Ben Simon

What do you think are the causes of Cambridge’s high-priced housing market?

The cause of the housing crisis in Cambridge and all over the West is the commodified housing system we have under capitalism. This morally bankrupt system sees and causes individuals under the sway of its logic to see a house as primarily an investment vehicle and only secondarily as structure with a social function.

How have high housing prices affected Cambridge and the surrounding region?

High housing costs in greater Boston have meant increased rates of displacement and homelessness. It has also meant that low-income workers who do all sorts of necessary labor in Cambridge and other cities are forced to commute ever longer distances to their jobs, robbing them of leisure and further impoverishing their lives through the high cost of commuting.

What housing options currently exist for low-income tenants who are not high on the affordable housing waitlists? How can Cambridge help them?

I am a low-income renter and I am on the waitlist for public housing. Because there is nowhere near enough housing to house all that qualify for public housing, the list is incredibly long, and I and thousands of others in my position depend on the ever-shrinking number of actually existing relatively affordable apartments on the private market to stay in Cambridge. This housing however is disappearing as our city pursues a "build-baby-build" strategy to address the housing crisis, driving up land values, rents and increasing speculation. To help people in my position, it would be wonderful if Cambridge would stop encouraging endless displacement-driving development like Mass + Main, giant biotech campuses, etc and secondly stop trusting to market actors that benefit from the housing crisis to solve it and instead build city-owned social housing. The private sector is not the place for affordable housing because, as it is held to a business model, it is never going to provide adequate housing for extremely low-income renters such as myself. Additionally Cambridge desperately needs tenant protection to keep low-income renters in the housing they already have, most importantly rent control and just cause eviction.

How does new market-rate residential development affect the affordability of Cambridge? How does new affordable housing affect the affordability of Cambridge?

Realistically market-rate should be called luxury: almost no one in the country can afford "market-rate" apartments in Cambridge and neither can many of those of us living here who are displaced as a direct consequence of their being built. When you build luxury apartments, you drive up the value of surrounding land along with rents, fueling displacement and homelessness, particularly of vulnerable low-income renters.

I live next to Mass + Main, and since its construction began, my landlord, who had previously only raised our rent once in 10 years, raised our rent a significant amount. He cited higher rents in the area as the reason. Additionally since the construction of Mass + Main began, there has been a rash of buildings that were formerly had relatively affordable apartments, being bought and redeveloped in my neighborhood, only after evicting all the tenants there.

"Market-rate" housing is luxury housing and its development is one of the primary drivers of displacement.

The term "affordable housing" has been stretched to near meaninglessness by its abuse by private developers. It's difficult to answer the second part of this question therefore since the term can be used to apply to housing that's massively different in how affordable it is and is produced in different ways.

Inclusionary zoning as a method of affordable housing production is net bad for affordability. The market housing it adds drives displacement of low-income renters who frequently make too little money to even afford the "affordable" inclusionary units it's attached to.

100% affordable housing in the private sector is potentially better, but will never be able to adequately address the actual needs of low-income renters or providing housing for people experiencing homelessness due to its being constrained to a business model.

Affordable housing built in the public sector is therefore the sort of affordable housing we should be building to make Cambridge truly affordable.

What is the relationship between the twin crises of climate change and housing unaffordability? How can Cambridge address both?

The relationship between climate change and housing affordability is that both are symptoms of capitalism. The profit incentive, enshrined as the highest virtue in capitalist ideology, is the both what got us to the current moment of crisis in both cases and in both cases it is the profit motive that prevents us from responding rationally and quickly to the crises. To address them, we need to decouple the profit motive entirely from our response by attacking both problems as massive public works issues. A Green New Deal for Cambridge should mean the construction of thousands of truly affordable, LEED Zero, city-owned social housing units, financed by significantly increasing taxes on our local 1%: Harvard, MIT, and big business.

What effects might more housing in Cambridge have on quality of life or the environment?

That depends entirely on what kind of housing it is and how much. The answer also depends on whose quality of life you have in mind. For example, building more market rate housing will perhaps increase the quality of life for some wealthier at the expense of displacing others whose lives will likely be made much worse. More public housing on the other hand could mean dignity and stability for thousands of people that are housing insecure or experiencing homelessness.

As mentioned above, green, dense city-owned social housing can address both concerns at once by cutting out market actors on the private sector whose bottom lines will always be in conflict with a response commensurate to the level of the crisis.

Do you support the Affordable Housing Overlay? Please explain.

No: I believe that we are completely deluding ourselves by acting like market-based solutions are going to fix a crisis that the markets have made in the first place. We need to stop relying on private developers to fix this and instead demand that government directly build housing to address this emergency, as well as enact desperately needed tenant protections.

Would you support eliminating parking minimums for new housing development citywide? Please explain.

No: Restrictions like this are one of the few bits of leverage the city has over profit-crazed developers who are turning Cambridge into a luxury product. The city can supply itself with variances to build its own affordable housing. We need less, not more involvement from the private sector.

Would you support abolishing these restrictions by establishing citywide minimum zoning that allows more multifamily housing? Please explain.

No: I think it is overly simplistic to argue that low-density zoning=exclusion and high-density zoning=inclusion. I would support building more multifamily housing in many parts of Cambridge that are now not zoned for it, but I certainly don't support this across the city. In the Port, higher density constructions are part and parcel with displacement and gentrification and here our white population has gone up by 10% in the past 6 years while the black population has gone down 7%. I am concerned that in an area like this, with communities vulnerable to displacement, a sweeping zoning change like this would incentivize land speculation and increase displacement.

What measures in particular should Cambridge adopt to prevent tenant displacement?

As I've said above, I believe the housing crisis created by our commodified housing system is far more complicated than to be simply fixed by increasing housing supply. First off adding market-rate housing I believe makes the crisis worse. Additionally the assumption here seems to be that demand is constant but demand is constantly being stoked ever higher by commercial development. So on that last piece, I think a key aspect of a meaningful response by the city to this crisis would be to acknowledge the role commercial development plays in intensifying it and to stop green-lighting these projects. This would not require a home rule petition; it would simply require the city to snap out of its neoliberal mindset that refuses to see how development and tenant displacement are connected and to acknowledge what should be obvious--that the City's obligation to keep tenants from being displaced should be held above its "obligation" to sit by meekly while already insanely wealthy market actors enrich themselves further by disposing of their lands in ways that cause displacement.

Tenant protections like rent control and just cause eviction are also essential tools for preventing displacement. These would require a home rule petition or state action, but there is currently a bill, H. 3924, that would allow cities all over Massachusetts to enact tenant protections. The city council should pass a resolution in support of this and any similar bills.

What should the city do to increase walking, biking, and transit usage in Cambridge?

Fight to make the MBTA free by taxing the rich. Improve bike infrastructure and/or close certain streets to auto traffic, leaving them instead for cyclists and pedestrians.

What should the city do, if anything, to increase funding for housing affordability?

Increase taxes on our local 1% who are both profiting from exacerbating our housing crisis: Harvard, MIT, big tech, big pharma, etc. Different mechanisms should be explored, implemented such as a head tax like the one nearly implemented in Seattle or a land value tax.

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?

The city should not encourage market-rate housing construction. It's not enough to simply build housing; the city also needs to stop making the housing affordability crisis worse by encouraging the endless increase of land values though commercial and luxury residential development. Once we've stopped making the problem worse, we should build our own social housing modeled after the social housing in Vienna.

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)

Aside from housing and development issues, what are some major policy priorities that you hope to push for on the City Council?

The creation of municipal jobs to employ the many low-income residents who our increasingly tech and research focused job market is leaving out of the picture is something I think

We should also be concerned with the loss of diversity in our retail businesses, in particular the loss of affordable eateries and grocery stores. Commercial rent control, a tax on vacant storefronts, tax subsidies for affordable businesses or the city operating as a landlord for such a business are all ways to address this concern I think we should explore.

A particular type of business we're losing a lot of is arts spaces, both performance spaces and spaces for making art. Again I think the city needs to step in here. Commercial rent is too high for these businesses to be viable in the private sector, so the city should step in and build a city-owned rehearsal performance space to replace the ones we've lost, in particular EMF.

What have you done to advance the goals you’ve described in your answers above in your own work? 

I was a lead organizer in the fight to save EMF, the only affordable music rehearsal space in all of Cambridge from destruction by a predatory developer, who, unfortunately for us, has considerable influence in the city. Although we weren't able to stay in the building, the experience taught me and my fellow artist-organizers an incredible lesson both about the powers of organizing and the the ways in which our city government is failing to represent the interests of all its residents.

After this experience, I sat on the Mayor's Arts Task Force which confirmed all the more that many of our city councilors are unwilling to even talk about the negative impact "development" has on many communities in our city. This latter experience solidified my decision to run for the council, as I know I my own displacement and that of many others is assured unless we have a city government willing to stand up to the power of real estate developers and big landlords.

I have also been active in the campaign to prevent the privatization of the Sullivan Courthouse and its redevelopment into a giant luxury office tower abomination that would displace who knows how many working class people from the surrounding area. I've knocked hundreds of doors for this effort and have mostly met with like-minded residents in the process.