As Cambridge works to address a housing shortage, city leaders are making moves toward abolishing what they call “exclusionary” housing policies.

Cambridge City Council's housing committee voted Wednesday to draft reforms to the city's zoning regulations that would, among other reforms, allow multi-family homes in all neighborhoods. Currently, apartment buildings are prohibited in many areas of the city. Those single- and two-family home restrictions are most prevalent in West Cambridge, North Cambridge and Neighborhood Nine.

The proposal to update the city's zoning regulations was led by Burhan Azeem, co-chair of the council's housing committee, who framed the change as correcting an inequitable system.

“It's an important thing to remember that the restrictive zoning we have and the history of redlining and of trying to keep out low income people are deeply, deeply connected,” Azeem said.

This map from Cambridge's Community Development Department was shared during a meeting on May 8, 2024.
City of Cambridge

In a presentation to the housing committee, Jeff Roberts, the director of zoning and development for the city, outlined the multifamily zoning idea along with several other reforms, including standardizing minimum lot dimensions, as well as removing limitations on mixed-use buildings.

“Mainly, changing the zoning allows buildings to be made bigger,” Roberts said. “Ideally, that leads to new homes being built either through infill or through redevelopment, where maybe older housing is torn down and replaced by newer housing that has more units in it.”

That kind of change happens slowly, he noted.

“One of the things that I've heard a lot from developers over the years is that if we want them to be able to provide affordable units, we need to allow that greater density and height to make those projects work for them,” Roberts said.

Among those testifying at Wednesday's committee meeting was Jason Furman, the Aetna Professor of the Practice of Economic Policy jointly at Harvard Kennedy School and the Department of Economics at Harvard University. He said current zoning restrictions have led to insufficient housing supply and higher rents.

Cambridge could address the problem, he said, by dropping what he called an “artificial restriction” on the number of housing units based on a particular theory of what a neighborhood should look like.

Furman is a Cambridge resident, and said he'd welcome larger residential buildings near his home.

“The more people that could live here in Cambridge with me, the more restaurants we're going to have, the more shops we're going to have, the better jobs we're going to have for people that need them, the better opportunities we're going to have both for residents like me and the number of people that will come here and join us,” Furman said. “So I'd be thrilled if this became a denser place.”

Furman said he'd like to see Cambridge become a national model for encouraging that kind of change.

The housing committee's package of proposals also includes promoting the development of income-restricted affordable housing.

No one at Wednesday's council meeting argued against allowing for greater density in the city's housing stock. In public comments, a recurring criticism was that the proposals wouldn't help Cambridge's lowest income residents.

“I don't think this proposal will result in much housing that people who currently live in public housing are likely to be able to afford,” Cambridge resident Lee Farris testified via Zoom. “So we need a better proposal. We need to be talking about encouraging housing that will deliver the affordability that we need.”

“If developers choose to build bigger buildings, there will be an increase in inclusionary units, but lower income people are too low income to be eligible for those units — and this point has been completely missing in the conversation today,” resident Carolyn Magid testified. “Given land and construction costs and almost limitless demand, most new private market housing will be luxury housing. Lower income people will be displaced and the city will lose racial and economic diversity.”