• letter

In collaboration with A Better Cambridge, we co-authored a letter to Senator Pat Jehlen, who represents both cities in the MA General Court. We sent the letter to her on .

Dear Senator Jehlen:

We write to engage about your recent public comment to the Somerville City Council and Planning board regarding the proposed changes to Neighborhood Residence (NR) zones in Somerville. In particular, you stated that you “have no confidence at all that increased density will lower prices.” Recent studies have shown, however, that building market-rate housing helps to lower rents for all and prevent displacement.

The supply of housing in Somerville and Cambridge has not kept pace with job growth and competition for scarce housing has driven up rents, causing displacement of long-time tenants and a massive demographic and socioeconomic shift in our cities. Our vacancy rate is at a record low, showing that scarcity, not vacancy, is the problem we face. Given the broad scope of our housing crisis, which is deeply felt at local, regional, and national levels,we need to pursue every avenue to encourage building more homes.

Shane Philips of UCLA, author of the book The Affordable City, speaks often about the three S’s: Supply, Stability, and Subsidy. For stability, we share your support for rent stabilization as a valuable tool to keep our cities more affordable. Governor Healey’s housing bond bill would provide additional subsidy to create deeply affordable public and social housing and further aid stability. In addition, we urgently need state and local zoning reform to increase our housing supply — there are already many creative examples of municipalities supporting zoning reform to meet housing production goals. No single approach will solve the crisis alone, but it is clear that without additional supply, skyrocketing rents will continue unabated: there is no path to housing affordability for everyone that doesn’t involve building abundant housing.

We appreciate your longtime support for affordable housing and strongly agree that it is vital to create as many deed-restricted affordable housing units as possible. Given how desperate the need is, we must craft policies that effectively create such units. The affordability requirement for the 3rd unit in a multifamily residence in the NR zone was not effective. The policy was in place for four years and created very few deed-restricted affordable units; density is essential in scaling affordable development. We think there are better ways to effectively create permanently affordable housing — for example, upzoning around transit, affordable housing overlays, and state-level public housing initiatives.

We believe designing Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) policies that still enable a significant amount of housing to be built is a win-win. For homebuilders, IZ requirements can function similarly to a tax on new housing, driving up the cost to build housing and decreasing overall housing production. Particularly in times of high construction costs and interest rates, barriers to housing exacerbate our housing crisis. San Francisco recently has had to face this reality, lowering its IZ requirement to spur housing construction.

Given that most rent-burdened residents live in market-rate housing, increasing supply also helps reduce competition that would otherwise drive up housing costs and cause displacement of those unable to afford higher rent. High housing costs and low vacancy rates also lead to increased homelessness. Many recent studies have convinced us increasing housing production helps housing affordability. We’ve included a list of studies supporting that conclusion with this letter.

Thank you for your consideration. We hope you will review this information and would welcome the opportunity to meet to discuss further.


Somerville YIMBY

A Better Cambridge

References about Density and Affordability

As a starting point, the Furman Center at NYU has recently updated a paper collating studies, including many of those listed below, showing that increasing the housing supply helps affordability.

A study of Auckland, New Zealand found that zoning reform spurred housing production and that rents for three bedroom apartments consequently decreased somewhere between 26% and 33% relative to what they would have been absent the zoning reform. The greatest affordability benefits were for renters in the lowest income quartile.

This study looked at low-income neighborhoods in 11 US cities and found, “New buildings decrease nearby rents by 5 to 7 percent relative to locations slightly farther away or developed later, and they increase in-migration from low-income areas. Results are driven by a large supply effect — we show that new buildings absorb many high-income households — that overwhelms any offsetting endogenous amenity effect.”

Another multi-city study specifically looking at lower-income neighborhoods found, “These results… suggest that new market rate housing construction can improve housing affordability for middle- and low-income households, even in the short run.”

A study of New York City found that ”for every 10% increase in the housing stock, rents decrease 1% and sales prices also decrease within 500 feet.”

A study of San Francisco used serious building fires as a kind of natural experiment. The author found “both rents and the risk of adverse moves plunge for people living near new market rate construction…On average, being within 100m of an additional new project reduces rent by $28.03. The risk of displacement falls by 17.14%.”