As Cambridge’s new city manager Yi-An Huang ’05 assumes leadership over city government and the City Council resumes regular meetings after the summer, councilors have set their sights once again on a contentious issue: multifamily housing.
On Tuesday, the Housing Committee of the Council held a meeting relaunching discussions on allowing multifamily residential developments throughout the entire city.
Tuesday’s discussion centered around eliminating single- and two-family zoning to allow for denser residential development. Currently, much of the area west of Harvard Square only allows for building single- and two-family buildings.
And on Wednesday night, five councilors — Marc C. McGovern, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, Vice Mayor Alanna M. Mallon, Paul F. Toner, and Burhan Azeem — gathered for a virtual town hall meeting hosted by housing advocacy group A Better Cambridge to discuss the city’s housing crisis.
Mallon told The Crimson that the “long overdue” conversation on zoning reform “had a couple of fits and starts and I’m hoping that we can get it right back on the path and get the train out of the station.”
Cambridge City Councilors and policymakers have long recognized the severity of the housing crisis and the need to increase the city's housing supply. But finding and implementing policy solutions has been easier said than done, according to Azeem.
“Even if people agree that the current situation is bad, everyone can have different ideas of how to make the future better,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
Azeem also noted that detailed technical discussions around zoning can be lengthy, but said the council will “get to it this term.”
He said he looked forward to the Council “taking a lead” on eliminating restrictive zoning regulations.
Later this month, Huang and the councilors will go on a retreat to discuss the council’s working relationship with the city manager, as well as goals and priorities for the start of Huang’s term.
Toner said he hopes to identify three or four priorities to be “laser-focused on” and that issues related to housing “will definitely be at the top of the list.”
In November 2021, the Council called on the Community Development Department and the city’s Planning Board to “develop concepts and principles” to change the zoning code and allow for multifamily development.
Azeem said he thought the Planning Board was “not particularly excited” about certain aspects of the proposal but expressed optimism about the possibility of reaching consensus.
Toner said he felt there was potential to increase communication and alignment between the Council and other government bodies that deal with zoning and development, such as the Planning Board and the Board of Zoning Appeals.
“We have to have a better conversation with them about the goals of the city and City Council in terms of our housing initiatives,” Toner said.
Azeem also argued that Cambridge has had an “ugly history” of using zoning regulations to “[push] out people of color,” but that eliminating restrictive zoning laws could be a step forward.
“I think that this will be the city council that will end that history and allow for multifamily housing,” he said. “We’re going to do everything in our power.”
—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org