What do you think are the causes of Cambridge’s high-priced housing market?
Two primary causes: the 1994 repeal of rent control, and acute demand caused by the city’s commercial development boom that has made Cambridge a global destination for tech & pharmaceutical workers, other professionals, and, unfortunately, real estate speculators. The demand is insatiable as we continue to add millions of square feet of commercial/lab development annually, and the hot market drives out renters, including section 8 tenants and traditional communities of color, who lack even the most basic of protections against eviction and rising rents.
How have high housing prices affected Cambridge and the surrounding region?
The striking impact is the displacement of existing residents, particularly low income folks and communities of color. Over the last 6 years The Port has gotten 10% whiter and 7.5% less black, as median household income has risen by $20,000. Very soon, the neighborhood will no longer be majority-minority. Communities of color that were denied wealth-building opportunities and stability through racial discrimination, denial of educational opportunities, redlining, and during white flight, are now being disrupted once again as wealthier, mostly white folks are gentrifying the neighborhood.
What housing options currently exist for low-income tenants who are not high on the affordable housing waitlists? How can Cambridge help them?
We need to implement strong tenant protections, including limits on how much rents can be raised each year, as many folks on the housing waitlist are one small rent increase away from being displaced out of Cambridge. We need to curb speculation, which is why I support a real estate transfer fee. We also need to end our addiction to building high-end commercial and labs that keep our residential property taxes low, but raise surrounding land values and accelerate displacement.
The city offers emergency housing options to people who qualify. My office has helped connect many facing eviction and homelessness with resources to find stability. When the CHA sent out a misleading email to thousands of low-income waitlisters about the AHO, many responded in confusion with heartbreaking stories to the Council about their housing instability, thinking that they needed to show up in order to get an affordable unit. Fortunately, my office was able to help some of them, including a homeless woman, by helping her navigate the bureaucracy and obtain stable housing even though she was not initially high on the waiting list.
How does new market-rate residential development affect the affordability of Cambridge? How does new affordable housing affect the affordability of Cambridge?
I recently toured the brand new development at 10 Essex Street and was shown a 1000 square foot 2-bedroom unit that will rent for $6,600 per month. This development was also built on the backs of underpaid labor. This isn’t helping anyone, especially not those who rent in the neighborhood as gentrification accelerates. We can’t build our way out of this problem; we need to focus on solutions that give stability to residents who are already here, particularly lower income folks and communities of color who are being forced out. I’m a strong supporter of deeply affordable opportunities and have successfully advocated with the city manager to increase the budget for affordable housing construction for the current fiscal year and beyond. Ultimately even these opportunities have a limited impact on affordability. The city hopes to build 1,000 new deeply affordable units in the next decade, compared to a waitlist of about 20,000 families. Even if successful, this plan will leave out 95% of the people currently on the list, not to mention anyone else who joins over the next decade. We need to think about solutions that reach the scale of the problem, most urgently protections for tenants.
What is the relationship between the twin crises of climate change and housing unaffordability? How can Cambridge address both?
Some argue that density is a solution to climate change. While density is obviously more efficient than sprawl, building a lot more of either will not help us solve climate change, just like pumping out lots of Priuses instead of SUVs is not going to solve climate change. They both pollute, just at different rates. Density is better than sprawl, but without zero emissions, neither is a solution. If we must build more to accommodate population growth, it should be in the urban core, but the focus should be on rapidly reducing emissions everywhere, not on adding more buildings that add more emissions anywhere. In responding to climate change, it’s critical that we correctly understand the underlying dynamic. As long as our economy is based on burning fossil fuels, we should be focussed on reducing total energy consumption, not increasing it. New buildings should be net-zero, transit oriented and canopy protected.
Displacing low income folks leads to more emissions from having to commute longer distances to low-paying service industry jobs that still need to be done, from living in less energy efficient housing that is less dense and less walkable, and from the actual move itself. Cost of living increases due to gentrification impact affordability even if one is living with subsidized rent. Enacting stronger tenant protections would prevent a lot of emissions and would also allow more lower income folks to live in Cambridge where we could better protect them from the twin climate impacts of heat and flooding.
Building net-zero ready housing close to transit with adequate tree canopy protection is more expensive than conventional, car-oriented housing without tree canopy, for now. In Cambridge, we have untapped cash and tax levy capacity that could be applied to do this right, and I will continue to push for that. We need a Green New Deal for Cambridge that funds these important priorities, and creates jobs along the way.
What effects might more housing in Cambridge have on quality of life or the environment?
New luxury-priced housing will have a drastic effect on quality of life for those who rent here, because they will be displaced. That means uprooting children from their schools and seniors from the place they have called home their entire life. My office recently worked with a resident in The Port neighborhood facing eviction and homelessness because the landlord planned to renovate and convert the building into condos. Some will cheer the handful of additional units that will be built there but I saw the reality of who this change impacted in a very big way. Almost all human activity right now leads to environmental destruction, either directly (cutting down trees, spewing pollution) or indirectly (ordering something on Amazon results in enormous amounts of environmental damage in making and shipping your purchase). We need to build transit-oriented net zero housing with lots of open space and trees.
Do you support the Affordable Housing Overlay? Please explain.
Generally: The AHO is a market-based attempt to solve a fundamental market failure. The housing market is broken not because we don’t have enough housing but because we allow landlords to raise rents arbitrarily, leading to evictions and displacement. 1000 new units over the next decade satisfies 5% of the 2019 affordable housing wait list, so 95% of today’s list goes unserved, not to mention anyone who joins over the next ten years. That is a farce. The solution that addresses this problem at scale is to put strong tenant protections in place. I’m strongly supportive of more affordable housing being built, and successfully negotiated funding increases in this and future budgets. I support many of the concepts in the AHO, but it still needs a lot more work before it can be ready for adoption.
Would you support eliminating parking minimums for new housing development citywide? Please explain.
Yes: I have consistently advocated for eliminating car storage (parking used to mean planting trees along the road and I intend to restore the word to its proper meaning). Most recently I introduced amendments to the AHO to eliminate minimum car storage requirements (other than ADA compliance and pickup/dropoff). I plan to introduce zoning amendments to eliminate minimum car storage ratios city-wide.
I also advocate consistently for eliminating on-street car storage so we can repurpose that road space for bicycle and pedestrian safety, as well as tree canopy. We have a long way to go in ditching our addiction to motor vehicles! Earlier this term, I tried to increase resident parking permit fees again (I successfully advocated for their increase a few years ago as a citizen activist) but it was shot down by the council because of concerns that low income residents couldn’t pay the additional $20/year for a parking permit. I had included a hardship provision but that was deemed too complicated to implement, even though CDD already has several income based programs.
Would you support abolishing these restrictions by establishing citywide minimum zoning that allows more multifamily housing? Please explain.
Yes: I agree that the restrictions against multi-family housing in Cambridge should be eliminated, and I plan to introduce zoning amendments to do just that. Combined with strong tree canopy protections and bicycle and pedestrian safety improvements, allowing more multi-family housing to be built where feasible will create more opportunities for people to live and work in a walkable city, which is a good thing.
Redlining and single-family zoning were racially exclusive practices that denied homeownership opportunities to black families starting during the New Deal under FDR, which has led to the generational wealth discrepancy between black and white families we are seeing in the Boston area and elsewhere. Allowing multi-family rental housing to be built makes sense for the reason given above, but it does not in any way address this foundational injustice.
What measures in particular should Cambridge adopt to prevent tenant displacement?
I’m very glad to see ABC finally acknowledge that the main issue is the displacement crisis, which cannot be addressed through housing supply alone. The council shouldn’t view home rule as an insurmountable obstacle to avoid. We should live up to our reputation and bang on the doors of Beacon Hill with as many petitions as it takes. Somerville and Boston have done it while Cambridge has embarrassingly failed to join them. Early in the term I was one of just 3 councillors to vote in favor of holding a hearing on tenant right of first refusal. All of the ABC-endorsed councillors voted against it. We just wanted to have a discussion!
We should have adopted a stronger condo conversion bylaw this term without a home rule petition, but that did not happen. No home rule or state enabling legislation would be required as it is already allowed under state law. My office has worked with several individuals and families who would have benefitted from additional protections from condo conversion, so the need is still great and again we could have done it this term without a home rule petition.
It’s time to reconsider some form of rent control, which is why we should be advocating for Rep. Mike Connolly’s Housing for All Platform at the state house, which among other things, would allow Cambridge to enact rules under just cause eviction that would limit how much rents can be increased on low income tenants in larger buildings (owner occupied and Cambridge resident owned smaller buildings would be exempt). So far no ABC-endorsed City Councillor has publicly endorsed or advocated for this platform.
What should the city do to increase walking, biking, and transit usage in Cambridge?
Aggressively reduce on street car storage and repurpose the space to improve bike and pedestrian safety. I don’t understand why progress is so slow as our friends continue to die on the streets. The council passed an ordinance this term that will require protected lanes in certain situations, but that won’t move things fast enough, and the City Manager ultimately retains final authority. I would like to see a much more rapid implementation of the protected network and in particular Mass Ave and Hampshire are essential pieces that must be completed by the end of next term. I am also looking forward to the River Street redesign (my policy order put the council on record demanding protected lanes as a part of this) and a process beginning around Porter Square in 2020. In particular the Porter Square bike lanes only came about as a result of significant activism at community meetings, and my insistence from the chamber on finding a way to get it done. Mass DCR is redesigning Memorial Drive, which includes a shared-use path along Magazine Beach that puts cyclists and pedestrians in dangerous conflict with each other every day. In some places, the shared path narrows to as little as four feet in width. I have been working with a coalition of transit and environmental advocates to push for a significant road diet and a much wider, separated path, while protecting the iconic mature trees.
The Council strongly advocated for reducing speed limits to 20 MPH citywide which is now in progress for most of our streets. I also advocated for raising parking permit fees, including a hardship waiver for low-income residents, but that proposal was shot down by ABC-endorsed councillors. I have used my platform to demand improvements to our public transit, including in Central Square where elevators were not (and still are not) getting repaired fast enough. I support making the T free for all riders and strongly opposed the fare hike earlier this summer.
What should the city do, if anything, to increase funding for housing affordability?
We need to allow our incredibly low residential property taxes to rise slightly over time, while charging higher property or other taxes from the highly successful large corporations with workers in our city. We need to find more ways to apply these funds towards tenant protections and legal aid services to help stay tenants in the homes they already live in. We need to increase funding for the Multiservice Center and create a dedicated office of housing stability within.
Councillor Carlone and I successfully negotiated funding for affordable housing construction from property taxes into the FY20 budget. This is significant because revenue from property taxes had never been allocated to affordable housing in the past. While I was pleased to see the City Manager move in this direction with an initial allocation of $5 million, I’m looking forward to seeing this number rise to $20 million over the next few years as agreed to by the City Manager. It’s not fast enough, and it should have been done years ago, but it took my election to the council to finally get this going.
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?
We did Envision, which took 3 years, and cost millions of dollars, and we should use it as a starting point to engage in community-wide zoning reform that accomplishes our housing goals in harmony with the other goals documented by the Envision final report. The council has yet to dig into the Envision report, and this should be a major priority of the next term.
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)
I am an outspoken opponent of the disposition of 420 parking spaces in order to bail out a developer seeking to build high-end office space in the middle of a residential neighborhood on publicly owned land. Commercial development accelerates gentrification and displacement; we need to keep public land in public hands.
I will be introducing several measures to accelerate net-zero and net-zero ready construction in Cambridge, including a ban on natural (fracked!) gas combustion in new construction. We need to end the fossil fuel era in Cambridge, and most of our emissions are from buildings. It makes no sense to continue building to 20th century standards while trying to survive the 21st century climate crisis. Eversource has proposed major expansions to the electrical grid in Cambridge, including a new substation on Fulkerson Street in East Cambridge, to serve our explosive commercial and lab growth. 86% of the electricity on the grid in Massachusetts is fossil fuel-derived, so any additional grid electricity consumption adds to our fossil fuel emissions, which need to be decreasing, not increasing! I will not be supportive of any commercial upzoning requests that increase our energy consumption. When Eversource is supplying us with 100% renewable energy, and we've exhausted our local distributed renewable energy potential (solar PV, geothermal) and energy efficiency based reductions, and we still need more juice, then it's time to talk about expanding the grid infrastructure in Cambridge. Until then, the emphasis must be on reduction, and that means net-zero ready construction in all new major developments.
Aside from housing and development issues, what are some major policy priorities that you hope to push for on the City Council?
We should have publicly-funded elections to get developer money out of our local government. I do not accept money from real estate developers, their attorneys, or anyone else with business before the council. I’m working on advancing equity in our emerging recreational cannabis industry to ensure communities that were harmed by the war on drugs benefit from the legalization of cannabis. I will continue to push for municipal broadband to decommodify the internet and ensure fast, affordable access for all our residents. I’m also working on ordinances that will strengthen protections for immigrants from ICE and allow for local enforcement of wage theft laws. I was one of two councillors to vote against the school budget, despite all the good in that budget, because it does not address the racial achievement gap that persists in our schools. Our 2020 grade 3 literacy goal is 77% for white students but only 47% for black students. If a racial achievement gap is our goal, how can we ever expect anything else? The Grade 8 math proficiency 2020 target for black students is 25%, even lower than the actual proficiency achieved by black students in 2018 (30%). What kind of a message does that send to our students? We need to invest in our schools with an equity lens so our black students get the resources they need to succeed.
What have you done to advance the goals you’ve described in your answers above in your own work?
As head of Green Cambridge for 6 years, head of the Climate Action Business Association (which I co-founded) for 5 years, a member of the Climate Protection Action Committee (CPAC) for 9 years (including 3 years as chair), and co-author of the net-zero Connolly zoning petition, I’ve had a major impact on environmental and climate policy in Cambridge. Over the last 2 years as City Councillor, I’ve advocated for and legislated around all the priorities above, including tenant protections, AH construction, bike and pedestrian safety, tree canopy protection, climate safety, net-zero and economic and racial justice. I appreciate ABC’s efforts to educate the voters and look forward to once again participating in your candidate forum, and hopefully you will allow me to show some data charts this time. While I agree with some of your policy positions, including eliminating minimum car storage requirements and single-family zoning, your emphasis on market solutions and de-emphasis on tenant protections prevent me from accepting your endorsement, and so I am not seeking it.