On Tuesday, March 16th, the Cambridge Planning Board will hear a petition to redevelop a property to create “two new single-family residences with one located greater than 75 feet from the street line”. At a glance, this special permit feels unnecessary, but not harmful: it looks like a relatively normal case of building backyard infill. Unfortunately, when you look deeper, what you see is that the development is not only not adding housing: it is destroying existing housing, in favor of new, less affordable homes — and it’s happening that way because this is what Cambridge’s zoning demands.
The existing homes
The property in question is 11 Jackson St., a small building with 1500 square feet of interior space. Built in the early 19th century, and relocated to this site in 1872, the structure is modest, and at a glance, might seem to be only a single family home.
However, a closer look reveals that this is not a single home, but instead a three unit building in disguise: At 11 Jackson St., we can see a doorbell for A and B, while to the right we can see a separate entrance labeled 9 Jackson St. This matches what the Cambridge Assessor’s database tells us: this is a three-family dwelling.
The existing homes are likely somewhat inexpensive: one of the units, at 9 Jackson St., was listed recently as a rental with 750 square feet of space, in a townhouse configuration. These types of homes typically provide more affordable rent and purchase options in Cambridge. With a total of about 1200 square feet of livable space in addition to that, it is likely that the existing units at 11A and 11B had around 600 square feet on average, meaning they were likely available on the rental market (if rented) at the low end of the affordability scale, closer to $1500-$2000/month.
Of course, if you simply read the application, you might not know this: in the application narrative, the developer simply stated that the “Total Dwelling Units” on the existing site is “1”. The only way that seems possible, given it is clearly and visibly a three-family residence as of most recent pictures and assessments, is if they’ve already done substantial work; leaving out this reality is — at best — quite misleading.
The New Homes
The builder has proposed that this site is used for two detached, single family homes. These homes will have an average of 1425 square feet of livable space, and will likely include finished basement space as well, bringing their total square footage to around 2000 square feet. (This is consistent with the proponent listing these homes as being “family-sized” with “3 bedrooms or more” in each dwelling.)
In analyzing the new homes, the Community Development Department explicitly stated that they felt this property would help meet Cambridge’s housing goals, noting that the city has a goal of “providing a variety of housing options for individuals and families, and utilizing zoning and regulatory incentives to help facilitate new housing development of different types and scales.” They added that “The development of small-scale, infill housing helps to further these goals.” What they failed to note is that in this case, the “small scale infill” is both an increase in scale and a net reduction in units from what exists today: replacing small, inexpensive homes with larger, more expensive homes.
The end result here will be moving from three small, modestly priced homes to two large, expensive homes. In the current market, if sold as condos, each of these homes will likely go on the open market for around $1.5 million. (By comparison to the $1500-$2000/month rent listed above, this would equate to a monthly cost of around $7600/month; slightly more pricey.)
In fact, we can come up with a good estimate for what these buildings will look like and cost, because this isn’t the first building on the street that “Design Synergy LLC” has bought for exactly this purpose. In 2018, they purchased 14–16 Jackson St., just across the street. There, they also demolished a single small structure; they replaced it with two larger single family homes, with finished, walk-out basements… and sold them for $1.5M each, at around 2000 square feet, very similar to what is now being proposed on the site at 9–11 Jackson St. The home on that site was assessed at just $700k in 2018, with a total of 957 square feet of space; the property is now assessed at nearly two million dollars.
The Community Development Department did consider whether it would make more sense to focus on a small multi-family building on this site instead of two detached buildings, but noted that approaches to create a multi-family building “can result in over-sized buildings that are inharmonious with existing neighborhood character and/or result in less total open space on the lot.” (This seems incongruous with the idea that the two detached buildings seem to have very little space between them, and very little contiguous open space, but I digress.)
However, even a two-family home here doesn’t resolve the primary problem: that the zoning prohibits even matching the same number of units as there are today if the property is redeveloped.
In practice, of course, there’s very little that the Planning Board can do about this. This development — a conversion of 3 modest apartments into 2 high-end single family homes — is the intention of the zoning for this area, which prohibits multi-family development. The previous building, with 3 units, was in violation of zoning code; this new building will not be. With three units, the previous building didn’t have enough parking spaces (one for each unit); the new one will. While it might be possible to blocking the special permit for a property 75’ from the street line, it would not prevent these homes from being built; nor would they even end up being a single building. Instead, they’d likely just rearrange the property slightly so they could bring the rear home slightly closer to the front property line, eliminating the need for a special permit at all. Creating detached single family houses is encouraged by rules that discourage multi-family housing.
We have created this incentive. By creating a system that legalizes two homes on this property, but no more than two homes, we discourage preservation of an existing three family home. Instead of creating new infill that adds to housing supply, we have incentivized the destruction of affordable homes in favor of expensive ones. Creating a new home in the backyard of this three-dwelling structure is a violation of zoning, but knocking it down, replacing it with a single home, and building behind that is allowed without special permission.
This is not the first time we’ve seen this type of “infill” that actually destroys housing; over the past 3 years, we have seen more housing removed by alteration permits than added in Cambridge. This one is just particularly egregious: at the same time the city is describing this as an opportunity to “help facilitate new housing development of different types and scales”, what we actually see is a demolition of more affordable housing in favor of housing that is less affordable; less in reach for middle class families.
This type of loss of homes is exactly what we can expect to see in a city where 43% of properties have more homes than are allowed on their property. Our rules prohibit protecting the housing we have today, so it should be no surprise when we lose it.
While it’s hard to predict exactly what would happen under the Cambridge Missing Middle Housing proposal for any given site, it is not very likely that this would be the outcome that the developer would select. While there will always be an incentive to maximize the square feet of buildable home on a given lot, the MMH petition would open the door for a wider range in number of units — and therefore the size. And rather than forcing developers to put their livable space in basements (which are exempt from FAR requirements), you could have more livable space — including bedrooms — above ground instead.
This type of change is the type of change that could actually create more units; and could potentially create different types of units that are less common on the market in Cambridge today, such as 1 bedroom or studio apartments. Instead of being limited to precisely two homes, developers could consider a different mix of unit sizes — and given that the incentives align with maximizing livable space, we’d be unlikely to see fewer homes than we do today.
If the idea of destroying affordable housing to build large detached homes doesn’t appeal to you, I encourage you to learn more about the Cambridge Missing Middle Housing Proposal, and sign the petition to push for rules that legalize the housing we already have… so the next developer who buys a property can at least build as many new homes as they’re demolishing.