Nicola Williams

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

I feel one of the major causes of high-priced housing market is that the City has failed to put good housing policies in place. We don't have a comprehensive housing strategy and the policies the city is spending the most time on does not economically uplift the working poor. We have 19,000 people on the waiting list and not enough subsidy money or space to house everyone who wants to live in Cambridge. We also need a regional approach so that our neighboring towns which are not meeting their 40B housing goals step up and do their parts too. Cambridge nonprofit affordable housing experts can train other cities with lessons learned and offer their expertise to help these neighboring cities meet their goals and even build housing in these cities to alleviate our list and stress of housing 19,000 people on the waiting list.

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

High housing prices have displaced Cantabridgians, eating up our economic potential, and worsening the twin crises of homelessness and displacement. Though the fear of displacement has struck low- and middle-income residents particularly, the impact on communities of color has been even more strongly felt. Over the past decade, 17 percent of African-Americans in Cambridge have been displaced. And what effect does this have on the region? Firstly, many of these people still have jobs and lives in Cambridge and thus are forced to commute into the city if they hope to keep some semblance of the lives they’ve built for themselves. This adds more cars to the road and worsens our congestion issue. Secondly, it puts more pressure on the housing availability in other municipalities. Thus Cambridge’s problems echo beyond echo and must be tackled regionally.

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

There are few many housing options for low-income tenants in the Greater Boston area, including Cambridge. This is a regional problem and it will take a regional approach to tackle it. Other cities such as Arlington, Newton, Watertown and Waltham, which have good bus and/or commuter rail transportation services need to meet their 40B goals. The wonderful and amazingly skilled affordable housing developers in Cambridge can consider building in these areas to help these cities meet their 40B goals and take pressure off Boston, Cambridge and Somerville. We are not able to house the 19,000 people on the list, which represents close to 20% of our population. We don't have the capacity, land or infrastructure. Some solutions could be transitioning these low income residents to home owners--specifically using housing cooperatives, exploring community land trusts, exploring co-housing scenarios as well as community housing. We can also look into providing incentives for homeowners to offer below market rents. As a landlord and homeowner, I offer below market rents to allow a family to remain in Cambridge. None of these options can be tackled effectively without a regional housing strategy and a comprehensive housing strategy for Cambridge.

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

We should be clear that, for many residents of Cambridge, market-rate housing is currently unattainable and so-called affordable housing, such as inclusionary, is unaffordable. We need rent stabilization policies and tenant protections.

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

Climate change exists at the intersection of several policy issues, including access to green transportation, road congestion, and not only a lack of affordable housing but also housing that is located near public transportation. Cambridge is a hub of intervention to and from which many people commute, causing excessive car use that contributes emissions to the climate crisis. Moreover, corporate developers have used the mantra of “build, build, build” to disrupt our green spaces and cut down trees. This environmental damage, ironically done in the name of protecting our community, harms the one thing that naturally reduces our emissions and thereby adds to the heat island effect on Cambridge. This does particular damage to people without homes who are often forced to suffer the worsening climate.

We need a smart approach to affordable housing that create net zero ready buildings, that builds green, and does so in areas that can reduce the reliance on cars. This will take a coordinated strategy on housing and transportation, regionally-backed by Cambridge, Somerville, Boston, and other local municipalities.

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

I believe that we need to be very careful that the mantra of “build, build, build” does not end in more damage to our environment. Even now, I’ve heard from residents that developments have cut down trees while there is a tree cutting moratorium in place. Furthermore, there are currently plans on the table that wouldn’t guarantee outdoor or green spaces to residents. I think we need to recognize that low-income people deserve trees and the bounty of nature as much as any other group. Additionally, as much as need more housing to house our growing community, we need to recognize that development inherently carries the potential of emissions. Thus we need to ensure that the way we build creates the least amount of emissions as possible and that all new buildings are zero emission ready.

If we can get housing prices under control, that will greatly improve the quality of life. As it is, there are too many ways that development can actually increase the price of housing in our community.

Do you support the Affordable Housing Overlay? Please explain.

Generally Not: The AHO plan is not ready for primetime. In its current form, it’s likely to be environmentally damaging, unconducive to the character of many neighborhoods, not allow for mechanisms for communities to stop its implementation if there are issues that need to be addressed and thereby rejects the concerns of residents, and will not do the things it is ostensibly created to do: create enough affordable housing to end the crisis, especially for the people who need it most.

There are many low-income residents of Cambridge who could not afford the proposed housing under the AHO. It would not house the 19,000 people we currently have on the waitlist and there is nothing in the plan to get people on a road to economic empowerment or ownership. In fact, there are pieces of the plan that are likely to disincentivize economic uplift by pushing people to defer raises in order to stay in their homes. The 100% affordable aspect, as well, cuts off pathways of economic empowerment by putting people lumping people without resources all together instead of having mixed-income housing that will allow neighbors to support each other financially and model pathways to homeownership.

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

Generally: People with cars need parking. We already have a minor crisis of available parking for the cars that are on the road and it seems likely that new development would lead to new cars, as the city is currently structured. However, studies show that current zoning incentivizes those who may not otherwise buy a car to choose to due to effectively paying for parking through their rents. So, while I would not eliminate a minimum requirement, I would reduce the minimums to a fraction of what they currently are so as not to create unnecessary expenses or excessive use of vehicles.

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

Yes: There are some problems with single-family zoning that need to be addressed and, if given a reasonable proposal that is not used as a way to dramatically transform neighborhoods without the consent of residents, I could support easing zoning so that more people can live affordably in Cambridge. There are already many families who live in single-family zoning areas that rent out rooms to people below market rate or help house families that are struggling. We should have a system that incentivizes this behavior and makes it easier for families to make extra living space for other families.

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

There is much we need to do to offer tenants with rent stabilization policies and restrict provide renters with tenant protections. Unfortunately, much of these options require action at the statehouse and our city council has not pressed our representatives to do enough to allow Cantabrigians to take hold of our own destiny. I support working to end displacement (not just evictions) by providing tenant protections through bills like HD.1100 (Act Enabling Local Housing Options for Tenant Protections). If this is passed, Cambridge can then set its own local regulations around tenant protections.

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

A critical part of greening our economy and economy will be reducing road congestion and moving toward greener modes of transit. To do this, I believe we need a regional approach to transportation that sees a larger role to play for city councillors that is comprehensive and complements our building of affordable housing. This way, people can use nearby transportation to commute rather than cars. Additionally, I am very concerned about increasing the safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

I was honored to have spoken with Cfambridge Bicycle Safety in March to discuss bicycle and pedestrian safety, specifically how Cambridge Bicycle Safety can work with local businesses and the local community in helping to achieve their goal of protected bike lanes through all of Mass Ave. Through my work as a board member of Harvard Square Neighborhood Association, I have also been supporting the efforts of the Memorial Drive Alliance comprising environmentalists and bicycle groups with others. Our shared goals are saving the trees along Memorial Drive and adding separate bike lanes in part on Memorial Drive itself, thus limiting vehicular traffic to two lanes and bike lanes to two lanes.

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

One option is to increase the linkage fees, but that would also make the city more dependent on new development. I think the universities and businesses need to be part of the solution by providing more funds to housing since they are also displacing residents. I also think that as taxpayers, we need to do more and our part in a number of ways: municipal bonds for housing, real estate transfer fees, and taxes (in that order).

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?

Our city needs to have a comprehensive housing plan that includes building upon municipal-owned properties, like libraries, and investing in cooperatives that would be able to provide more inexpensive opportunities for families to own their own homes. At the moment, our city council isn’t looking at these options at all. We should be developing long-term plans to create more homeownership in our community and provide stable housing to people. Critically, our housing policy should have a component that seeks to reduce the racial wealth gap and provide communities of color with a foothold from which they can build financial stability. This is what equity is all about.

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

I would like to work on a Cambridge Green New Deal that protects our environment and creates jobs in the process. Another cause I am passionate about is equity and I believe there is a long way to go on this front. That’s why as a city councillor I would like to establish an Office of Economic Empowerment to help get our city’s most vulnerable populations onto a pathway to stability and ownership.

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

Many years ago, I lived in a rent controlled apartment. When rent control was ripped away, our landlord said he was going to double the rent and, in effect, financially kick me to the curb. But I didn’t just steep in my sorrows. I organized. I got together with my neighbors and we convinced the landlord to let us buy our apartments, getting us onto a road of economic empowerment rather than the unstable housing that so many people face today.

That’s why, as a leader of my neighborhood association and Livable Cambridge, I advocate for a comprehensive housing strategy that includes affordable housing, investments in co-ops, and pathways to ownership for those who could afford it. This year, I’ve helped to organized two forums with Livable Cambridge focused on housing and livability, including “How Big is Too Big.”