Councillor David Maher

City councillor and Cambridge Chamber of Commerce president David Maher. (File photo)

Minds were blown at a roundtable on early childhood education held Tuesday as David Maher, former mayor and longtime city councillor doing double duty as president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, warned against innovation because it might convince people to live in Cambridge.

It’s all but impossible for Cambridge to talk policy – on anything – without someone bringing up how great the city is at innovation. This is the first time, at least in recent history, that an elected official has suggested maybe not letting Cambridge be so great because, you know, gentrification.

Coming after councillor Leland Cheung’s note that he’d found the excellent early childhood education at the Tobin School a reason to stay in Cambridge, the comments by Maher showed what a fine line it was before the city was overrun by Belmont families renting apartments over the town line to take advantage of what we might someday offer:

“For every action there are consequences, and there could be unintended consequences. What I’m going to say is perhaps not popular. You know, if we go to a system that is very different than any other community around, it is going to make us more desirable. We’ve seen that already to a degree. And it could have an unintended consequence on the housing market in the city by driving up the cost of housing even further and faster as people come …

“I’ve talked with a number of people who’ve had their kids in the Belmont public schools, for example in elementary school, that want our high school. And so they’re holding their homes in Belmont and renting apartments in Cambridge, and that is forcing rents up in Cambridge and taking property in Cambridge off the market, in a way. So I want to remind people that this is not simple in how we look at this. The families that have the wherewithal and the ability to kind of maneuver the system in some way are not necessarily the people we are looking to kind of lend a helping hand to. And so I know that you folks have this in mind when you’re looking at the complexities of this … how is it we can achieve what we want to achieve, and how do we do it in a way that doesn’t have an unintended consequence that kind of pulls and pulls at the elastic and finally it breaks.”

Maher was correct in that what he said was not universally popular, and councillor Nadeem Mazen and School Committee member Emily Dexter responded with some dismay (“We can’t just not improve things,” Dexter said), while councillor Craig Kelley and Mayor E. Denise Simmons saw Maher’s point, in that, as Kelley said, confirming there would be means testing for education programs, “If we add a value to living in Cambridge for a group of people, they would be willing to pay more to live in Cambridge. And that’s something we’ll have to figure out.”

In this case, it looks like Cambridge will have to innovate means testing and sliding scale fees; a regional approach that spreads the benefits widely enough that those rascals from Belmont won’t be tempted to sneak over the border; or maybe some kind of wall?