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Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust Approves $7 Million Expenditure on Neighborhood Nine Development

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The Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust approved a funding request of nearly $7.4 million for an affordable housing development in the Neighborhood Nine area of Cambridge in a virtual meeting Thursday afternoon.

The trust — a fund established by the Cambridge City Council for low-income development — will finance a new 107-unit building at 52 New Street, developed by the Just-A-Start corporation, through the 100 Percent Affordable Housing Overlay ordinance.

The new funding comes on top of $10.6 million already allocated to the development through the Trust, according to Christopher Cotter, housing director for the Community Development Department.

The AHO, passed by the Council in October 2020, loosens current zoning laws to enable developers to build larger apartment complexes in Cambridge — under the condition that all of the building’s units are affordable and the developers adhere to design guidelines laid out by the ordinance.

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The Council will consider housing “affordable” if its rent and utilities do not exceed 30 percent of the occupying household’s income, which must be less than the median household income for the City of Cambridge. The current median income for a four-person household in Cambridge is $120,800.

Although the passage of the AHO met with some opposition from resident groups such as the Cambridge Citizens Coalition, some city residents who had initial reservations about the ordinance were “pleased” with its implementation for the new development, according to Assistant City Manager Iram Farooq.

“Some of those who had been quite skeptical [of the AHO] were actually very pleased with the results of this process, and felt it really was a poster child for the implementation of AHO,” Farooq said in the meeting.

Harvard professor Suzanne Preston Blier, founder of the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association and president of the Cambridge Citizens Coalition, said she opposed the AHO because she preferred converting “existing historic structures” to accommodate “smaller, multi-unit” affordable housing.

Blier also expressed concerns that the developments permitted by the AHO would lead to too much density in Cambridge.

“Look at core issues of environmental equity and health equity. When you have so much density, and you remove open spaces and trees, that has a major impact, and I would say the major impact to date of the AHO has been to double the density of the current developments,” Blier said.

James G. Stockard Jr. — former chair of the Cambridge Housing Authority and lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design — emphasized the importance of new developments in addressing the demand for affordable housing in Cambridge, adding that every new affordable unit has “between 10 and 20” applicants.

“It’s a huge problem, and we have to keep fighting to add more stock to the supply of housing for people with modest needs,” Stockard said.

Elizabeth Marsh — a project manager overseeing the New Street development for Just-A-Start — said that although the long timeline for large-scale affordable housing construction can be frustrating, she hopes the project will be “inspirational” for other affordable housing developers.

“I always say that it feels like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the mountain, because the need for affordable housing is so great, and it takes so long to produce it,” Marsh said. “And 100 or so units, as amazing as it is, is just a drop in the bucket in terms of the actual need — there are thousands of people on the waitlists for these projects.”

—Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at elias.schisgall@thecrimson.com.

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