Thursday, May 23, 2024

City Council candidate James Williamson, seen in a CCTV video, was in his element Tuesday at an election forum focused on issues of class.

As cuts to housing programs nationwide loom, threatening some of the neediest, 16 Cambridge council candidates campaigned with words of support and some new ideas Tuesday at the Senior Center. (Minka vanBeuzekom had a previously scheduled engagement as treasurer of the Mystic River Watershed Association, and councillor Tim Toomey arrived one and a half hours late with an explanation that he had to deliver a cake to a neighborhood event.)

The most forcefully expressed words came from councillor Marjorie Decker, who grew up in public housing, and challenger James Williamson, a tenant for 40 years.

The latter responded to a question about whether candidates support raising rent on those in public housing who pay the minimum: “It’s like being asked, ‘Cannibalism — up or down?’” The rueful irony did not seem to be lost on the audience, a group of many backgrounds estimated at 60 people.

Co-sponsoring the forum were the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee, Association of Cambridge Tenants, Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers and the Cambridge Community Center. Elaine DeRosa, executive director of the center, an antipoverty agency since 1965, gave candidates two minutes each to respond and a one-minute wrap-up. Questions were not taken from the audience. Here are the three questions and selected answers:

On the horizon are federal cuts affecting housing not seen since the Reagan years. Among the changes expected is raising the minimum rent paid by those with no income. Agree or oppose?

No candidate agreed. “You don’t have to study it,” Decker said after her council colleague Henrietta Davis suggested looking at options. Decker said she first ran for council in 1999 on housing issues, which she said are “very personal to me.”

Challenger Larry Ward got to the point: “If we have to make enemies at the [Cambridge Housing Authority], then we do.” He said he has been “beating the bricks” at Jefferson Park, where he said he’s seen “rights trampled on.”

Williamson, who said 64 percent of city residents are tenants, urged that the CHA board include two tenant representatives as well as have a public-comment period at meetings.

Charles Marquardt, a challenger who said he likes to solve problems, focused on what he believes the council can control. He referred to a deal after rent control ended in 1994 for developers to trade density to provide inclusionary units at 15 percent. “Is our density worth more than 15 percent … is it worth 20 percent?” He referred to a 25,000-square-foot house at Avon Hill and wondered “How many units of affordable housing” could be built in its place.

Veteran councillor Ken Reeves said he represents the 22 percent in the lowest of the 99 percent. With more than 50 percent of Cambridge high school students in public housing, he said the Republican party has pushed this country into the ocean, and he has the feeling we’re “drowning.”

Simmons, a longtime councillor who said she has a proven track record on affordable housing, noted marching in protest with tenants at 700 Huron Ave.

During this past 18 months, expiring-use buildings in the Riverside, Inman Square and Harvard Square neighborhoods will have their affordability preserved through Community Preservation Act funding. The Fresh Pond Apartments in North Cambridge are the next major buildings of over 500 units that will require preservation. What is your position on the CPA formula and why?

Many current councillors said they support the 80-10-10 formula of the act, which collects money via a tax that is matched by the state and dispenses it with 80 percent going to affordable housing, 10 percent to open space and 10 percent to historic preservation. The law passed in 2000 and was adopted in Cambridge for fiscal 2002.

A number of speakers raised questions about the formula, including councillor Craig Kelley, who has not supported the formula in past.

Challenger Matt Nelson said, “When we talk about Cambridge with a triple-A bond rating …people are hurting here just as much as anywhere.” Urging more creativity, he suggested encouraging co-ops, cohousing and considering zoning changes for larger homes to allow tenants.

“Don’t overestimate CPA funds,” said challenger Gary Mello, adding that he does not believe the 80-10-10 formula is wise. He suggested the percent for open space should be as high as 30.

Ward urged housing rules that have developers build three- and four-bedroom units, not just those for one and two-bedrooms.

Williamson focused less on the formula and more on developers, who get low-interest loans to build affordable housing. With the loans expiring, developers want them extended after already getting “one, two and three rounds of windfall profits,” he said, urging council negotiation to get more affordable units in exchange. He also said a tenant needs to sit on the board on the Cambridge Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Marquardt suggested 20 percent for open space. “We don’t want just housing,” he said.

Decker, who is chair of the housing committee, said the discussion does not reflect “a true understanding of how the city uses money … Affordable housing doesn’t take money from open space.”

She noted more than 300 units using CPA funds. She urged that that the council “demand that units stay affordable” at Rindge Towers and Fresh Pond Apartments.

What city policies or interventions would you work for to provide economic security to individuals with low and fixed incomes, unemployed, seniors and those with disabilities?

Williamson said a “phony discussion” going on in the United States over resources has caused a “profound misleading” of the public. Addressing that involves truth-telling, he said. His examples — to “stop the wars” and change how the country addresses bank bailouts — brought some applause. As a solution, he cited job training.

Mello wants to make the Cambridge Health Alliance as the insurer for all city employees, and Marquardt made another suggestion to keep things close to home: demand more senior city officials live in Cambridge. Marquardt also wanted to restructure the T to encourage greater use — a state-level service over which Cambridge has no direct control — and make education free, asking, “How about a tax of zero?” but giving no details.

“You heard it here tonight, a Republican who proposed changes about how we fund our infrastructure” that Cambridge residents can consider, he said.

Decker listed her role in supporting working people: After Marriott hotel workers were replaced, she filed an order, which has been accepted, making it illegal to outsource workers. She worked with tenants to make sure units are affordable and got mental-health and women’s programs restored.

In closing, Mello urged the public to note the amounts that developers are contributing to candidates. The contributors he listed were Chestnut Hill Realty, Resource Capital Group, Alexandria Realty and Forest City, a builder for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Reeves said that every year of the 22 he has been on council Cambridge has gotten better. He pointed around him to the Senior Center, which opened in 1995, on his watch. “This was my idea,” he said.

Not all was serious. Reeves said he’d never support youth working on a dump truck, apparently in part response to Toomey, who had said he swept streets as a kid, and Mello suggested “beating” your neighbors to get them to the polls Nov. 8.

Earlier, after delivering a rambling response, first-time candidate Jamake Pascual said he was sorry not to address the issues specifically. “You lost my vote,” called out a member of the audience, who later apologized to the candidate.

Davis and Decker apologized for having to leave early.