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Cambridge Might Impose Zoning Ordinance on Local Universities

By Beckett W. Sterner


The city of Cambridge is currently investigating the possibility of requiring all new university housing projects to abide by the inclusionary zoning ordinance, which requires that 15 percent of new residential developments be affordable housing.

“Affordable” is defined as costing less than 80 percent of the median income of the residents of the neighborhood. Currently, universities in Cambridge, including MIT and Harvard are exempt from this ordinance.

The City Council unanimously approved an order by Councillor Anthony D. Galluccio on Sept. 29 requesting that the city manager draft a home-rule petition extending the ordinance to universities.

The present ordinance requires that the affordable housing units be on site, however Galluccio said “my assumption is that we would create something that would be a little more flexible.”

“My hope is that the universities and its students will see this as a positive initiative that will help gain community support” when they seek permission to build new housing, he said.

Once written, the petition would then be reviewed by the city’s Ordinance and Housing Committee, and upon approval by the council it would be sent to the Massachusetts State Legislature for a vote.

Current projects spur action

Galluccio said that “the fact that the universities don’t have to comply with the inclusionary ordinances” was highlighted during the city’s negotiations with Harvard over their Riverside development.

Affordable housing units in the city, he said, were a major concern. This raised the question of why universities do not have to comply with the ordinances, which apply to all other developers.

City Councillor Brian Murphy said that during discussions with Harvard it came up that “no housing for the community was built at Simmons,” MIT’s most recent undergraduate dormitory.

Affordable housing is “not something I think we should have to negotiate with the universities,” Galluccio said. “If MIT’s going to build 300 units of housing, they should contribute affordable housing,” he said.

However, both Galluccio and Murphy said that they supported more student housing, especially graduate housing that would lower demand for apartments in the rest of the city.

Petition faces several obstacles

Before becoming law, the home-rule petition must be approved by the City Council and then voted on by the Massachusetts state legislature.

Ini Tomeu, public information officer for the city of Cambridge, said that the legal issues the city manager must address are complex and that it is “possible that in another month ... we might have a more definite time frame.”

Galluccio said, however, that the petition would probably be sent to the state legislature before Jan. 1.

In the past, home-rule petitions have had a mixed record in the state legislature. A recent petition to give Cambridge the right to collect taxes from universities, which are currently exempt as non-profit institutions, was solidly defeated, and other petitions have sat in committee and never been brought to a vote.

“My hope is that legislature will see this as distinct from past arguments about taxing universities,” Galluccio said. He said that he hoped universities would see that the intention of the petition was to maintain economic diversity within the city.

He said a similar petition to give residents who own their homes a 30 percent exemption from real estate taxes had been passed over a veto by Governor Mitt Romney during a special session of the legislature.

City will seek universities’ input

Although the order is currently being considered by the city manager’s legal office, the city will ask for universities’ opinions during the process of considering the petition.

Galluccio said that the council will “get input as to how it may work best for universities” to include affordable housing in new projects.

Murphy said the order to the city manager was intended to “start the ball rolling in terms of discussion.”

Mary Power, senior director for community relations at Harvard, said that they “look forward to learning more” about the petition, but that without more details, it was hard to predict what effect it could have on the universities.

Sarah Gallop, co-director of MIT’s Office of Community and Government Relations, said that MIT feels it has been responsive to the city’s requests, and that “housing is an area where we have a longstanding and strong record.”

She said that with the new Sidney-Pacific and Warehouse dormitories, MIT had increased the percentage of graduate students it houses from 35 to 45 percent, and that MIT was aiming to increase that to 50 percent in the next few years.

However, she said that they felt that student housing was already affordable and that “if there were further requirements ... it would put a burden on our ability to build” more affordable housing for the MIT community.