What Is Cambridge’s Affordable Housing Overlay?

A controversial policy is helping create more affordable housing units in the Massachusetts city, but fears of overwhelming density are likely unfounded.

1 minute read

February 18, 2024, 5:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Aerial view of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Cambridge, Massachusetts. | Wangkun Jia / Adobe Stock

An article by Laurel M. Shugart and Olivia W. Zheng in The Harvard Crimson explains the Affordable Housing Overlay, a policy that aims to increase affordable housing in Cambridge by waiving certain height limits and zoning restrictions for affordable housing developments.

As the article points out, “Though the specific height limits for AHO projects vary across the city, in general, they are allowed to exceed normal height limits by between five and 85 feet. The AHO also allows for projects that are twice as dense than normal developments or more.” AHO projects are also not subject to Planning Board approval, but must still undergo a design consultation process.

Amendments to the AHO passed by the Cambridge City Council last year expand height limits to 12 stories in the densest parts of the city and give developers a more flexible unit size.

According to the article, more than 700 affordable rental units have been proposed under the AHO. However, even its supporters acknowledge that, for better of worse, the policy won’t change the city overnight, and will make only a small dent in the state’s housing crisis.

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