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Affordable Housing Overlay Zoning Advances New Affordable Housing Development

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Access to funding is a critical component of building new affordable housing, but housing providers must also be able to compete with market developers to obtain sites and predictably advance new developments through the development process, where delays add significantly to cost and the need for public subsidy. In 2020, the City first adopted a landmark Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO) zoning to allow affordable housing builders to build more densely than market-rate builders to better compete for new development sites. The AHO also allows for a community and design review process, which helps affordable housing providers advance new proposals more efficiently and cost effectively. The AHO has become a national model followed by other cities in the region and in other parts of the country.

In October 2023, the City Council amended the AHO to enhance its effectiveness in creating new affordable housing.  The amendments allow for taller heights for affordable housing developments in higher-density zoning districts, major squares, and mixed-use corridors, and reduces required setbacks citywide. These changes will help non-profit developers better compete with market-rate developers for sites and projects and provide a full range of housing choices throughout the City for households of all incomes, helping meet the City's goal of preserving diversity.

With more than 725 affordable units proposed under the AHO, including 446 now under construction, the AHO has resulted in an unprecedented pipeline of new affordable housing that will serve the community for years to come.  An additional three AHO developments are expected to be proposed in 2024 with more to follow, as the AHO has been effective in giving affordable housing providers the confidence to aggressively pursue new development opportunities to build new affordable housing to advance City housing goals.

Alewife Re-Zoning Spurs Housing and Economic Development

The City has conducted focused planning for Alewife, which is expected to undergo major commercial redevelopment and provide an opportunity to advance the City’s goals of housing production, economic vitality, and environmental resilience.

Prompted by the rapid acquisition of 35 acres of land by Denver-based developer Healthpeak, the City Council imposed a construction moratorium for new commercial development until new zoning was adopted. The Council asked City staff to convene an Alewife Zoning Working Group to build off the recommendations from the 2019 Alewife District Plan and provide zoning rules that would guide the creation of a vibrant new neighborhood.

Over 18 months, City staff led an inclusive working group process that brought together the diverse interests of residents, the business community, institutions, property owners, and developers. The process resulted in a shared vision for a mixed-use district that balances economic growth with housing development and delivers significant infrastructure improvements. The final zoning, which was adopted 9-0 by the Council, creates the framework for a multimodal, resilient, and sustainable neighborhood with strong community amenities. The adopted zoning increases the number of new homes that can be built and requires housing to be built along with new commercial buildings. It also incentivizes the construction of a bike/pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks, creates greater open space, and requires funding for infrastructure improvements. Estimated development projections by 2040 would result in approximately 3,500 new housing units, including 700 affordable units.

Residential development in the pipeline or recently completed in Alewife area include:

  • A 106-unit, all-affordable building is being built at 52 New Street. The project was the first to be proposed under the Affordable Housing Overlay zoning provisions.
  • The first phase of the Rindge Commons project at 405 Rindge Avenue will be completed in 2024 and include 24 affordable apartments above non-residential space where the non-profit sponsor, Just A Start, will move its workforce development and other programs. The new building will also include space for Cambridge Preschool Programs. Just A Start is now seeking funding needed to begin construction on the second phase of Rindge Commons.
  • 49 units are currently under construction at 605 Concord Avenue.
  • Toll Brothers is completing a 526-unit luxury apartment building at 55 Wheeler Street. This complex replaces an outmoded industrial complex previously used as office space.
  • A 44-unit condominium building at 95 Fawcett Street was completed in fall 2022.
  • A 94-unit development on 75 New Street was completed in 2022.
  • A 320-unit residential building was completed in 2020 at 201-203 Concord Turnpike.
  • New construction of 98 units of affordable rental housing was completed in 2020 at 675 Concord Avenue, across from the Fresh Pond Reservoir. Known as Finch Cambridge, the building was built to be sustainable and resilient and was the first multi-family affordable development to be built to the Passive House standard — a rigorous, performance-based, energy efficiency construction standard.

Other notable zoning-related changes and developments:

  • Elimination of Minimum Parking Requirements

As of October 2022, the City of Cambridge removed off-street parking requirements from the City's zoning code in an effort to reduce the cost and complexity of new residential development and to advance the City’s sustainability goals by reducing vehicle trips in the city.

Cambridge became the first Massachusetts city to fully eliminate parking minimums. Previously, the Zoning Ordinance had required new housing developments to have one off-street parking space per unit in most of the city.

  • Multifamily Housing Citywide Consideration

In the last term, the City Council discussed how zoning could be changed to allow multifamily in districts that now allow only single-family, two-family, or townhouse developments, which cover approximately a quarter of the city. The Council’s interest was centered around encouraging new housing construction and creating more equitable zoning rules across the City. Consideration of this approach will continue in 2024.

  • Massachusetts Avenue Planning Study

The City is undertaking a study process to consider zoning changes along this major mixed-use corridor. The Mass Ave Planning Study (MAPS), spearheaded by the Community Development Department (CDD), is creating a vision plan for what Massachusetts Avenue will look like in 2040 between Alewife Brook Parkway and Cambridge Common.

This study, which is part of the City’s Envision Cambridge plan, will study various aspects, such as land use, zoning, urban design, housing, climate resiliency, small business support, mobility, and public space.

The team will work with the community to develop a shared vision to shape future development types and scales and lead an engagement process to listen to all the voices that live, work, or play along this section of Mass Ave.


  • Central Square Zoning

CDD is now working on a process to develop zoning changes for Central Square, which would allow for and encourage the continued growth, redevelopment, and evolution of the district. In alignment with the prior planning processes undertaken by CDD, the focus of the updated zoning will be increasing housing, creating public spaces to build community, creating additional public open spaces, supporting our diverse retail, cultural, and non-profit community, and providing opportunities for centralized parking.

The goal is to have new zoning ready for adoption by the City Council by the end of 2024, following community engagement, public hearings, and discussion. This work is expected to rely on the community’s vision and goals articulated in multiple studies completed in the past decade, including the C2 Planning Study (2013), the Central Square Commercial District Assessment Survey (2018), and the Central Square City Lots Study (2024). CDD has also completed a study of 10 City-owned properties in the Central Square area to look at how these properties could be developed to advance several City goals and initiatives. Work will continue to assess these opportunities with next steps, which include engaging with the development community to see how lots on Bishop Allen Drive could be redeveloped to create much-needed new housing in mixed-use buildings that might also create civic and cultural spaces desired by the community.

Zoning in Cambridge creates a framework for a multimodal, resilient, and sustainable neighborhood with strong community amenities.

An affordable housing development under construction at 116 Norfolk Street.
Affordable housing under construction at 116 Norfolk Street.
A 44-unit condominium building at 95 Fawcett Street.
A 44-unit condominium at 95 Fawcett Street.
A rendering of a view looking north from Concord Ave to a new mixed-use street that would act as a gateway to the Alewife District. Credit: Healthpeak/Elkus Manfredi.
A rendering of a new mixed-use street that would act as a gateway to the Alewife District.
A rendering of a future mixed-use district in Alewife with living and business developments.
A rendering of a mixed-use district with living and housing developments.
A 320-unit residential building completed in 2020 at 201-203 Concord Turnpike.
A 320-unit residential building at 201-203 Concord Turnpike.



Read more how Cambridge’s landmark Affordable Housing Overlay zoning allows affordable housing builders to build more densely than market-rate builders to better compete for new development sites, and other notable zoning-related changes and developments.

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