What do you think are the causes of Cambridge’s high-priced housing market?
There is no one cause of Cambridge’s high priced housing market, and to solve the housing crisis, multiple policy problems must be addressed. The conditions that most adversely impact our housing costs are: the lack of housing supply in both our City and surrounding municipalities; an overabundance of market-rate development; an onerous and costly building process for affordable developers and the CHA; a general decline in funding affordable housing at HUD/the federal level; the tech-boom that has attracted highly paid workers to the area, who always win the competition for “naturally occuring affordable housing”; source of income discrimination; and predatory condo conversions, which are a frequent cause to no-fault evictions and tenant displacement. All of these issues contribute to the untenable cost of housing in Cambridge, and low to middle-income renters, especially Section 8 voucher holders, are disproportionately affected as they do not have access to the stability and return on investment that is available to homeowners
How have high housing prices affected Cambridge and the surrounding region?
In both Cambridge and the surrounding region, high housing prices have had devastating effects. We are rapidly losing the socioeconomic diversity of our City, as neighborhoods that were home to people of color continue to gentrify, and the middle class shrinks faster every year. This lack of stability is leading to an increase in transient populations, most alarmingly in demographics that were not typically transient before, such as the middle class or families. High housing costs make Cambridge property attractive to investors, and when landlords who previously provided “naturally occurring affordable housing” sell, families often get pushed from unit to unit until many are completely priced out of Cambridge. The stability offered by homeownership is increasingly out of reach. For young people in particular, it’s impossible to save for a down payment while paying the high cost of rent and likely contending with debt from postsecondary education.
What housing options currently exist for low-income tenants who are not high on the affordable housing waitlists? How can Cambridge help them?
Until we start intentionally building more affordable housing units through updated zoning and additional city investment, there are few options that exist for these tenants. The “small benevolent landlord” is increasingly rare, and properties provided by the CHA or our nonprofit partners are the only options for low-income tenants. Even if a tenant is on the waitlist, there are 19,000 individual entries, and getting a unit could take years. The most important thing we can do is to create options to keep tenants in their current homes. As a Councillor, I have had some success in helping tenants access legal counsel so they may remain in their units, and as a city we need to ensure adequate funding for legal aid for residents to assist in this effort. We need to make a concerted effort to end source of income discrimination, which fuels our displacement crisis and keeps housing costs artificially high. Tenants with Section 8 mobile vouchers should be able to use the program as it was intended: to acquire a unit on the private market by paying via a voucher. Instead, Section 8 tenants often encounter realtors who don’t return calls or process applicants, or landlords who price apartments just a few hundred dollars of what the voucher will cover. (This practice in turn creates artificially high rent for tenants who do not require vouchers but still may be lower income or middle class.) I helped to introduce a housing discrimination hotline, but the City needs to take a more active role in preventing discrimination on the private market.
How does new market-rate residential development affect the affordability of Cambridge? How does new affordable housing affect the affordability of Cambridge?
Both increase the availability of affordable units in Cambridge. The second case is far more obvious - partnering with our nonprofits and other affordable builders helps us create deed-restricted units that will be kept in their portfolios in perpetuity. In the first case, creating market-rate housing is a secondary priority but is still important. Our institutions, Kendall Square, the tech boom, and the availability of high-paying jobs in the Greater Boston area are not going away, but we need to be aware that these companies are not intentionally creating high-paying jobs for our community, but rather bringing people with high-paying jobs into it. These workers will not stop coming to the area because we lack affordable housing - instead, they will compete with low and middle-income families for the available supply and win every time because they can afford to pay more. Not only does this deprive low and middle-income residents of much needed units, but it also raises the cost of housing over time as property owners raise rent in anticipation of high-income workers. Although we need to focus on creating housing for all income levels, I am cautious about an over-abundance of market-rate development. Priority one should be creating low and middle income units that are restricted based on AMI.
What is the relationship between the twin crises of climate change and housing unaffordability? How can Cambridge address both?
Climate change and housing unaffordability are two crises that must be dealt with urgently. Though the solutions partially overlap, they are too often treated as a binary conversation. I wrote extensively on this topic here: https://alannamallon.org/housing-and-the-environment-its-not-a-binary-conversation/. Urban areas emit much less carbon and its residents produce far less waste than their suburban counterparts, mostly due to dense, walkable neighborhoods and access to transit that reduces the need for single-car trips. Housing that is too far from the workplace and other amenities forces people into cars instead of alternative modes of transit, contributing to street congestion and emissions. In Cambridge, 80% of traffic is caused by people passing through the City to work in Kendall Square or Boston - moving even some of them into denser transit corridors or units that are infilled into existing neighborhoods would greatly reduce both traffic and the carbon footprint it leaves. Housing also converts gray space to green space by redeveloping abandoned or dilapidated lots. Affordable builders in particular look to build on existing hard-surface lots, and this redevelopment transforms urban heat islands into permeable space with housing, green space, landscaping, and trees.
What effects might more housing in Cambridge have on quality of life or the environment?
More housing would have a positive effect on the quality of life for so many of our residents actively seeking affordable, safe housing options in the city that they love, that they have raised their families in, or that they themselves grew up in and have a strong safety net of support. The high cost of living combined with the constant threat of losing their homes takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on the families I've had the privilege to work with in the past term. In the words of Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley, “housing is foundational to everything”, and that’s especially true for low-income renters who rely on housing in Cambridge for access to even more services, from food to pre-k to workforce development. Too many of these families threatened by displacement have children that are in our school system. Although our inclusionary program prioritizes kids under 6, I have had too many experiences with families who have students attending CRLS, and are desperate to stay in Cambridge so that their kids can graduate from the school system they have been in since childhood. Having more affordable units, or more units available, would at least grant some relief to families facing a no-fault eviction. Moving from a home is hard enough - we can at least help these families keep the same community around them.
Do you support the Affordable Housing Overlay? Please explain.
Yes: Our affordable housing partners have lost valuable opportunities to develop or redevelop land and create affordable units due to high land and legal costs. The Overlay would help level the playing field between affordable housing builders and large developers, and end the near monopoly on market-rate development. This discussion has followed an extensive community process that started with Envision and is currently concluding in the Ordinance Committee. Although I have been on board with much of the Overlay, I did introduce several amendments to make it a better fit for our community, most of which are being included in the final language.
Would you support eliminating parking minimums for new housing development citywide? Please explain.
Yes: A recent study of new developments in the Boston area indicated that more than 30% of parking spaces go completely unused, which is indicative of the fact that we don’t need to invest resources in providing parking, especially when they add costs to affordable units. I supported an amendment to eliminate parking minimums from the Affordable Housing Overlay because I do not want to burden these projects with unnecessary costs, and want to encourage residents to take transit or other alternative modes of transportation. One caveat: we still need to keep projects ADA accessible.
Would you support abolishing these restrictions by establishing citywide minimum zoning that allows more multifamily housing? Please explain.
Yes: Allowing multifamily housing by-right is critical in addressing our housing crisis. I have admired the actions of Minneapolis, Seattle, and parts of Portland, which have taken progressive steps in reforming their Zoning Ordinances to abolish single-family zoning. It’s important to acknowledge the full history of zoning, including its use as an exclusionary tool to promote racist housing and segregation practices. In Minneapolis, they did the hard work of educating residents about the troubling history of zoning, and I do not think that Cambridge has made the same effort. Mayor McGovern and Councillor Siddiqui have started this critical work through their Project DEEP series, but in order for residents to understand their personal stake and responsibility, we need to directly tie this equity work to zoning and housing policy. This work is imperative for the ability to make this change.
What measures in particular should Cambridge adopt to prevent tenant displacement?
Because of the less-than-urgent pace on Beacon Hill, we need to focus on policies that do not require home-rule petitions. As a Councillor, one of the most helpful things I can do for tenants is connect them with legal services, which greatly increases their chances of winning their eviction cases in court (or never having to go to court in the first place). This Council has already established a budget for a tenants’ right to counsel, and I would like to see this more robustly funded in the next fiscal year. The City should also take a more active role in empowering tenants with information. I have been advocating for posting the information about the Inspectional Services Department and legal aid services in the lobby of every rental building. In Philadelphia, landlords are required to provide their tenants with a copy of the City’s Partners for Good Housing handbook (https://www.phila.gov/li/Documents/partnersinhousing.pdf), which clearly outlines the responsibilities of the tenant and landlord, and directs the tenant to City services and resources in the event that landlords are not meeting this obligation. Cambridge should develop this resource and implement a similar requirement. This term, Councillor Siddiqui has done great work leading the Tenant Protections Task Force, and I have supported - and will continue to support - the recommendations that come out of her work.
What should the city do to increase walking, biking, and transit usage in Cambridge?
We need to ensure that we have safe infrastructure for both pedestrians and cyclists, which includes completing the Cambridge Bicycle Plan and continuing to identify critical connectors for protected bike lanes. We also need to be proactive with sidewalk repairs and greater invest in infrastructure that reduces mobility barriers for seniors and people with disabilities. This past summer, I was supportive of my colleague Michelle Wu in her protest of the MBTA fare hikes, as the revenue needs of the MBTA should not be borne on the backs of low-income riders. I am in favor of raising state taxes and making the T free for all Massachusetts residents. The city should also seek to find ways to make MBTA passes free, or heavily subsidized, for all Cambridge residents to increase bus and T ridership and reduce car trips by residents.
What should the city do, if anything, to increase funding for housing affordability?
We have millions of dollars in budget surpluses every year, and this money should go to funding affordable housing. The Council has asked the City Manager’s office for $20 million every year for the next five years, which is just the beginning of what is needed to fund the necessary housing. In addition to directly funding projects, we need to be funding legal aid, anti-displacement funds, grants for emergency moves, and our Homebridge program at a greater level.
What other steps should the city take, if any, to encourage and fund the development of more homes, including market-rate and affordable housing, in Cambridge?
Similar to my answer above, we should use our budget surplus and strong financial status to directly partner with CHA and our nonprofit developers to increase the City’s share of funding for affordable projects. Cambridge also has a comparatively low corporate tax rate, and we should be requiring corporations that are displacing residents to do more. I am in favor of establishing an anti-displacement fund, to be paid by corporations, that would be paid directly to the Affordable Housing Trust to fund more affordable units and other housing resources.
What other measures do you support that will affect housing or development in Cambridge, which you have not yet gotten a chance to talk about? (Optional)
As I mentioned before, I would again emphasize the importance of doing the hard but necessary racial equity work when it comes to reforming our Zoning Ordinance. I learned the importance of putting racial equity work front and center as Chair of the Arts Task Force, where we addressed these issues at our very first substantive meeting so that every conversation after would be through this lens. Our public process system is also heavily skewed towards the people who show up: white, wealthy homeowners who are typically retired and have the resources of time and money to come to hours-long meetings. We need to rethink our public process to engage a broader audience, including those who are most directly impacted by the housing crisis. Congresswoman Pressley did this masterfully at a recent housing forum I attended, where the entire audience was all under 35, mostly renters, and reflective of our diverse community. By engaging a local expert who shared their perspectives, Congresswoman Pressley amplified the voices of young renters, whose perspectives aren’t always at the table but desperately need to be heard, as they are a vulnerable population. Through my weekly podcast with Councillor Siddiqui, I have connected with a wider audience, and during my second term I look forward to constantly innovating how we communicate and reach out to members of our community who don't have the time or energy to participate meaningfully in an outdated public process format.
Aside from housing and development issues, what are some major policy priorities that you hope to push for on the City Council?
Anti-poverty advocacy is my top priority on the Council. I have done critical work to address food insecurity and closing the gaps in childhood hunger by ensuring that hot breakfast is served to every child in every school and expanding our summer meals program to include City-funded sites. Workforce development is also key to financial stability, especially for kids seeking an alternative pathway to a four-year college. I have helped revive the Cambridge Police Cadet program, which allows 18-23 year olds to work for CPD as a fully paid and benefited employee until they are eligible to join the Academy, and I am working on a Building Pathways pilot to give youth more access to union apprenticeships. To ensure that we’re directly investing in and aiding our residents, I partnered with the Mayor’s Office and Councillor Siddiqui to work on establishing a Children’s Savings Account pilot program so that the City partners with a local financial institution and invests in our kids from birth, and a domestic violence survivors’ grant program, which gives small dollar grants to DV survivors to cover DV related expenses such as hospital bills or repairs to damaged property. I am hoping to continue this much needed advocacy on the Council next term.
What have you done to advance the goals you’ve described in your answers above in your own work?
When residents think of our City government at work, they most often think of our Monday night meetings and introducing policy orders. But that is only a small part of a job that for me, has been about being out in the community to understand first hand our residents’ needs, and being someone who brings all stakeholders together to get real work done. I am not someone who introduces policy orders hoping progress will be made without following through. The real work in this job comes from the unseen, behind the scenes work of the follow-up meetings with City staff, volunteering in the community, talking with constituents, asking “who is not here?” and inviting them to the table to be heard. It’s about facilitating - and leading - tough but necessary conversations about how we can best move forward. Although I have only been on the Council one term, I believe my work has had an immediate and positive impact on this community. In addition to what I’ve mentioned above, I have championed initiatives like the Police Cadet Program and Central Square BID that have been languishing for years without an advocate and gotten them done. I responded effectively to an arts community in crisis, and led by listening; as Chair of the Arts Task Force, I’ve successfully advocated for an extra $2 million to the arts budget this year, am in the process of reforming our licensing and permitting process, and have dozens of recommendations left to come. My deep understanding of our City processes and commitment to my work have made me an effective Councillor, and I will continue my results-driven work next term.