debate proposed creating a citywide affordable housing overlay, allowing buildings with affordable housing to build at higher densities than surrounding neighborhoods, and the Housing Committee held a public hearing on the topic in 2015. The city has also made progress by allowing basement housing units. But the magnitude of the housing crisis requires comprehensive zoning reform.

The city’s zoning map reveals the patchwork of densities allowed throughout the city. Further, the neighborhoods with the most restrictive zoning are disproportionately high-income, have had very few multifamily buildings permitted this decade, and have disproportionately high rents and home prices. If the city is serious about creating enough housing to reduce the housing crisis, it should rezone to eliminate policies that restrict development. This would also allow the city to undertake other progressive changes like further increasing the inclusionary zoning requirement with less concern about unintentionally limiting new housing production.

Cambridge is a great place to live for many reasons; we have many jobs, good schools, strong public services, and great public amenities. It is neither possible nor desirable to stop people from realizing this and wishing to live here. We have unique opportunities to extract community benefits from universities, companies, and developers, and the city has done this admirably. But with these opportunities come the responsibility to accommodate the housing demand that is created, and this means allowing much more housing development. When we fail to do so, we shift the burden not just onto Cantabrigians who pay higher rents in the city, but onto communities from Medford and Malden to Meriden, Conn., which must grapple with all of our overflow housing demand without the benefits that come from running a city where everyone wants to be. This isn’t fair.

Will H. MacArthur ’20 is a Social Studies concentrator living in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.