Reality Check: Bogus Claims about the Missing Middle Housing Petition

Christopher Schmidt
5 min readMar 25, 2021

A citizen group has come forward with a petition opposed to the Missing Middle Housing Petition. There are a number of both incorrect and misleading claims on both what the MMH petition will do, and what it won’t do. While engaging in a back-and-forth is rarely productive, for the purpose of folks who might be looking to understand whether there’s any truth to these claims, I wanted to try and just explain why … they’re (mostly) wrong.

  • Claim: [The MMH petition will] allow for home demolitions, evictions, and displacements to add more, larger luxury housing.

Reality: This is what’s already happening throughout Cambridge. The MMH petition is focused on allowing new developments to include more, smaller units, rather than converting existing small homes to larger, higher-price homes.

Recent new construction developments in Cambridge heavily incentivize parking, and large units, selling for nearly $2M.
  • Claim: [The MMH Petition will] promote the removal of existing green spaces and our declining tree canopy.

Reality: The MMH Petition removes minimum parking requirements, which will help create more opportunity for green space rather than removing it. Denser development helps reduce the amount of impervious space per unit. Additionally, Cambridge’s existing tree management processes are designed to limit removal of tree canopy and ensure a healthy urban forest.

Impervious surface area per unit is much higher in single family zones than in higher density areas.

Claim: [The MMH Petition will not] provide more affordable housing.

Reality: New multi-family housing, currently illegal to build, is much more affordable than the detached and semi-detached homes people build in neighborhoods today. Creating smaller homes puts them in reach of middle income families in Cambridge, and by creating opportunities for less expensive units, the MMH petition will create opportunities for income-restricted affordable housing through voucher and homebuying programs.

  • Claim: [The MMH petition will not] further any of the core Envision goals.

Reality: The MMH petition is specifically inspired by multiple Envision Cambridge goals, including improving market affordability by increasing the supply of housing, and changing zoning in neighborhoods to match the housing that already exists.

  • Claim: [It is not true that] current homes created in lower or higher zoning spec eras are somehow now “illegal.”

Reality: Multi-family buildings like triple-deckers are illegal to build on 42% of Cambridge’s residential land — specifically, the wealthiest and whitest 42%. These rules perpetuate racial and class exclusion. These rules also prevent simple changes to existing buildings, forcing long and costly processes for tasks as simple as adding a mudroom or an additional bedroom.

  • Claim: [It is not true that] demolishing a still viable home, filling up local dumpsite, cutting more trees to build bigger is good environmentally.

Reality: New construction, thanks to building codes, is much more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly than wood-framed buildings that are over 100 years old. Any environmental benefits from maintaining existing buildings is far outstripped by the environmental benefits of modern buildings.

The Green New Deal specifically addresses this, by demanding that we “[upgrade] all existing buildings in the United States and [build] new buildings to achieve maximum energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification.”

This is also why Joe Biden promised to retrofit millions of homes as part of a strategy for addressing climate change.

Allowing people to live in a walkable, job-rich, transit-rich area like Cambridge rather than pushing them out to the suburbs is the single highest impact thing that a local government can do to cut down on carbon emissions.

  • Claim: [It is not true that] adding more market-rate (luxury) housing will decrease housing and rental costs.

Reality: Housing costs are high because we have created 45,000 jobs in the past 40 years, but only 13,000 units of housing. Every new home helps, but ESPECIALLY less expensive, denser housing of the type allowed by the MMH petition, which — despite being new construction — often gets priced at the middle of the market, rather than detached and semi-detached homes which are priced at the top of the market.

  • Claim: Cambridge’s Missing Middle Housing Petition was written by the National Association of Homebuilders.

Reality: The Missing Middle Housing Petition was prepared by volunteer housing advocates who live and work in Cambridge. It has nothing to do with the National Association of Homebuilders.

  • Claim: [The petition will] allow “Dorm-level density” on every street.

Reality: The Missing Middle Housing petition establishes building standards consistent with the scale of housing in every neighborhood in Cambridge. This isn’t creating an entirely new class of housing in Cambridge: rather, it is allowing the creation of more housing that looks much like the housing we already have. (By comparison: Dorms in Cambridge are largely 5 stories or more, and built in C-3 zones that allow up to 3.0 FAR — significantly more than the 1.25 FAR proposed by the MMH petition.)

  • Claim: The MMH petition will not provide design review for new home additions or new housing on existing property, nor will it allow immediate neighbors to address design impacts.

Reality: This one is true. As described in Neighborhood Defenders, discretionary review processes around design tend to create systems that favor the preferences of older, richer, whiter residents, as well as creating a “pay to play” environment where wealthy individuals and corporations have easier access to property changes. A consistent set of rules that encourages creation of housing is key to levelling the playing field, and to the creation of more housing. Plus, do you really want your neighbor telling you what color to paint your house?

  • Claim: “There is no middle class in the city of Cambridge and there is no middle-income housing in the city of Cambridge. You are either rich or you are poor in the city of Cambridge and the City has to do a better job providing middle income housing for us.”

Reality: Mostly True. The current zoning rules in Cambridge are explicitly designed in a way that prevents the creation of new middle-income housing in Cambridge neighborhoods. This is exactly what the Missing Middle Housing Petition is designed to address: the rules that perpetuate the creation of large, high-end, high-cost housing at the cost of middle-income housing.