Mayor slams "racist" zoning laws in Cambridge State of the City address

"While we oppose walls and gated-communities elsewhere, our zoning code has created these communities here in Cambridge."

Cambridge is lucky to have a mayor in Marc McGovern who doesn't just sprinkle the word "equity" in his speeches — he also makes the tough choices so that our Cambridge policies really do advance that lofty goal.

This is particularly true of that ultimate equity issue: housing aka "where people can live." 

His State of the City address from Dec. 12 bore this out. The entire speech is here, but we excerpted the housing piece for you (and added emphasis in bold):   

Addressing the housing crisis is the most pressing matter before this Council. It is time that we act boldly to ensure that equal opportunity exists for people across the economic spectrum to bind their voice, and their spirit, to the story of our city.

During my first address to you as Mayor, I expressed my belief that we were united in our desire for Cambridge to be a socially and economically just community for all who live here. That is still my belief today. Achieving those goals requires collaboration, which is why I appointed Councillor Simmons and Councillor Siddiqui to bring their leadership and vision to co-chairing the Housing Committee. They have charted an ambitious agenda to strengthen our Inclusionary Zoning program, which this year celebrated its 1,000th unit, to direct the city to allocate $40 million into affordable housing, removing parking requirements from developments, and ensuring that our focus remains on tackling our housing crisis. I thank Councillor Simmons and Siddiqui for their leadership.

We need to build more housing in this city, and work with our partners in neighboring cities to increase their stock of housing as well, but we must take targeted steps now to shore up the protections for our current residents teetering at the edge of displacement. That is why I will be forming a new blue-ribbon committee in January to address tenant protections and to generate anti-displacement recommendations for this Council to adopt. Councillor Siddiqui has generously agreed to lead this effort, and I pledge the partnership and support of my Office in making the Committee’s mission a success.

If we are to respond to the pressures that a global job market and spiraling rent prices are having on our residents, we must update our nearly 60-year-old zoning code. A lot has changed since 1961, and our zoning needs to work for the people living in Cambridge today. The disparities in income and opportunity are not only saddled upon the people living here, it is imprinted upon the urban plan of the city. While we oppose walls and gated-communities elsewhere, our zoning code has created these communities here in Cambridge. Walls that concentrate inequality in some neighborhoods while sheltering wealth in others, walls that are built not by a mason’s hand, but signed into ordinance by our own. Dismantling those walls, and the zoning plan on which they stand, is the work of restorative justice. Many of us read the The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, earlier this year; we know the legacy that racist zoning has left on America’s cities.

When Envision Cambridge completes it process, I will call on us to take up the recommendations of the housing subcommittee for consideration, and to pass the 100 percent affordable housing overlay. If we are going to live the progressive values we say we have, then every neighborhood, every resident, must be willing to stand up and be part — must be willing to put aside their own interests to ensure that Cambridge is truly accessible to all.

I would like to share the contents of a letter I received last week from a Cambridge resident named Michael, asking if I could help him find housing. Michael’s letter was remarkable in the humanity of his plea, but sadly, all too common in its request. It read,

Mr. Mayor, my name is Michael and I’m reaching out to you about me being on the Cambridge housing list for many years and I’m still homeless. I’m waiting on a one-bedroom apartment or a studio, it really don’t matter at this time of year considering it’s so cold out now. I’m a lifelong resident of Cambridge, born and raised. Mr. Mayor, I would love to meet with you in regard to this matter,

and then he thanked me for my time. I have heard Michael’s story or some version of it almost every day this year: sometimes it is a single-parent who is being priced out of an apartment; sometimes a public school teacher wanting to feel connected to the community they educate; and often, it is our young residents who, like Michael, were born and raised in Cambridge, the only home they have ever known, and are forced to move their future beyond our city lines.

So, as we move forward with debate over zoning with so much of our focus on setbacks, FAR, density and height, let us not forget that what we are really talking about is people. People like Michael who desperately want to remain in the city we all love, but who can’t. What we decide to do regarding incentivizing affordable housing develop will directly impact who gets to live in our city and what kind of city we truly want to be. We MUST listen and respect their stories.

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