City Council to vote on "linkage fee" for affordable housing

The Cambridge City Council will vote on a long-awaited update to the affordable housing “linkage fee" at the next regular meeting on Monday, September 28.

Councillors are expected to approve an increase to the fee — but the debate over when and how much to raise the fee says a lot about the larger debate over development and displacement in Cambridge.

The linkage fee is a small, one-time tax on large, new commercial buildings; all of the proceeds come from big developers and go directly to the city's affordable housing trust fund.

Cambridge implemented the linkage program in 1988, but the city council has not updated the fee in more than fifteen years — this, despite Section 11.203.1 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance, which calls on the council to review and recalculate the fee every three (3) years, "based on a consideration of current economic trends" such as development activity, commercial rents per square foot, and housing costs, etc.

In 2002, noted housing economist Barry Bluestone recommended that the linkage fee be more than doubled (from $3.28/sq. ft. to $7.83/sq. ft.), but his proposal failed to make it out of an ordinance committee chaired by Councillor David Maher. Since that time, millions of dollars have been "left on the table," and our efforts to update the linkage fee have been delayed.

All city councillors now agree the linkage fee should be increased. However, there are two very different views on how much developers should be required to contribute for affordable housing.

Analysis from MIT says that the linkage fee would need to be set to $24.30/sq. ft. to compensate for the upward pressure on the Cambridge housing market that is caused by high-end commercial development.

But at next week's council meeting, members of the "Unity Slate" are expected to vote to give big developers a 50% discount by setting the fee at $12/sq. ft. Under this proposal, the fee would also rise $1/year for the next three years — but it would still come up well short of the actual impact of pending commericial development.

The debate over the linkage fee is reflective of the larger debate happening in Cambridge right now: everyone agrees on the importance of affordable housing — but there are two very different views on how best to advance the goal.

On the one hand are those who believe in "trickle-down development" — the idea that the best way to secure affordable housing is to boost the profits of big developers, spurring unbridled growth and spiking land values — all in the hopes that more affordable units will "trickle-down" to Cambridge residents.

On the other side are councillors like Dennis Carlone and Nadeem Mazen, and candidates like Jan Devereux, Romaine Waite and myself. Generally speaking, we think that the data and analysis that is provided by things like the MIT nexus study should be used by the council to calibrate a housing policy that will better protect people who are living in Cambridge right now.

In sum, if the council approves a 50% discount on the linkage fee, it will be inviting the continued displacement of Cambridge's socioeconomically-diverse population. Instead, the council should set the fee at $24.30/sq. ft., an amount equal to the projected impact of future commercial development.

Next week's meeting will begin at 5:30 pm with public comment in the Sullivan Chamber at City Hall. 

Residents may sign up to speak at public comment by calling 617-349-4280 between 9 am and 3 pm on Monday, or sign up in person at the meeting. Ask to speak on the Calendar Item relative to "Proposed Amendments to the Incentive Zoning Provisions." Public comment sign up stops at 6 pm, but the comment period will run until everyone has a chance to speak (three minutes per person).

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