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|Craig Kelley for Cambridge City Council in 2015|
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. . . they'll spend less energy raising money and spend more energy responding to the concerns of their constituents . . .
Housing shrinks as election $ grows
Affordable housing opportunity
At the end of January, my wife and I received an interesting letter from Robert Healy, the Cambridge city manager. Amongst other things, Mr. Healy wanted to know if we were interested in donating our house to the Cambridge Affordable housing Trust. While I appreciate Mr. Healy's creative attempt to develop more affordable housing in Cambridge, I have a few different ideas for increasing Cambridge's affordable housing opportunities.
Before I continue, I should note that I am well aware of how tough it is to create affordable housing in Cambridge. My wife and I, along with a dozen other Cambridge residents, recently challenged the lack of sufficient affordable housing units in a proposed apartment complex (among the other perceived failings of the project). Almost immediately, we received letters from the project's attorney threatening, in effect, to take our own houses and retirement accounts to cover the expenses he claimed we were causing the project. Eventually, with no help from anyone on the council, we negotiated a settlement that included $60,000 to promote affordable housing in Cambridge. Sadly, the project wound up with no more affordable units, but we lacked the resources to continue the appeal and, to be honest, the blatant threat to our own homes was chilling.
How councilors can create affordable housing
Should the city councilors care about affordable housing as much as I and my fellow appellants, they each have the ability to provide considerable help to needy residents. And they don't even need to risk their own personal finances. According to the Cambridge Civic Journal, during the last election cycle, the 10 top-spending council candidates, nine of whom were elected, spent over $400,000 on campaign expenses. Mayor Galluccio alone spent over $65,000 on his campaign, about $25,000 more than the combined total of the 14 lowest-spending candidates.
Last year, a non-election year, councilors raked in still more thousands for their campaigns. This time, Councilor Sullivan led the pack, pulling in almost $34,000 for his campaign machine. I am certain that I'm not the only one who thinks this kind of money in local politics is nothing short of obscene.
Think how much housing just half of this election largesse could provide. The mayor alone could house two small families at market rates for almost a year. If the council managed to work on this issue together, their combined campaigns could house over a dozen needy families. And the councilors would still have over $180,000 to purchase their seats in the next election.
Of course, being a realist, I don't expect the councilors to direct potential campaign funds toward affordable housing. It's one thing to spend the public's money on affordable housing. It's quite another thing to have it come, more or less, out of their own pockets.
Inclusionary zoning percentage should be higher
The council could, however, create many more affordable units merely by ensuring that the city's inclusionary zoning provisions are properly enforced. A clear reading of the zoning regulations leads one to believe that large housing projects require 15 percent of the overall number of units to be affordable. Thus far, the city management has been satisfied to settle for 15 percent of the base number of units, resulting in a total affordable ratio of about 11 percent per project. The additional 4 percent, as is arguably required by law, would give many low-income residents a place to call home.
If the councilors care about the integrity of local politics, they'll spend less energy raising money and spend more energy responding to the concerns of their constituents. Properly enforcing the 15 percent inclusionary zoning requirement would be a good start on both counts.