What do you think are the causes of Cambridge’s high-priced housing market?
Cambridge has exploded in popularity as a destination for high-tech workers, students, retirees, people who want exceptional access to all aspects of the greater-Boston area, families who want a good school system in a more urban area and all sorts of other people. The global trend of people moving towards cities, especially coastal cities in the US, increases Cambridge’s natural pull as does the cachet that comes with a Cambridge address. The forces of population expansion are further increased because so many other parts of America, and the world, have relatively little to offer by comparison. Whether compared to job-poor upstate Maine or another country, Cambridge and the greater-Boston region shine as an area of opportunity. As a result, Cambridge’s population has increased dramatically in the past decade, rising by 13,000 residents since 2010 while the greater-Boston population has swelled by over 500,000 since 1990. This vastly larger population, which is also affluent, puts a strain on housing stock.
But new housing production, in Cambridge and throughout the region, is not expanding to meet the increased demand at a rate that would keep housing prices level. Additionally, Cambridge and the larger region is deemed by many to be a safe place to invest in properties even if one does not plan on living in them full time, whether they are second homes, short-term rental properties or simply places where people “park” money when global markets are volatile.
Cambridge’s low tax rate is also a factor in the City’s high housing costs, at least as far as purchasing property goes. People can afford a ‘nut’ of mortgage, insurance, expenses and taxes. To the extent that taxes are low, the mortgage part of the ‘nut’ can be higher and that is reflected in property prices. For renters, Cambridge’s desirability as a place drives up the amount people are willing to pay to live here and, in the City’s strong high-tech environment, many people are able to pay that amount.
How have high housing prices affected Cambridge and the surrounding region?
Housing prices impact where people live, how far commute, what jobs they’re able to take given the cost of commuting and so forth. Housing insecurity and related transitions result in challenged school attendance issues with resulting challenges in the education itself as students move from school district to school district. People worry rent increases will force them or their friends out of their current homes, destabilizing relationships and, in some cases, larger neighborhoods. People looking for specific types of housing in Cambridge, including single family homes, have difficulty finding something they like that they can afford and wind up living further from Cambridge, often commuting into Cambridge or through Cambridge to Boston for work.
The high price of housing has also led to gentrification in Cambridge and other municipalities in the area, including Boston neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain, Brighton and South Boston, with whiter and higher educated residents typically being better able to afford higher rents or purchase prices than their less privileged counterparts. This gentrification then leads to an increase in higher-priced secondary markets such as local shops and personal services aimed at supporting the newly gentrified region, making the area even less affordable for low income residents.
Conversely, the inability to afford rent near their work creates challenges that are especially hard for low-income workers who, for example, can see much of their day’s wages wiped out by the cost of a long Uber ride home because the T provides limited after-hours options. Employers have trouble keeping employees in jobs such as dishwashers because the combination of low pay, awkward hours and relatively high cost of commuting has a major negative effect on the realized hourly wages people make. This challenge of finding and keeping employees also has negative repercussions for the very businesses that are part of what brings people here in the first place.
What housing options currently exist for low-income tenants who are not high on the affordable housing waitlists? How can Cambridge help them?
Low-income tenants face numerous challenges in finding housing as they compete against more affluent residents, and would-be residents, attracted to the region’s high-quality schools and high-paying jobs in addition to retirees and others with the money to enter our housing market at a higher price point. To meet these challenges, low-income tenants may have to have roommates or live in smaller or otherwise less desirable, and thus less expensive, apartments or they may need to move to less expensive towns or cities. Cambridge can alleviate, but not eliminate these challenges by providing additional housing opportunities such as encouraging more accessory dwelling units (I wrote zoning that made ADUs easier to build), changing the definition of “Family” in the zoning code and expanding options for boarding houses to allow more people to live in multi-room units than is often the case now, more aggressively enforcing its Short-Term Rental ordinance (which I also wrote) to put more units back on the traditional rental market and creating a planning theme that encourages the building of more units, especially in areas around subway stops. Cambridge can also decrease construction costs per unit by eliminating parking requirements but that would most impact low-impact tenants if the parking reduction were coupled with an increase in lower-priced units. Cambridge could also increase the linkage fee and use those funds to promote affordable housing.
How does new market-rate residential development affect the affordability of Cambridge? How does new affordable housing affect the affordability of Cambridge?
More housing of any sort will decrease the pressure on housing overall, but it’s not a simple “build more and housing becomes cheaper” equation. Places like NYC, especially Manhattan, are great examples of how high density does not necessarily lead to low, or even lower, costs. Nonetheless, the building of new multi-unit buildings has created a large number of units that, anecdotally, has helped flatten the rent increases in wood-frame rental units as more rental options become available. For market-rate tenants, whether alone or with roommates, this is welcome news but this increase in market rate units, at any price, does not automatically increase the availability of regulated affordable units even though it does reduce pressure on what is called ‘middle income’ units. The inclusionary zoning that comes with larger multi-family units has been the major factor in the increase of regulated affordable units in Cambridge for several years.
What is the relationship between the twin crises of climate change and housing unaffordability? How can Cambridge address both?
Climate change can best be combatted, and sustainability best achieved, through density and decreased consumption. Dense housing is best created through very small, flexible units served by accessible, dependable transit. Shared group amenities from gyms to kitchens to common spaces for entertaining, limited parking and a focus on quality construction and relationship management (a business that turns challenging roommate situations into successful relationships, allowing people to feel more comfortable with more roommates and neighbors to worry less about living next to a “party” house) will help this housing succeed. Expanding opportunities to access other resources, such as cars rented through Turo and encouraging off-site property storage services will further reduce the need for expensive, unsustainable personal space.
To help accomplish this level of dense living, Cambridge should redefine “Family” in its zoning code. I have written possible language but have been unable to find anyone to submit it as a zoning change. Cambridge should also incentivize building changes that encourage both density and sustainability. I wrote a proposed zoning change that would do just that, allowing extra height and FAR in exchange for better insulation and on-site stormwater management, but unfortunately that proposal did not pass.
Essentially, Cambridge has three tools at its disposal to guide development. Providing density incentives, land and financial support. With its large excess levy capacity, Cambridge should do a better job of setting clear goals, both for housing and sustainability, and then altering our laws and raising enough funds through taxes to pay to meet those goals. These funds, to be used to help create ADUs that become regulated affordable housing, for example, could be available through grants or revolving loans. Relying too much on just one part, such as incentive through zoning without financial or technical assistance, will not be as successful.
What effects might more housing in Cambridge have on quality of life or the environment?
The type of housing built, and the quality of its construction and management, plays a major part in defining its impact on both the quality of life and the environment. Lavish, spacious buildings with excess parking are more impactful on the environment than more spartan buildings with less space for both the inhabitants and their cars but it can be less pleasant to live in a poorly designed, spartan building than its more spacious counterpart. Also, larger buildings that fill up building lots leave little room for, and often remove, trees and other greenspace, with an immediate negative impact on the environment while, conversely, denser housing allows fewer lots to be built on to provide the same amount of housing units. And the removal of existing housing stock to replace it with new buildings of any type can be destabilizing for a neighborhood, lead to increases in the prices of nearby housing stock and create a feeling of destructive change for those people who see their viewsheds change, experience more traffic and parking pressure, and watch their neighbors leave. Adding to the anxiety of change is the impact on smaller local businesses when the buildings in which they are located get redeveloped- it is very unlikely the businesses will come back unless there are huge subsidies and assistance programs involved. For people whose local lives have been intertwined with sidewalk level interactions with local businesses, seeing them get replaced, whether by housing or some other type of retail/commercial use (or just empty rooms) can be very painful.
Do you support the Affordable Housing Overlay? Please explain.
No: The goal of increasing housing options, at a variety of income points, is a worthy one that that City should aggressively support but the AHO is an ineffective way to meet our housing challenges. The unanticipated consequences of parcel assembly, possible redevelopment of existing affordable properties (with associated displacement of tenants), possible (if not probable) influx of new investment dollars that would vastly magnify development pressures in our already dense city and the lack of enforceable standards to keep large, and ugly, “Arlington Pill Boxes” from dominating Cambridge’ current eclectic mix of housing indicate a housing policy that, essentially, is trying to build affordable housing without the City’s spending much money on it. This desire to do things cheaply is destabilizing in itself, is regionally short-sighted and will ultimately fail at giving Cambridge, and the region, the innovative new housing options we need to meet our housing challenges.
The density of all of Cambridge could be increased to provide more housing, to include affordable housing, but doing so without acknowledging that forcing density at an East Cambridge level, a place where density has grown organically over many decades and where access to jobs, transit and more is high, onto a place like West Cambridge, with much less access to those things, via new, larger buildings that clash with the neighborhood does not acknowledge the value of our city’s architectural history in making it the wonderful place it is.
The City needs to be more willing to use tax dollars to supplement projects whose high density, without greater financial subsidies, would itself be destabilizing. Ultimately, of course, the City needs to set a numerical goal for housing units and residents of all incomes and then figure out how to use its zoning and budget powers to both meet that goal and to appropriately support its new and existing residents with schools, transit improvements and so forth.
Would you support eliminating parking minimums for new housing development citywide? Please explain.
Yes: Requiring minimum parking spaces is poor policy and I would support both changing that policy and increasing the cost of parking stickers to at least cover the expenses of running that program. Required parking adds to a development’s cost and, as pointed out in the book “Edge City,” often defines what the development itself looks like. Cambridge, and the region, needs to transition from single car occupancy and dense car ownership to a future of shared car rides and ownership and increased use of things that are not cars, like bikes, scooters and so forth. My wife and I owned cars when we, and our family, were younger but have been car-free for the past 12 years. We understand the value and convenience of owning a car, especially with young kids, but we also understand the simplicity of not having to worry about car ownership. More importantly, though, we understand the logistical challenges of not owning a car, the challenges of borrowing one to travel long distances as a family or the uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous realities that one has to endure when travelling without a car. That life is not for everyone.
New housing development need enough spaces to meet ADA access requirements and larger developments need space for deliveries and short-term visitors to access the building. Any parent will tell you that being able to do a quick pickup or drop-off for a playdate is often the difference between interacting with other families or feeling isolated and, understandably, many parents are more comfortable transporting their children, and other people’s, via car.
Transitioning to a different attitude towards private car ownership and use will be bumpy and even under the best of circumstances, biking can be very dangerous but there are many other ways to move around besides bikes and cars, to include walking, and to the extent we chose policies that encourage car ownership we are likely to remain as traffic congested as we are now.
Would you support abolishing these restrictions by establishing citywide minimum zoning that allows more multifamily housing? Please explain.
Generally: Housing multiple residents in a building is an important way of meeting our housing needs. In general, I support the idea of expanded multi-family options, but in my view this question is not fundamentally different from the AHO question with the exception that there would not be income restrictions. Absent seeing a zoning suggestion, or even broad suggested requirements, to include things like proposed change to setbacks, height restrictions and so forth, I cannot take a stronger position about my support for such a proposal.
What measures in particular should Cambridge adopt to prevent tenant displacement?
In a market-based housing economy, being able to successfully participate in the job market is the single most important factor in being able to find housing. To get a job that provides competitive wages and benefits, though, people need a strong educational foundation. It is no cliché to say that education is a civil right. Job-rich Kendall Square puts pressure on local housing costs that too many CRLS graduates are not able to meet because they have not received the quality education necessary to land the well-paying jobs at places like Google or Facebook.
Over the last 17 years, CPS’ achievement gap, as measured by 8th grade math MCAS scores, has actually increased and in 2018 roughly 70% of CPS’ African-American 8th grade students performed below grade level on that test. While MCAS exams are only part of our educational picture, the disparity in results makes it clear that we have a two-tiered educational system and are not preparing all of our students to get well-paying jobs here in Cambridge or elsewhere in America. Since getting on Council I have pressed for the City to be more aggressive in ensuring our residents, of all ages and backgrounds, get the education required to have both housing and employment options. I have often been the only political figure in either the School Committee or the City Council to argue that the untapped financial resources of Cambridge should be used to explore and implement programs that would break this generational wealth gap.
Cambridge should put more resources towards assistance such as immigrant legal aid (immigrants with legal counsel are much more likely to win their cases than those without) and homeless assistance (to include creating a secure storage system for personal belongings, a proposal I recently submitted to the Participatory Budgeting program), but the way we will most effectively provide greater housing equity is to provide a more equitable, higher quality education to all of our residents.
What should the city do to increase walking, biking, and transit usage in Cambridge?
The first thing Cambridge, and ABC AF, should do is expand the discussion beyond the increasingly obsolete thought that somehow “biking” is the only option to getting around town besides cars, walking and public transit. We are currently experiencing a transportation revolution that is going to open up a variety of new options for other vehicles such as E-bikes, scooters, mobility assistive devices and more, whether privately owned or part of a rental fleet. These new Micromobility platforms offer transportation options that we need to plan for and embrace, from rethinking our parking rules (to include our bike parking regulations), emphasizing street maintenance programs to more proactively avoid the creation of, and also fix, street hazards like potholes and crevices, providing public charging stations and more. CPD needs to much more aggressively enforce traffic rules, to include keeping cyclists (and similar devices) off of sidewalks so pedestrians, especially seniors and people with disabilities, can travel on them without worry.
Beyond embracing Micromobility to ensure both the safety and effectiveness of this mode of transportation, the City needs to mark the pavement in bus stops (and provide more parking enforcement) to keep those spaces open for buses, which are a heavily used part of our transit system. Ridesharing vehicles need to be more clearly marked so that their sudden and erratic curb access is not as dangerous for other road users, especially cyclists and similar vehicles. The state, through the DPU, should charge more per ride and Cambridge should get more than the current ten cents, money we can use to improve our street and sidewalk safety programs. Taxis, which provide more equitable transportation options than ridesharing without abusive price surging, should be able to use bus priority lanes. The City should also, at a minimum, charge enough for parking permits to cover the cost of running our parking permit program.
What should the city do, if anything, to increase funding for housing affordability?
The City should work with the State House to draft and pass Home Rule Legislation that allows Cambridge to levy property taxes on institutions with large holdings in Cambridge such as Harvard and MIT with the specific aim for that revenue to be used to provide funding for affordable housing. The amount of revenue raised in this fashion would dwarf both the institutions' PILOT programs and any side donations they make to local housing institutions.
The City should also work with regional municipalities and planning agencies such as the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to review and alter the state’s revenue laws to allow municipalities to share localized property tax revenue beyond municipal borders. For Cambridge’s revenue streams of Kendall Square and Alewife or Boston’s revenue streams of Seaport and Downtown to be unavailable to other local municipalities despite the need for all local governments to work together to address climate change and resiliency, housing pressures, transportation constraints and more is self-defeating. These are regional problems require us to rethink the role, and power, of strong Home Rule governance.
On its own, Cambridge has not reached its Proposition 2.5 tax levy limit and can and should, though not without a lot of thought, raise its tax rate to provide new funds for important programs. While low taxes are attractive to property owners, as is using ‘Free Cash’ to decrease needed tax levies on an annual basis, the reality is that nothing, whether improved schools or a more comprehensive affordable housing program, is inexpensive and we need to be willing to pay more in taxes to support these communal civic goals. This sort of tax increase must be in conjunction with the city’s setting specific goals that the additional funds would accomplish, thus providing a level of accountability in revenue streams’ producing measurable and agreed upon results that simply putting money into our general, unrestricted funds does not.
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?
Cambridge should redefine the term “Families” to allow more than three unrelated people to live in a dwelling unit, up to however many people sanitation and similar codes would allow to live in such a unit. Cambridge should also change zoning to allow boarding houses in Residential A and B zones, which would accomplish much the same goal. We should more aggressively enforce our Short Term Rental ordinance, a law that I wrote and got passed last term that both allows and regulates short-term rentals and which had the immediate effect of removing many short-term listings from platforms such as AirBnb. I’m working now to get the City to require registration notification in the listing itself, something which would need nothing from the platform and thus should not be vulnerable to legal challenge while at the same time providing more enforcement abilities to City staff.
The City should also further expand opportunities for property owners to create Accessory Dwelling Units, following up on legislation I wrote and got passed this term, offering low-interest loans to help property owners chose to install ADUs in exchange for meeting specific affordability criteria. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the City has to aggressively monitor the status of expiring use buildings, such as two of the three towers on Rindge Ave, and work with their owners to either extend their affordability or to help affordable housing providers such as Just-A-Start purchase them to keep them affordable in perpetuity.
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?
I want City staff to recognize the importance of emerging transportation options in moving us away from our reliance on congestion-causing personal cars. At best, the City’s efforts along these lines, to include the traffic enforcement and safety education outreach programs necessary to create safe streets (and sidewalks) for all, are currently anemic and lack transformative vision.
I also want to help our community rethink policing. In particular, that we continue to have police details at construction sites, costing from 6-8% of the TOTAL construction cost of a project with no particular proof of improved traffic safety is crazy and wasteful. Policing is a super challenging job, requiring officers to shift from mental health worker to traffic safety professional to anti-terrorist warrior at any time. It is also a physically demanding and, at times, very dangerous job. That we have, with CPD’s blessing, a system that pays officers to, literally, stand around a construction site rather than reshaping our compensation system to pay our officers a professional wage while giving them the professional training and support they need to properly carry out their job is an example of governance at its worst. Policing is an important and challenging profession and we should treat it as such.
Similarly, I want Cambridge to advance the joint worlds of cybersecurity and privacy protection. I’d like to expand the City’s, and CPD’s, cyber arms, creating a pool of experts to provide our residents and businesses with the flexibility and focused expertise that companies such as Facebook or Google have recognized they need to protect their many crucial digital systems from intentional and disaster-related threats such as the ransomware attacks that have crippled cities like Baltimore in the recent past. I also want to expand our privacy ordinance and related civic education efforts to expand governmental and personal protection of privacy in our digital heavy world.
What have you done to advance the goals you’ve described in your answers above in your own work?
This past term I organized two Micromobility events, bringing together experts, users, policy makers, advocates and more, including members of our disability community, to explore the future of transportation in Cambridge. I have advocated for a more aggressive Micromobility program within City government, helped create a relationship between City staff and data management experts and between staff and the Volpe Transportation Center as I push Cambridge to truly rethink transportation in urban areas. I submitted vehicle sharing zoning that would legalize peer-to-peer car sharing throughout Cambridge, something that has been shown to significantly decrease individual car ownership. I am working with representatives of the taxi industry to help improve safety and accessibility shortcomings of TNCs and am working on a Home Rule petition to allow Cambridge to promote the safety of TNCs.
This term, I wrote and got passed zoning language that makes creating new residential units in existing properties easier. Last term I wrote and got passed groundbreaking zoning laws that regulated and legalized short-term rentals in Cambridge. These two zoning changes are arguably the most impactful zoning changes regarding housing creation and availability that Cambridge has seen in recent years. I also wrote and got passed an ordinance prohibiting smoking on construction sites, a law that should help prevent housing loss and displacement in the future as occurred in East Cambridge a three years ago when improperly disposed smoking material started a multi-building fire.
I continue to lead the civic discussion around privacy and cybersecurity as a function of local governance, especially relevant to the risk of over-policing communities of color. At my request, my assistant (I’ve been fortunate to work with very talented aides) created a map of shootings in Cambridge for the past four years, a data visualization program that helped focus public safety efforts and infrastructure improvements where they will be most effective. Also at my request, my assistant created a graph that illustrates a long-term decrease in CPD traffic citations, data that I am using to help the City, and CPD, rethink how to improve street safety efforts. My assistant and I reviewed 8th grade math MCAS results to dramatically illustrate the educational inequities that plague our school system and that cripple the ability of many of our less privileged students to effectively participate in the local job and housing markets. I’ve used this data-driven work to introduce Policy Orders, influence budget discussions and guide civic discussions to produce a more equitable, inclusive City in multiple venues.
I have helped the City focus on the need to become resilient to climate change. While it did not pass, I introduced what may have been the City’s first resiliency-oriented zoning change, one that incentivized insulation and drainage improvements in exchange for modest increases in FAR and height in certain flat roofed structures.
I plan to vote for the parking disposition to allow the Courthouse renovation project to go forward, illustrating my ability to make decisions based on what I think is best for the City despite heavy lobbying by, in this case, supporters who would rather the LM project be halted even at the expense of leaving an empty hulk looming over the neighborhood and declining benefits such as multiple affordable housing units, community space and more.