Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler

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

We have a housing crisis in Cambridge and much of the Boston region. According to the city’s own data from the Community Development Department, the median rent for a 1-bedroom apartment is $2,300/month and the median condo costs $767,500.

Much like healthcare, housing is currently treated as a commodity rather than a human right. When it’s in short supply, the current owners of it charge high prices because they know they’ll be able to find people willing to pay it to have a roof over their heads.

Two main factors are driving the high price of housing in Cambridge. The first is that we have less housing than is needed, both in Cambridge, and in the region. We need more affordable and public housing, and we need to end red-line era exclusionary zoning holdovers that prevent the addition of triple-deckers, duplexes and other apartments in large parts of Cambridge. The second reason is that we lack many crucial tenant protections which would slow the direct impact of housing cost increases on tenants, including right of first refusal, right to counsel, just cause evictions, and rent control. Because the value of the land in Cambridge continues to increase so dramatically decade after decade, we can feel confident that increased tenant protections will not actually slow construction of new housing units in Cambridge.

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

Cambridge is unfortunately on track to become a place that most people can only afford to settle in if they have a six-figure salary. According to Cambridge’s recent Envision report, we’ve lost thousands of low- and middle-income residents in the last decade because of high housing costs.

I work at a non-profit and have friends who are teachers. We see ourselves getting pushed out of the city by rent increases and the high cost to buy a home (even a 1-bedroom apartment costs nearly $500,000 on average). If we don’t take action, Cambridge risks losing the economic diversity that has been part of its character for a long time and makes it a vibrant place to live.

Two-thirds of all Cambridge residents rent, and the cost of rent has increased far faster than the rate of wage growth, putting a serious squeeze on most renters I know. Year after year, we lose residents who can no longer afford to live in Cambridge and have to move farther out from the core of the Metro Boston area.

All too often those who are forced to move are the most vulnerable in our society. Cambridge has done a great job of being a welcoming, Sanctuary city for immigrants. But many of those same immigrants are forced to leave our city due to the high housing costs and settle in areas that may not have sanctuary protections.

High housing prices have benefited homeowners lucky enough to have purchased their homes decades ago and who have seen large appreciations in their net worth due to the increase in the value of their housing. However, for most renters and people who would like to move into Cambridge, the price of a home has become cost-prohibitive for anyone making close to the median household income in Massachusetts (~$77k).

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 may have the ability to apply for certain federal or state housing subsidies and programs, and the city of Cambridge should help them access such services through an Office of Housing Stability or other city department. In truth however, the main way the city of Cambridge will be able to help these residents is by seeking to expand the number of deeply affordable housing units in the city, and to pass a series of tenant protections to help keep tenants in their homes.

We need to dramatically increase funding for affordable housing in Cambridge as the federal government has made it clear they aren’t interested in expanding public housing. This requires a more aggressive approach in raising revenue and planning for budget outlays for affordable housing from our city government.

This is also why tenant protections and rent control are important—because low-income renters who aren’t in affordable housing are more likely to be taken advantage of by landlords and management companies because they know these tenants have few other options. I’ve canvassed in too many buildings in Cambridge where tenants—many of them immigrants and people of color—complain about mold, leaks, and unresponsive management. Tenant protections like Right to Counsel, Just Cause Eviction, and Rental Relocation Assistance would be hugely helpful to these tenants. Rent stabilization measures would be as well—without rent control we risk creating two-classes of renters: those lucky enough to be in affordable units and those at the mercy of landlords and management companies in an incredibly expensive housing market.

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

New affordable housing provides more options for low- and middle-income tenants in an incredibly expensive housing market. It also helps tenants of all economic circumstances by providing a viable, decommodified alternative to housing run by corporate landlords and asset management companies.

Different cities find themselves in different specific circumstances, but in the case of Cambridge, new market-rate housing has provided more options for the middle, upper-middle, and high-income residents who can afford it. Cambridge has added hundreds of units of market-rate housing over the past decade even as we’ve lost hundreds of lower- and lower-middle income residents.

Different studies draw different conclusions about what impact an increase in new market-rate housing has on overall affordability. Some studies show the new market-rate housing bringing down prices overall through filtering while others show it possibly exacerbating displacement in some neighborhoods by accelerating gentrification. Likely the impacts depend a lot on the geographic and economic circumstances of the city studied and are hard to generalize broadly. What’s clear in Cambridge is that we need more housing that residents of all income levels can afford.

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

The Climate and Housing crises are linked. We need greater density, clustered around sustainable public transit (including protected bike lanes) to drive down carbon emissions. Sprawl and car-dependency exacerbate climate change and increase the amount of emissions per resident. By improving public transit, adding bike and bus-lanes, creating beautiful urban parks and green spaces and ending red-lining era exclusionary-zoning holdovers that prevent the creation of triple-deckers and apartments in large parts of our city, we can address climate change, economic inequality, and racial equity at the same time.

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

More housing in Cambridge has the potential to improve the quality of life and environment in Cambridge—but only if we push developers, asset management companies, and property owners to contribute to public transit, public parks, green spaces, and affordable housing. Part of the reason that cities like Cambridge have seen increasing populations is that more people now want to live in dense urban environments with local parks and shops rather than car-dependent suburbs.

We can create more housing in a way that improves the sustainability of our region if we’re improving public transit, investing in parks and green spaces, and preparing for climate change. This includes passing a real estate transfer fee and empowering neighbors to help craft Community Benefits Agreements like the recent agreement negotiated by the Union Square Neighborhood Council in Somerville, which will create additional neighborhood parks, support for local businesses, and more affordable housing units.

I also think that’s why we need to do everything in our power as a city to encourage the use of renewable energy and to get Cambridge to net zero emissions as rapidly as possible. We need to be encouraging new residents to skip bringing a car. Cambridge needs to invest in more protected bike lanes and bus priority lanes to ensure that public transit is a more attractive option for residents to use.

Do you support the Affordable Housing Overlay? Please explain.

Yes: I support the Affordable Housing Overlay; I lived in subsidized housing as a kid and have friends that live in public housing. The AHO makes it easier to build that kind of housing and the kind of high-quality, public affordable housing that is abundant in some countries and that we need more of in Cambridge. I don’t think anyone believes the AHO will solve all our problems, but it is an important first step.

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

Yes: As a recent MAPC report made clear, many parking spaces that are required to be built in new developments aren’t even being used and the average parking spot costs $15,000 to construct. Each unused parking spot is money and space that could be going to local parks or affordable housing. Traffic is the worst it’s ever been in Cambridge and the Boston area according to the Globe and encouraging more newcomers to bring cars to the city will only exacerbate congestion. Cambridge should instead work to dramatically improve public transit and pedestrian and bike infrastructure.

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

Yes: Yes, Cambridge—like many cities—is still grappling with the history of red-lining era exclusionary zoning and “urban renewal” where wealthier, typically white neighborhoods received more zoning restrictions and historically black and brown parts of the city were prioritized for “re-development.” Like most Cambridge residents, I live in a beautiful triple-decker building and couldn’t afford to live in anything other than an apartment because I work at a non-profit in Cambridge. But there are large parts of Cambridge where it’s illegal to build my home. Because of this, myself and most other people of color—who are more likely to make below the median income—are unable to live in some Cambridge neighborhoods.

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

I believe a number of tenant protections need to be passed by the city government which will require home rule (unless certain state bills like H.3924 are passed).

Those protections which require home rule include: 1. Rent Control. Cambridge previously had rent control, and tenants were protected from large rental increases passed along quickly (like the 20% rent increase one of our volunteers recently received). We should pass Rent Control for the 21st century in Cambridge, perhaps modeled along the lines of what Oregon just passed, which limits rental increases to a specific percentage + inflation during any 12 month period. 2. Just Cause Eviction. Landlords should not be able to evict tenants from their property no-fault. We must ensure we are promoting stability in our community. 3. Right of First Refusal / Tenant Right to Purchase. Tenants should have the opportunity to purchase the unit they live in at a fair-market rate, if the landlord is otherwise planning to sell the property to a third party. Granting tenants the option and a small time window to cobble together financing or work with an affordable housing developer or CDC .This policy can be used in concert with a Community Land Trust, which I will describe below. 4. Real Estate Transfer Fee. We need to pass a real estate transfer fee to raise funds for affordable housing while also discouraging speculation. 5. Right to Counsel. If tenants cannot afford to hire a lawyer to help them with their housing issues, the city of Cambridge should ensure they have access to one.
6. Establish an Office of Housing Stability. Cambridge should establish an office of Housing Stability in order to track publish eviction data and connect residents with resources. 7. Create a Rental Relocation Assistance Program. Cambridge can take the lead in establishing a rental relocation assistance program that takes into account the full cost of finding a new apartment.

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

We must commit to the full Cambridge bicycle plan of 20 miles of protected bicycle lanes, including on Mass Ave, Hampshire, and Mt Auburn Streets. Our new Cycling Safety Ordinance is a great step in the right direction, but there are still far too many places where it’s dangerous to ride a bike.

We also need municipal sidewalk snow removal like we currently have for the parts of our streets that cars drive on. Cambridge currently relies on a patchwork system of property owners clearing sidewalks when it snows. While this system is enforced on paper by fines, in reality it isn’t working—some parts of sidewalks are well-cleared in the winter, but other parts on the same block can be a mess. Better snow clearance will enable more residents to walk, especially seniors and residents with disabilities for whom winter sidewalks are especially dangerous currently.

We need bus priority lanes wherever possible in Cambridge. As the recent Mt Auburn St traffic study made clear, there are some streets in Cambridge where more than half of rush hour commuters travel by bus but more than 90% of the traffic is cars. Rush hour can result in much longer transit times for buses, leading residents to opt for using their own car or a ride-share service. If we prioritize bus traffic, and make it a joy to ride to work, we will incentivize residents to take the bus instead of driving, which will help reduce congestion and create a virtuous cycle.

We also have a plan to have the City of Cambridge make the MBTA free for our residents by 2025, by covering the cost of MBTA Charlie cards for residents. It will be paid for through a combination of congestion pricing and increased PILOTs from universities that have >$1Billion endowments. We'll be releasing details on costs for the program and how it would work in the coming weeks.

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

As the federal government and HUD under Donald Trump and Ben Carson have made clear funding for affordable housing isn't a priority for them, we need to massively step up our investment for it Cambridge. The city should pass a real-estate transfer fee to raise funds for affordable housing. We should also look into a progessive property tax to ensure that we’re raising revenue from wealthy property-owners without increasing the burden on working-class retirees on fixed-incomes. We should also push for increased Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs) from our universities with billion dollar endowments and explore a vacancy tax both to raise revenue and incentivize houses to be used as homes not solely as investments.

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 eliminate red-lining era exclusionary zoning holdovers that prevent the creation of triple-deckers and apartments in large parts of the city. Much of our current housing stock would be illegal to create under current zoning, and we need to look at the some of the arcane rules that prevent us from creating the diversity of housing that Cambridge has had for decades.

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)

Cambridge should create a Community Land Trust similar to what Somerville has started and scores of other cities including Burlington, VT, and Boston neighborhoods including Dudley Square and Chinatown in Boston, have done. Such an organization, if properly funded, would be able to purchase or be granted land in the city to make perpetually affordable. A CLT can be paired with a tenant right to purchase, where residents would be able to make a deal with the CLT where it would take ownership of the land, and the tenants would purchase the housing units (with some deed restriction to mandate they remain perpetually affordable.). I am passionate about solutions like this that will allow us to take portions of our housing stock out of the for-profit market, providing long term stability for our community. As Somerville City Councillor Ben Ewen-Campen has put it, “The best time to start a Community Land Trust was 30 years ago. The second best time is now.” Housing and land costs are likely going to get more expensive, and we need to prepare for it by creating more permanently affordable, off-the-market housing.

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

Fighting Climate Change by passing a Green New Deal for Cambridge, including making buses and subways fare free for city residents by 2025. I’ll push for bus priority lanes in the city and protected bike lanes to incentivize people to use cars less. We also need to develop an improved stormwater management system through the implementation of green infrastructure to supplement or replace aging “gray infrastructure. I also want to create a cambridge clean energy initiative to fund grants for energy efficiency projects, solar panel installation, local food production and green infrastructure.

I support investing in municipal broadband as a way of ensuring all residents have access to affordable broadband.

I want to provide free child care and translation services at all city meetings to ensure families and those whose first language isn’t English can participate in our city government to the fullest.

I’ll fight to make our democracy more accessible by creating a system of publicly financed municipal elections in Cambridge, and providing more opportunities for early voting.

I support our immigrant communities and want to ensure we are doing everything in our power to combat Trump’s racist immigration policies in our own city. I believe there are still opportunities for us to do more to ensure that the Cambridge police act in a way which makes our immigrant neighbors safer.

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

I’ve helped to organize tenants unions and support residents who face eviction, steep increases in rent, and poor living conditions like mold, lack of heat, and flooding with our DSA Housing Working Group and City Life Vida Urbana. I’ve helped provide Spanish to English translation at tenants’ union meetings and given renters rides to meet with pro-bono lawyers.

In my day job, I work with environmental programs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. I’ve collaborated with land trusts, academics, and land conservation practitioners to build a community of practice to promote resiliency, green infrastructure, and access to nature and open space. I’ve also learned about community development programs, tax policy, and urban planning from colleagues who have written publications on topics including Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs) and comparative tax law.

At Cambridge City Council meetings, I’ve advocated for increased revenue for affordable housing through a real estate transfer fee and stronger tenant protections like rental relocation assistance. I’ve attended meetings for the creation of the Somerville Community Land Trust with an eye to helping start a similar initiative in Cambridge. I’ve also organized with Cambridge Bike Safety for the passage of the Cycling Safety Ordinance, protected bike lanes on Mass Ave, and an improved Memorial Drive with bike and pedestrian lanes.