Housing and the Environment: It’s Not a Binary Conversation

Crisis is a word that describes the two of the most pressing issues we face today – the skyrocketing cost of housing and the current climate emergency, but at a recent health and environment committee hearing about the proposed Affordable Housing Overlay, I was struck by the binary conversation we were having surrounding these two issues. For those new to this discussion, the City’s Community Development Department (CDD) has produced this innovative proposal to change our Zoning Ordinance which would allow us to increase the number of affordable units for low and middle income families. The simplest explanation of the Affordable Housing Overlay is that it would relax some zoning rules solely for 100% affordable housing projects, which lowers land and legal costs for nonprofit and affordable housing builders. Since the proposal was unveiled, one of the top concerns from residents has been how this proposal, and the potential new residential buildings that would be built as a result, might affect the preservation of our tree canopy and green space.

I’ve written previously that the overlay presents us with a unique opportunity to transform abandoned and vacant lots, whose gray infrastructure contributes to our urban heat island, to energy efficient buildings complete with green infrastructure and landscaping plans that would yield a net increase in our tree canopy. You can read more of my comments on using these lots to their full potential and transforming them from gray to green here.

Since then, I’ve heard from many residents who are concerned about what the proposal might do to individual lots, if the affordable housing projects built there were to have greater density and height, and what that would mean for the amount and quality of open space. But the benefit of living in an urban environment is the dense, walkable neighborhoods that are close to amenities, like public parks, and when it comes to evaluating open space we should think at a more macro-level, rather than a lot-by-lot mindset. Cambridge is lucky to be home to the highest quality and variety of urban open space: pocket parks and neighborhood tot lots, as well as vast green areas like Danehy Park, Fresh Pond Reservation, the banks of the Charles River, and Joan Lorentz Park. Most residents and families, including mine, don’t play on isolated green lots immediately surrounding their homes, and a front lawn isn’t the only way to enjoy the outdoors, especially in a City. Instead, they walk to their nearest open space which not only gives them more room to enjoy the outdoors, but gets them out into the community to socialize with friends and neighbors.

The urgency of our climate crisis demands that we not get caught up in the micro – where we can get a few more feet of grass or one more tree – but instead, look at the big picture: the net benefit of redevelopment, green buildings, and 100% affordable projects. Neighborhood resiliency in the face of future climate events has been a priority of our City in every major planning study. Just like shared green space is better for socialization, so is increasing the amount of affordable units that promotes housing stability and strengthens our families. At the hearing, our DPW Commissioner affirmed that affordable housing buildings act as socialized housing because of the communities that live there. When we talk about climate mitigation, conversations about green infrastructure and stormwater management are critical, but we cannot lose sight of the importance of building and maintaining socially resilient communities.

We also have to look beyond the borders of our City. An often repeated talking point is that Cambridge cannot solve the housing crisis alone, but we cannot solve our climate crisis alone either. The Affordable Housing Overlay would also allow for taller buildings (80’) along some of our city’s corridors and thus near transit. One of the benefits of transit-oriented development is the lower carbon emissions that come from a reduced demand for single-car trips. This is illustrated on the interactive carbon emissions map, developed by UC Berkeley, which visually represents how dense cities emit significantly less carbon than their suburban counterparts.

A State Wide view of emissions by zip code. Greater Boston is much lower than its suburban counterparts.

State-wide, our highest-emitting zip codes are from Boston suburbs where people are likely to commute into the urban core.

The fact that density and urban living lower carbon emissions isn’t just true in Greater Boston. You can explore carbon emissions zip code by zip code nation-wide with UC Berkeley’s interactive map here.

Cambridge has some of the highest green development standards in the State, but they are nullified when the high cost and low supply of housing forces people to the outskirts beyond the reach of alternative transit, making single car trips into the City a necessity. In fact, 80% of Cambridge congestion is from out of town traffic through the City, not from current or new residents. The Greater Boston Area is a desirable place to live, and no zoning ordinance – no matter how restrictive – will stop the tech boom, job creation, or new residents from moving into the area. Those that are wealthy are increasingly competing with lower and middle income families for what used to be “naturally occurring affordable housing”, and without units to meet the demand for all income levels, it’s the middle and low income families in our community who are increasingly priced out.

A zoomed in view of emissions by zip code. Greater Boston is much lower than its suburban counterparts.
A close up of Greater Boston and its surrounding suburbs.
The lowest carbon emitting zip codes are from Boston’s highest density neighborhoods. Suburbs of Boston emit at significantly higher rates and are some of the highest emitters in the State.

Alarming reports about the health of our planet make environmental concerns justified, and as a policy maker, I’ve been particularly concerned with the balance between a need for new affordable housing and a need to be good stewards of our environment. Too many times thought, we’ve gotten stuck in false perceptions of conflict between trees vs. housing, open space vs. affordability, dividing our community between two critical priorities. We can promote environmental justice by giving low and middle income residents opportunities to live in affordable housing in low emitting communities with access to green space. Current residents will see abandoned lots transformed with new neighbors that are both people and trees. As the Ordinance Committee begins its work this summer alongside interactive, community meetings, we have the opportunity to think about these priorities in tandem and see the Overlay as a tool to make a positive impact on both housing affordability and climate change.

For more of my comments on housing and the environment, watch my remarks from the June 4th Health and Environment Committee hearing.