Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The Affordable Housing Amendments passed Monday! So let’s talk about what’s next.

During this campaign season, the discourse has focused largely on what we don’t want for Cambridge – but I’m inherently a policy optimist. We’re a rich, dynamic city with some of the brightest minds in the world. I can’t help but feel we can have a positive vision for our future. Here’s my attempt.

As the youngest city councillor in our history, I know many were skeptical when I was elected. Two years later, I’d like to believe my record speaks for itself.

Over the past two years, my focus has been on effective policy progress.

  • Housing: We permitted thousands of units in Alewife, eliminated parking minimums, reformed conservation districts and expanded the Affordable Housing Overlay.
  • Climate: We passed the most aggressive package of legislation in the country: making new buildings required to be net-zero and pushing older ones to retrofit by 2035 through our net-zero stretch code, embedded emissions, greens job ordinance and Building Energy Use Disclosure and Reduction Ordinance.
  • Policing: We focused on unarmed responses through our Community Safety Department and resident-run Heart program, using less-lethal weaponry such as tasers and added accountability through body cameras (still to be deployed) and a procedural justice dashboard.
  • Child care: We worked with parents and the city manager to add 170 seats to our after-school programs and are launching universal prekindergarten next year.

I was involved in all these conversations and, for many of them, especially in housing, the lead sponsor and the author. It’s been one of the most productive terms in City Council history. If the past two years are any indication, our collective skepticism has been put to rest.

Looking ahead: Housing

Cambridge’s housing crisis is growing rapidly, and we’re now grappling with housing costs that rival San Francisco’s. Luckily, we all know the solution: We need to build more housing, and that requires reforming decades of anti-housing legislation.

This is also an opportunity to make our city a better place. We should be a city where parents feel comfortable knowing their kids can stay in the community they grew up in. Welcoming more residents makes our city more dynamic and will help fill our empty storefronts. We bring together smart people in a way no one else does – allowing more people to live here will make breakthroughs for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s increasingly possible.

Next term, we need to turn our focus toward transit-oriented development in our city squares – Central, Harvard and Inman. These hubs have great public transit and tremendous untapped potential.

We also need to finish our work to eliminate exclusionary zoning. The artificial lines dividing our neighborhoods into poor and rich need to go. It’s well beyond time that we allow triple-deckers in every neighborhood.

During this process, we should simplify our zoning code. It has arcane metrics such as “dwelling unit per lot area.” Let’s focus on straightforward rules for open space, height and density – debate those and remove the rest.

Social housing deserves our attention, too. Let’s break down the financial barriers to affordable housing by allowing more mixed-income communities that are socially and economically beneficial.

Looking ahead: Transit

Traffic is the bane of urban life, but it doesn’t have to be. While car traffic worsens as more people drive, mass transit is the opposite. It gets better the more people use it.

There’s no quick fix, but we deserve a better system and can get there. Let’s not just be a customer of the MBTA; let’s be a partner. Our leverage may seem indirect, but it is far from negligible.

As a bit of hope, I worked closely with the MBTA on their Better Bus Network redesign this term. Subsequently, the MBTA revised its plan to improve service – it went from cutting a lot of valuable service, especially in East Cambridge, to instead expanding it.

Indeed, circumstances can evolve. Michelle Wu successfully obtained a seat on the MBTA board. We should aim for three seats on the board: one for Boston, one for high-frequency communities such as Cambridge and another for a commuter rail community. This would give more control of the T to the communities that rely on it the most.

Additionally, we should consider forming a coalition with neighboring communities such as Somerville and Boston to fund the MBTA. This municipality-led approach has enabled Los Angeles to expand its public transit system, and it’s drawn from the same strategy we use to fund our current Bluebikes program.

Looking ahead: Education

The impact of early education cannot be overstated. During this crucial period, children develop essential skills such as language and literacy and form valuable social bonds. For parents, this represents the most significant financial burden after housing. I’m pleased to report that we have made significant strides in this domain (thanks to councillor Marc McGovern in particular!): our universal prekindergarten program is slated to launch next year.

The availability of quality after-school programs remains a pressing concern, though. Our current system – a complicated lottery offering insufficient spots – fails to meet the needs of our community. Too many children are excluded, and many parents are confused and frustrated by the convoluted process. Moreover, the late release of lottery results forces parents to seek private alternatives. These inadequacies must be rectified. We should strive for universal access to after-school programs, a goal that holds particular significance for those parents – and especially women – who have made the difficult decision to pause their careers to focus on child-rearing.

Building a fun and vibrant city

This year, we’ve seen how relatively minor policy adjustments can lead to transformative impacts. By reforming the block party process, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in people enjoying their streets. This begs the question: Why shouldn’t the same principles apply to our businesses?

Right now, we require special permits or variances for most things. This is a deterrent for small businesses and is a big part of why we have so many vacant storefronts. This is baked into our zoning vision, in which everything is illegal by default unless explicitly allowed. We should reverse that, banning explicit nuisances, but not micromanaging everything else.

If Cambridge, with all its intellectual wealth and financial capital, can’t lead the way in progressive governance, we must ask ourselves: Who will? We’re not just setting an example; we’re crafting a blueprint for cities of the future.


The writer is a Cambridge city councillor.