Thursday, June 20, 2024

Like many candidates for City Council, Gwen Volmar has affordable housing at the top of her platform. She learned firsthand how difficult it can be to live in Cambridge when she moved here 10 years ago, and she continues to work with vulnerable members of the community who struggle with housing through a church-affiliated community service program.

An updated city ordinance carving out 20 percent of new units as affordable is a good start, she said, but doesn’t meet the full need. The housing it adds applies only to households with certain incomes – 50 percent to 80 percent of the area median income – or those using rental vouchers, while households making even less can generally go through the Cambridge Housing Authority or use rental vouchers.

In reality, Volmar asserted, many families who make less than half the AMI and get vouchers still can’t afford to stay in the city, and “in a number of cases, the church ends up helping to pay [people’s] rent.”

Volmar said she would also support land takings of neglected, vacant properties such as at Vail Court near Central Square, in-fill housing and other initiatives, but called them long-term solutions that don’t help people who are struggling now. “There are things we could be doing today,” she said, pointing to the Inclusive Communities Project in Dallas, in which a nonprofit rents apartments for leasing to households with vouchers. This approach allows landlords to bypass extra paperwork, which can lead them to give preference to leasers without vouchers, and can help integrate racially or socioeconomically segregated neighborhoods.

Volmar grew up in California and taught in a fifth-grade English-language immersion classroom in Oakland before moving to Cambridge when her husband became a doctoral candidate at Harvard. “There’s still a part of me that thinks I should go back and be a teacher,” she admitted. “It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in my entire life – I mean it’s genuinely a 100-hour week. You just don’t sleep. But I loved it.”

Because her California teaching license wasn’t valid in Massachusetts, Volmar took what was initially a temporary job in a Harvard administrative office. “Eventually I got to a place where I was working with students who were applying for scholarships, and it felt really good,” she said.

Volmar recently received a master’s degree in psychology, for which she focused on adolescent opioid overdose.

But it’s her work at Harvard, Volmar said, that has shown her the value of being in touch with people on the ground who might understand the effects of policies far better than elected officials – who may have law or economics degrees, but haven’t implemented their own initiatives.

Bottom-up communication within city government is essential, she said. “[City employees] just deeply, deeply understand the problems,” she said. “They’re in it every day, all day.” She advocated for a standardized, cross-departmental system in which information could be passed up the ranks to reach the council in an organized and complete form.

She connected the need for communication within the city government to general council accessibility. Although City Council meetings happen in the evening, which lets working constituents give testimony at public comment, some subcommittee meetings – where time is also set aside for public comment – are held during the day. “You notice that a lot of people who have time and the lifestyle to show up in the middle of the day are the people who have a lot of resources,” Volmar said.

Many citizens, she argued, can’t make it to meetings and therefore aren’t heard.

It’s this group Volmar seeks to represent. “There has to be a better way for those people to get their voices heard, and some of that is by choosing councillors who are committed to reaching out to those people and asking ‘What’s your opinion on this?’” She also suggested that council meetings could be made more accessible by allowing a call-in option for public comment in addition to the current write-in option or by holding meetings at different times.

Volmar is among 10 challengers running for the nine council seats, along with at least four incumbents. Current councillors Nadeem Mazen and David Maher are the only incumbents to have announced they will not be running for reelection.

Although running – and especially fundraising – will be challenging, she said, she felt compelled to run after the presidential election in November. “I realized … I’m just not pulling my weight. I’m not getting involved, I’m not doing enough,” she said, “and so that’s when it felt like I needed to push myself to do something.”