How the city of Cambridge hopes to pay for more affordable housing

Cambridge council will decide Tuesday whether to approve an affordable housing sub-reserve fund.

Current wait times for affordable units are lengthy, says Housing Cambridge GM

Cambridge city staff are proposing a new reserve fund that would pay for land and construction costs to help build affordable housing. The city is currently experiencing low vacancy rates, staff say. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

As Cambridge grapples with a tight rental market and long wait lists for affordable housing, city staff are asking councillors to endorse a new sub-reserve fund that would help pay for the development of affordable rental units.

The plan has been recommended for approval by the city's planning and development committee, and will go before council at Tuesday's meeting.

"We have so many people that can't afford to buy a home ... but more than that, they can't afford rent," said Ward 5 Coun. Pam Wolf, who chairs the affordable housing committee.

"We just can't build enough affordable housing at this point."

If approved, contributions into the fund would be negotiated between the city and developers building new subdivisions, who would agree to pay a certain amount of money into the reserve fund for every new unit they build.

Developers of apartments or condo buildings would also contribute to the fund through bonusing arrangements, in which they would pay into the fund in exchange for permission to build taller or denser properties than wouldn't otherwise be allowed by zoning laws. 

Philanthropic-minded citizens of Cambridge would also be allowed to contribute to the reserve fund, city staff said.

Need for housing

Right now, Cambridge has a vacancy rate of just one point four per cent for one and two bedroom units — well below the ideal rate of three per cent for a healthy rental market, city staff noted in their report to council. 

The new reserve fund would be another tool in the city's toolkit for building affordable housing, Wolf said. The city already offers a number of incentives to developers who build affordable housing, including exceptions from planning application fees and building permit fees.

Two affordable projects, one at 175 Hespeler Rd. and another planned for 195 Hespeler Rd., have already benefited from these incentives. 

Steve Garrison, general manager for Housing Cambridge, said the city has made strides in recent years in encouraging affordable developments. Still, he said more needs to be done to reduce lengthy wait lists for housing.

Currently, Garrison said seniors can expect to wait three to five years for a space to free up, while families can expect to wait between six to eight years for a unit.

Single people who don't qualify as seniors are looking at a seven to 10 year wait list, Garrison said. 

"The need is very high, but it's always a challenge to keep building and keep the supply going forward," Garrison said.

To that end, the money from the reserve fund could be used to buy land and pay for the construction of new affordable rental units, rather than to maintain or operate existing units, staff said. 

Council could also decide to put some of its budget to the affordable housing reserve fund in the future, said chief city planner Elaine Brunn Shaw.


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