Thinking Creatively About Affordable Housing

The issue of affordable housing is a complex and emotional one, and there's really no easy answer. But one thing I’ve learned, is that Cambridge has a strong collective will, and when we put our minds to something, we find ways to get it done.

This past week, the City Council voted to require that all new housing developments include 20% affordable units. While I fully support these efforts, I also recognize that this is only a part of the overall solution. It’s a single tool in our government toolbox.

To expand our efforts further, we must make affordable housing the number one priority in our city. That means thinking creatively about ways to support all residents but especially those in most need-- our lower income neighbors, our working families, our shrinking middle class, and our elderly citizens. 

In the video below (2min. 51sec.), I agree that raising the affordable housing rate to 20% is a critical and long overdue measure. But I also suggest other ways that our city remain affordable and welcoming to people of all economic backgrounds. In summary these actions include:

1. Reforming zoning to maximize affordable housing production in mixed-use districts (recent Central Square zoning was modified to require a minimum of 50% residential construction on any site to reach maximum buildout);

2. Limiting AirBnB (not sure what the generic term is) to only owner occupied units, not additional owned but unoccupied units (petition now before us);

3. Insisting long-needed university housing be built in near future (many MIT and Harvard graduate students live in former family apartments);

4. Increasing city budget allocation for Cambridge’s stated number 1 issue, the creation of affordable housing (previous budgets only include affordable housing funds generated by the Community Preservation Act and not City funds).

We can and must do better, much better.


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Anyone who has spoken with me, or has attended a council meeting, recognizes that I value community. Protecting, building, and advocating on behalf of community, in all its forms, is what attracted me to politics, and still serves as my “north star” during any decision making process.

One critical aspect of fostering community is the actual placemaking process itself—that is, how we construct the built urban environment all around us. I would argue, that the council’s most powerful tool is our ability to affect the zoning code in order to mandate creating great public spaces, where all people are encouraged to congregate and share in each other’s lives.


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Community Public Spaces

Like so many of you, I have observed and participated in the various protests that have emerged in the face of Trump’s policies and cabinet appointees. These protests, these physical expressions of our collective unease, take formation in different public places. As an urban designer and architect, I am reminded of just how important our places are in allowing citizens to organize and practice free speech. Of equal importance, and the basis of almost all my thinking related to council matters, is actually promoting real policy that creates community and allows it to thrive.

The Project for Public Spaces issued a statement (see below) about this issue and I wanted to share it with you all.

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Lechmere T Station and Property Taxes

This past week, we bid farewell to current Cambridge City Manager Rich Rossi and welcome to the helm Mr. Louis DePasquale. Mr. DePasquale (or "Louie" as we call him around City Hall) is a long time employee of the city, having served in various fiscal management roles since 1975. I look forward to working with Mr. DePasquale in our efforts to keep Cambridge livable, affordable, and most importantly, focused on our neighborhoods.

The City Council also met this week to discuss, among other things, the city's property tax rate classification and the expected new buildout of the Lechmere T Station in East Cambridge.

The city has done an admirable job in keeping residential property tax rates extremely low. In fact, over the last four and a half years, while Cambridge has seen average home values increase by more than 57%, the residential tax rate has stayed roughly the same for a large majority of Cantabrigians. It's important to point out that two/thirds of all Cambridge residents are renters, and that part of the reason they rent is because they cannot afford to actually buy homes in the city. In efforts to help relieve this population of sky rocketing rents and further deal with our affordable housing crisis, I propose that we investigate ways to use tax dollars from a home's assessed value, to benefit those at the lower rung of the tax ladder. In the video below (4min 23sec), I request that we take a strong look at the residential tax classification system and ways that it can be improved in order to help the people who need it most.


The second piece of information that I wanted to share with you is about the planned buildout of the Lechmere T Station in East Cambridge. Due to unanticipated costs related to the Green Line Extension project, funding for the new Lechmere T Station is largely insufficient. The City of Cambridge is working with developers to bridge this financial gap but I think we need to do more. My fear, is that the new Lechmere T Station will look much like the Yawkey Way Station in Boston, which is a metal skeletal construction providing very little shelter from the elements like sun, wind, rain, and snow. Furthermore, it lacks any pleasing aesthetic quality. I understand the financial reality of the situation and am willing to accept it (albeit begrudgingly), but have requested that any buildout of the Lechmere T Station give the city the ability to make future improvements and enhancements. Considering the situation, I think it a reasonable request, and I look forward to getting it done in the future. In the below video (4min 49sec), I strongly suggest that the city "gracefully allow for the possibility" of making future design improvements so that our future T station may be first rate, just like the rest of our city.


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Inclusionary Housing Study

While there are not any Regular City Council Meetings during the month of July, there still remain a number of important meetings taking place. This past week, the Housing Committee met to discuss the Inclusionary Housing Study completed by David Paul Rosen & Associates. The report contains in depth analysis and recommendations related to our current ordinance. Key findings of the study include: 

 Increases in market rents and sales prices have outstripped increases in income in recent years.
 Affordable housing created under the inclusionary housing provisions has become an increasingly critical source of new affordable housing as other mechanisms to expand the affordable stock have become more challenging.
 Strengthening the inclusionary housing provisions is necessary to maintain an adequate stock of affordable housing and preserve the socioeconomic diversity of the city.
 Inclusionary housing provisions may be increased to a certain extent without severely compromising the production of new market-rate housing. 

Below, I have included a video (10min. 37sec.) with my thoughts on the matter, including using special permitting and creative zoning to mandate for more three bedroom apartments; raising the "real" inclusionary housing rate to 20%; and limiting lab space especially around housing. 



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Plastic Bag Ban Update

Most Cantabrigians favor thoughtful environmental policy that seeks to preserve and improve our natural surroundings. We know that parks, gardens, and the planting and maintenance of trees all contribute to the beauty, vitality and peacefulness of our city. These are places to reflect, have a picnic, kick a soccer ball, or simply to escape from the city for a while. But what is often overlooked or put on the "back burner" are environmental issues that may not pose an immediate risk but do in fact present longer term danger. For example, gas leaks in our community affect our air quality and potentially endanger our overall infrastructure; leaf blowers affect micro ecosystems, worker's health, and often times our own mental health; sourcing 100% renewable energy so as to curb our use of fossil fuels; and making new commercial construction be net-zero compliant, again, as a way to curb climate changing producing gases-- all of these issues need to be dealt with now if we wish to prevent more harmful damage down the road. 

Last term, my former legislative aide, Mike Connolly raised the idea of pursuing a Plastic Bag Ban. We quickly realized together that it would be a challenge, after all, it was an effort which had been undertaken by several previous mayors and councillors with limited success. Plastic bags were convenient, easy, free and did not pose an immediate harmful threat to the environment, however, they did have very severe and dangerous long term consequences. Plastic bags are typically made from a polyethylene which is not biodegradable. Instead of decomposing, the bags break down into small, toxic fragments called microplastics, which are consumed by animals and litter the ground. Ultimately, the toxins from these bags make their way back into our food chain. The purpose of the Plastic Bag Ban was to protect our waterways, reduce waste, and protect marine wildlife. It was our view that plastic bags should be regulated and restricted.

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Medical Marijuana Dispensary & Municipal Lobbying Law

As Spring arrives, it's exciting to see the city come to life once again. I wanted to write about two recent issues facing the city. The first is regarding a medical marijuana dispensary. As most of you know, several years ago, Cambridge voted overwhelmingly (79%-21%) to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes. As someone who recognizes the importance of natural medicines as well as a holistic approach to healthcare, I believe that the use of marijuana for those that suffer from certain conditions can be a necessary part of treatment and healing. The reason that approving a zone for such a dispensary is so challenging is because of the many federal, state, and municipal laws that are in place governing these kinds of things. The petitioner, Sage Cannabis (that company which has petitioned the city of Cambridge to re-zone a small parcel of land so that they may operate) has met every requirement asked of them and have gone out of their way to accommodate the city with our requests for information. I expect that Sage Cannabis will be a good partner to the city and for the many patients that are in need of this kind of medicine. I have met with the CEO on several occasions and my aide, Dave Mattei, has visited their headquarters in Milford, MA and we have both been very impressed with their level of professionalism. In the video below (1min. 31sec.), I briefly remark on the matter.

The second issue is regarding municipal lobbying. My friend and colleague, Councillor Jan Devereux sponsored a policy order which requests that all professional lobbyists (those individuals who represent business and labor interests, like real estate development companies, unions, or even medical marijuana dispensaries) disclose their campaign contributions, the names of their clients, the policies that they tried to influence, their compensation received, and the dates of their lobbying communications. There are many other cities that have implemented similar laws including Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, Philadelphia, and San Francisco because it represents a level of transparency and openness which is important in government. Part of the reason that I sponsored a policy order related to campaign finance reform last term, and the reason that I cosponsored this policy order is because it allows us, as officials, to inspire a greater level of confidence in the democratic process, which for too long has been mired in pessimism and suspicion. I was joined in affirmative votes by Councillor Devereux and Councillor Mazen, to send this policy order directly to the City Manager, however, similar to that of my previous campaign finance efforts, this policy order was voted against, and rather than being sent to the City Manager, it was sent to the Government Operations Committee where it will likely receive little attention. Below is a video (20min. 28sec.) in support of the municipal lobbying effort.

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Complete Streets & Charter Schools

I know that it can be difficult to attend a City Council meeting or to watch one on TV for that matter, so I wanted to share two short clips from the March 21st regular council meeting. The first video (3min 20sec.) contains my comments and support for the Complete Streets and Vision Zero initiative which will "reinforce existing sustainable transportation policies and plans, including the Vehicle Trip Reduction Ordinance, the Climate Protection Plan, the Pedestrian Plan, the Bicycle Plan, the Transit Strategic Plan, the Five-Year Street and Sidewalk Reconstruction Plan, and the City’s Community Health Improvement Plan and enable the City to apply for construction funding from MassDOT under its new Complete Streets Program."

The second video (2min. 37sec.) contains some preliminary thoughts on the highly contentious issue of charter schools. A resolution was submitted in opposition to raising the cap on charter schools, which is an issue currently being dealt with on the state level. As I mention in the video, I believe that there are many different learning styles and that it is our responsibility to make sure that our kids learn the best way they can. Councillor Toomey exercised his charter right on this matter which suspends the vote but nonetheless it is an important issue to consider both on the local and state level.

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Reduced Neighborhood Speed Limits

As some of you may have heard, last month, the Boston City Council voted unanimously to lower the speed limit on "thickly settled" streets from 30mph to 20mph and in school zones from 20mph to 15mph. "Thickly settled" areas are streets where houses and buildings are located, on average, less than 200 feet apart. The process by which a city may change their speed limits is quite cumbersome and in the case of Cambridge would require the city to obtain state approval on a street-by-street basis complete with speed study reports. As you can imagine, this can take a significant amount of time, energy and resources and even then there is no guarantee that changes will be made. One thing Cambridge can do is post signage that requires drivers to drive more slowly-- this is incredibly important especially as we consider the statistics. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has compiled a "Driving Speed Fatality Risk Chart" that shows a 45% risk of fatality to pedestrians and cyclists in accidents involving an automobile that is traveling in the 30mph to 35mph range, as compared to a 5% risk of fatality when automobiles are traveling in the 20mph to 25mph range. Both City Manager Rossi and Traffic Commissioner Barr agreed that this kind of action is an important step to take. I've included a brief video (3min 51sec) of our discussion as well as the original policy order below.

As we pursue a Complete Streets agenda, a Vision Zero policy, and a larger regional effort, I hope that a reduced speed limit on thickly settled streets will ultimately mean safer neighborhood streets for all Cantabrigians.


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Rethinking Traffic Design

I recently came across a wonderful video that I wanted to share. In 2011, the City of Poynton, UK decided to rethink the way that they were dealing with a noisy, unsafe and heavily congested area of travel. This 15 minute video tells the story of what traffic and the city was like beforehand and how it has changed with the addition of new streetscape redesign. Certainly, it is possible to both improve traffic and make a surrounding area more welcoming for pedestrians and businesses to operate. 

As we consider many of Cambridge's more complex intersections, I believe it is important to include new and effective strategies like the one employed by the City of Poynton, UK.


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