Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Cambridge Citizens Coalition was formed by neighborhood group leaders frustrated with the unresponsiveness of our city government on core issues. Its mission is to balance development interests with the environment, housing affordability, infrastructure and preservation. The 2021 City Council election race outcome will have a significant effect on the future of Cambridge. Voting is underway and Tuesday is Election Day. The selection of a new city manager is an important decision immediately facing our next council.

The coalition has endorsed four great candidates for City Council. Two endorsees are newcomers: Nicola Williams, a Caribbean-American businesswoman who nearly won a seat on the council in 2019, and East Cambridge resident and data analyst Dana Bullister. It also has endorsed two terrific incumbents: architect, urban designer and neighborhood advocate Dennis Carlone, as well as Patty Nolan, an accomplished business consultant, former School Committee member and now staunch good-government advocate. They are terrific individually and will work well together to bring critical change to city governance. One of our selection factors this year again was donations – percentages from local Cambridge residents and those without real estate interests.

Our city’s tax policy long has stimulated runaway growth, now in biotech as well as infotech mega-corporations such as Google and Amazon, which is about to add a large number of employees. These employees join the workforce already in place at our various medical facilities, renowned educational institutions and the burgeoning offices and labs at Alewife and North Point.

The pace of commercial development in Cambridge has drawn vast international property investment interests who regularly bid up the value of our modest 7.097-square-mile urban footprint. Increasingly, long-term Cambridge residents, particularly our renters, are being forced out through gentrification and displacement.

Under the development pressure we face, market-rate housing we build sells for $1 million or more per unit and rents for $2,500-plus for the smallest apartments. As we build more, more of our diminishing tree canopy is being removed (more than 20 percent in the past decade) along with critical open spaces (particularly in lower-income areas).

It is a simple fact that there are more jobs than residents of Cambridge. It is also the case that most Cambridge residents who are employed work outside the city. These facts confront us with a stark reality: It is not possible to house all who might wish to live in our city. In 2020, Cambridge had 51,882 housing units for our 118,400 population, or around one unit for every two people. With 112,800 commuters, if each wanted to move here, our housing stock would need to triple to meet the goal of housing everyone who works here, along with requisite schools, hospitals, fire/police, water, electricity and other infrastructure needs.

While the group A Better Cambridge has a stated policy to enable everyone who wants to live here to do so, this will never work, because our city policy favors building more commercial development than housing and land costs are being driven up by deep-pocketed development interests. This drastically limits who can afford to buy – increasingly, newly arrived wealthy professionals. Sadly, elected and appointed city government officials exacerbate this shift by welcoming an endless stream of commercial development without any consideration for housing or infrastructure. This all leads to a never-ending spiral of more housing leading to more commercial construction to maintain tax rates, leading to more housing to house some of the new employees, leading to more commercial construction to maintain tax rates and on and on ad infinitum, the only constant being building more and more.

Despite these trends, Cambridge maintains one of the highest percentages of affordable housing in the state. Here too we need oversight, since new affordable housing units now cost more than $900,000 to build – exclusive of land prices. What can be done? Members of CCC have helped draft an Advancing Housing Affordability zoning petition that seeks to modify single-family housing to create more units within the footprint of existing structures and advances a far more areawide solution to housing and other issues.

The coalition is a new organization; it is not infallible. But we work hard to represent the views of residents across the city and bring in professionals to help with research. When called for, we have been happy to correct errors and images, and will continue to do so. Following in the tradition of our predecessor nonprofit, the citywide Cambridge Civic Association, we hope to be around a long time and both grow and change as the city itself moves forward. In seeking to emulate the CCA’s 58-year run, the coalition emphasizes a balanced approach emphasizing good government, concerns about housing costs (rental prices, among others), neighborhood livability and an array of other issues.

We emerged from a collection of neighborhood leaders from across the city, individuals and groups that often are at the frontlines in addressing core issues of government transparency, good design, smart development, housing concerns, the environment and good governance more generally. As with any sincere effort, we understand and expect that our advocacy will draw criticism.

Sadly, in recent months our vital good government process of deliberation and compromise no longer prevails. Too often, commission members and community commenters are attacked or denigrated on social media for their statements by A Better Cambridge allies and leaders. The coalition and our City Council endorsees have been similarly attacked using mischaracterizations and lies, often advanced with personal animus and a destructive political style of intimidation, bullying and slander.

The coalition has posted a document addressing some of this but has refused to sink into the social media quagmire created by ABC provocateurs, seemingly aimed at silencing CCC, neighborhood groups or those who support historic preservation and the environment. The latter are seen to stand in the way of the commercial development and “build, baby, build” mantra they espouse.

Accusations of homophobia and exclusionist practices have also been leveled. These practices are never acceptable, and the coalition has not engaged in this type of behavior. Baseless charges emerged a year ago from an East Cambridge discussion in which a local resident (not affiliated with the coalition) wrote what one of our members aptly described as a “mean, nasty and indefensible” comment about an individual who had often clashed with and attacked other residents. According to our member, who resides in this neighborhood, this statement was not homophobic because LGBTQ issues were not involved. Our member was a charter member of the Mass Lesbian and Gay Bar Association (now the Massachusetts LGBTQ Bar Association) and notes that falsely accusing individuals of homophobia is hate speech that diminishes the real pain of homophobic attacks everywhere. It is time to move beyond this spectacle of political bullying to address the many serious issues facing the city.

Unless a “good government” majority of councillors can be elected to replace or out-vote the current pro-developer councillors, the Cambridge so many residents love will be a distant memory, replaced by taller, denser high-rises with fewer trees and less green space. And this at a time when the climate crisis is upon us and Cambridge remains especially ecologically vulnerable. The health and welfare of all Cambridge residents at all income levels is at serious risk.

The Cambridge Citizens Coalition