Rethinking Policing in Cambridge

Like you, my heart has been broken over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, and the countless other beautiful, Black lives we have lost to police violence and brutality. The peaceful protests across the country mourning George Floyd’s murder have devolved into, often bloody, altercations with the Police. Militarized vehicles and weapons better fit for war zones have been deployed in residential neighborhoods and city streets. Law enforcement officers have worn medical-grade personal protective equipment that our healthcare professionals haven’t had reliable access to in the past twelve weeks during a global pandemic with a rapidly spreading, deadly virus. 

Rightfully so, these altercations have evolved into calls for action at every level of government, demanding elected officials rethink our current policing models, and how we fund police departments. Across the country, government leaders are having deep conversations, making critical decisions on how they will ensure the safety of every resident, and the health of their communities moving forward.

Here in Cambridge, my colleagues and I have heard the impassioned cries for change, and felt the pain and the anger running deep through our community. And as former President Obama emphasized in his national address last night, most of the reforms required to prevent this type of violence and injustice need to take place at the local level. 

We on the City Council are exploring short-term and long-term ways to address systemic issues in the Police Department, in the hopes of better aligning with the “8 Can’t Wait” data-driven action items that could reduce police violence by 72%. By making the Police Review and Advisory Board more effective, creating more transparency by publishing data from the monthly CPD Comstat report on resident complaints and outcomes, having Officers wear body cameras to provide for greater accountability, advocating for changes in State Laws that keep Officers’ disciplinary actions and complaint cases out of the public eye, re-examining funding to increase non-police intervention by social workers, ROCA community outreach workers, and other community partners, demilitarizing Police equipment, and more, we can set the bar even higher for others and for ourselves on what an equitable Police Department looks like. 

In some ways, our Police Department is held up as a national standard on community policing: we have a citizen review board of the Police, and either fully or partially align with many of the 8 Can’t Wait recommendations. Not every one of these recommendations is codified in CPD’s policies though, and others need to be strengthened to truly be effective.

  1. Ban Chokeholds and Strangleholds: CPD’s use of force policy expressly prohibits chokeholds, strangleholds, any kind of carotid control, and manual holds intended to inflict pain or injury. However, this does not include manual holds for which an Officer has been trained in gaining or maintaining control of a detainee. What this means warrants further discussion.
  2. Require De-Escalation: CPD Officers attend mandatory training on de-escalation, and as someone who has attended one of these trainings, I can vouch for their quality. However, I am not sure where, or if, it is codified, and it needs to be expressly written as a policy requirement.
  3. Require Warning Before Shooting: Whenever practical, Officers must identify themselves as police officers when pointing a firearm at another person, and state their intention to shoot before discharging a firearm. The condition of “whenever practical” is ambiguous, and is worthy of further conversation.
  4. Exhaust All Other Means Before Shooting: Officers are required to use only the degree of force necessary in any situation, whether it be placing someone under arrest, placing them in protective custody, to bring an incident under control, or protect the safety of others or themselves. This policy should be updated to require Officers to exhaust all other means before shooting a firearm to codify this recommendation. 
  5. Duty to Intervene: CPD has no written policy requiring Officers to intervene when they witness a colleague use excessive force. This policy could have saved George Floyd’s life, and needs to be an expressly written policy all CPD Officers are required to follow.
  6. Ban Shooting at Moving Vehicles: Officers are not allowed to shoot into a moving vehicle unless the vehicle’s occupants are using it to exert deadly force against an Officer or a victim. In these cases, an Officer may discharge a firearm if the use of the vehicle presents an immediate threat of death or serious harm, and if there is reason to believe that shooting will not endanger an innocent person.
  7. Require Use of Force Continuum: This requires further discussion.
  8. Require Comprehensive Reporting: After an incident, all Officers on the scene must submit a report documenting their involvement, observations, and other relevant facts. If an Officer witnessed a use of force, they will be made available to give interviews and statements on the incident. However, transparency and accountability would be improved if this policy was strengthened to require reporting on the use of force to the City Council through the annual crime report, or the monthly Comstate report only the Police Commissioner currently has access to.

Being a national standard doesn’t mean we should stand still and complacently take no action, nor does it mean we are perfect. We must examine where imperfections lie, where comprehensive change can be affected, and where trust can be forged.

In his address last night, President Obama also noted that, to truly disrupt our unjust legal system and reimagine policing on a meaningful level, reform must happen in more than 19,000 American municipalities, and in more than 18,000 local enforcement jurisdictions. My promise to you is that Cambridge will be one of them.

But we can’t do that without you, our residents. A policy response that truly demands equity and justice requires your input. We need a community-driven response to strive together towards a Police Department that protects and serves all of us, without racial bias, without creating trauma, and without perpetuating a cycle of violence on our black and brown communities. And from the outpouring of local action in the form of protests, community organizing, engagement with elected officials I have seen over the past week, I know Cantabridgians are up to the task.

As a vital first step, Mayor Siddiqui, myself and Councillors Simmons and Zondervan are filing a resolution for next Monday’s meeting asking the City Council to declare racism a public health crisis. By institutionally acknowledging the ways racism permeates our schools, healthcare, housing, criminal justice system, and workforce, we will continue to build momentum and deepen a sense of urgency to dismantle oppressive systems. Next week, the City will also continue this critical dialogue with a virtual Town Hall on policing in Cambridge hosted by Mayor Siddiqui, City Manager DePasquale, and the Police Department. Residents’ questions on the Police Department’s policies on the use of force, body cameras, and transparency will be answered, and there will be an opportunity for community members to give public comment. More details will come in the following days. I hope to “see” you there.

What Do You Do During a Stay at Home Advisory, if You Don’t Have a Home?

These past few weeks have certainly been challenging. Seemingly overnight, public schools and universities closed, non-essential businesses were moved online, and Cambridge municipal buildings shut their doors for the foreseeable future, all in attempt to flatten the curve of COVID-19 transmission. Perhaps the most drastic change was when Governor Charlie Baker issued a Stay at Home Advisory, which was recently extended to May 4th. At our last meeting, the City Council heard directly from Claude Jacob, the City’s Chief Public Health Officer, just how necessary this swift action was: “This is my third visit to the City Council in as many weeks, and as of this afternoon, the case count in Cambridge stands at 79 individuals, with one reported fatality as of this past weekend. That number was 7 when I was here two weeks ago.”  And, as that number has already increased to 119 positive cases within the past four days, the need to stay home and away from large groups is clear. But what do you do during a Stay at Home Advisory, if you don’t have a home?  How do you self-isolate, if you sleep within several feet of someone else at a homeless shelter?

For our homeless residents, this public health crisis poses an especially high risk. Someone experiencing homelessness is more likely to be hospitalized, to need intensive care, and to die from COVID-19 than their housed counterparts. Certain common factors among homeless individuals, such as being older, having underlying health conditions, lacking access to hygienic materials, and more mean this already vulnerable population is in great need of support. The graphs below illustrate the specific risks our homeless population face when compared to the general population:

Source: “Estimated Emergency and Observational/Quarantine Capacity Need for the US Homeless Population Related to COVID-19 Exposure by County; Projected Hospitalizations, Intensive Care Units and Mortality” by Dennis Culhane, Dan Treglia, Ken Steif, Randall Kuhn, and Thomas Byrne, March 25 2020.

The threat posed by this high level of susceptibility extends beyond our homeless population as well. As Risa Mednick, a tireless advocate for Cambridge’s vulnerable residents, eloquently put it in a recent communication to the City Council (which included the above referenced report), 

“The basic needs of our most vulnerable community members must be addressed first ‐‐ safe, warm quarantine space with easy access to running water, soap, bathrooms, showers, and qualified care. Without these measures, the ripple effect of infection among service providers across many systems (from frontline nonprofit workers to municipal employees to law enforcement officers) could be devastating. It is clear that the collaboration of the private and higher education sectors in our community is critical at this moment. The Cambridge nonprofit organizations providing congregate living, overnight shelter, and day shelter options do not have a way to access additional space without intervention.” 

For these reasons, the City has announced that the War Memorial Recreation Center will be used as an emergency homeless shelter during this pandemic.

Located at 1640 Cambridge Street, the War Memorial was determined to be the best, and the only site readily available for an emergency homeless shelter. Pinpointed by an Emergency Task Force, the War Memorial Center meets requirements for both physical space as well as activation time, already serves as the City’s designated site for emergency preparedness activities, and is approved by the Red Cross, making it well-suited to fit the needs of our homeless residents. 

Depending on a residents’ health, they will be placed in one of three distinct service sections of the shelter: a main area for non-symptomatic residents, a quarantine section for those displaying symptoms as they await testing, and a self-isolation area for individuals who have Coronavirus. The unique layout of the War Memorial will ensure these three groups do not intermingle, so that those without symptoms can be protected from COVID-19, and those sick or with symptoms have access to the private bedrooms and bathrooms to prevent further spread. 

Medical staff will be available for everyone sheltering at the Recreation Center, ensuring those quarantining or isolating are cared for, and early signs of transmission are detected. Private security will be employed within the shelter, while the Cambridge Police Department will work to prevent any disruptions to the surrounding neighborhood, and there will be a hotline for adjacent residents for any questions and concerns. As the War Memorial is a part of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin Schools campus, City staff has worked with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to secure classroom space for students, should schools reopen before the end of the academic year.

Those residing at the shelter will be offered day programming by Bay Cove Human Services, encouraging them to stay in shelter, and out of harm’s way, during daytime hours. The shelter will additionally serve as an overflow space for other homeless shelters. The CDC and FEMA are recommending 100-110 square feet of space be allotted per bed, meaning a large reduction of available beds in existing shelters, which were previously highly concentrated to maximize capacity. Opening this additional shelter will help ensure this vulnerable population can responsibly social distance, while continuing to access the services they need.

In times like these, it is heartening that our City is dedicated to protecting and supporting this vulnerable population during their time of need. The findings of one report, “Estimated Emergency and Observational/Quarantine Capacity Need for the US Homeless Population Related to COVID-19 Exposure by County; Projected Hospitalizations, Intensive Care Units and Mortality” by Dennis Culhane, Dan Treglia, Ken Steif, Randall Kuhn, and Thomas Byrne, demonstrate just how necessary this response is. This report estimates that 40% of the country’s homeless population could be infected with Coronavirus at the peak of the crisis. As Cambridge currently has 407 homeless residents, with 81 unsheltered, and 326 in shelters, it is imperative that we flatten the curve of transmission before that estimate becomes a reality for our community. Our healthcare system is already overwhelmed, and additional stress caused by inaction could prove disastrous, if not deadly. Allowing homeless residents to access shelter and practice social distancing is a proactive way to prevent further infection, which is the vital key to solving this public health crisis.

As Dr. Assaad Sayah, Public Health Commissioner and the CEO of the Cambridge Health Alliance, noted during our last City Council meeting, “These are unprecedented times, and we are doing unprecedented work. This work is absolutely critical, not only for the health of the individuals in question, but for the health of everybody in the City of Cambridge.” Stopping the spread of COVID-19, both among our homeless population and the entire Cambridge community, starts with providing this vulnerable group with access to housing, healthcare, and day programming. I am hopeful that, with this creation of an emergency homeless shelter, our most vulnerable residents will be better served, and the entire City will be set on a path towards recovery.

Opening this emergency homeless shelter is just one of the many ways in which the City is supporting our community during the COVID-19 pandemic. To learn more about resources that are available to you, click here.

Moderating the City’s Small Business Virtual Town Hall

Yesterday, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and I were proud to host a Small Business Virtual Town Hall, the first in an upcoming series of themed virtual town halls the City will be holding on COVID-19, commonly known as Coronavirus. As I noted during our discussion, the city, state, and federal government are working hard to meet challenges presented by this unprecedented public health crisis, as we try to flatten the curve so we don’t overwhelm our hardworking health care professionals, and ultimately save lives. However, this response has had a devastating effect on our local economy and on the small, local businesses that make up this amazing community.

In the last two weeks, the small business and restaurant community has been negatively affected by this public health crisis in ways we cannot even begin to imagine. That’s why Mayor Siddiqui and I were grateful to have Michael Monestime, Executive Director of the Central Square Business Improvement District, and Theodora Skeadas, Executive Director of Cambridge Local First, share their crucial first-hand accounts of how Coronavirus has ravaged our small business community. 

In this time of rapidly changing circumstance, our speakers, Congresswoman Katherine Clark, Wendell Davis and Peter Kontakos of the Small Business Administration, Pardis Saffari of the City’s Economic Development Division, and Gayle Willet from our Assessing Department touched on existing and future federal, state, and local economic policies to boost our economy, answered pressing questions from our small business community in real-time, and heard directly from concerned stakeholders on what they need from their government. While we were not able to answer each question during the Town Hall due to high demand, we are committed to developing a comprehensive feedback loop so everyone stays updated.

Although the City’s public response to COVID-19 has, so far, primarily focused on the health and safety of our residents, I can assure you that there have been countless meetings with City staff, local banks, large landlords, and more on how to uplift our small businesses during these challenging times. Supporting our “Main Streets” will be an utmost priority over the next several months, so that when we are able to transition out of this crisis, we will have a recognizable Main Street, and our beloved local businesses will still be there for us.

At the federal level, it is heartening to see an emphasis on small businesses in the economic stimulus packages, and I am thankful for hearing from Representative Clark on how it will translate into serving our community needs, whether it be grant opportunities for small businesses and nonprofits, or newly instituted unemployment benefits for contractors and gig workers. With the recent news that our public schools are likely not to open until early May, we understand that our community will weather this crisis for several more weeks, and that supporting our local economies at every level of government is imperative.

Here in Cambridge, our Economic Development team is working overtime to develop innovative partnerships and support measures. The City recently launched a partnership with local restaurants to provide meals for our homeless residents who are no longer served by the groups that they were before this pandemic hit, and more new programs are underway. Just yesterday, Cambridge’s Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant was announced to support U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-eligible businesses with a grant of up to $6,000. We are also looking into how the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund could be adapted to help not just residents, but our small businesses too. As an ongoing education effort, we are communicating with residents on how they can best support their favorite local businesses, including the creation of a public database noting each businesses’ operational status.

While we are lucky enough to be in no short supply of mental capital here in Cambridge, there are exciting initiatives both in the State and across the country helping small, local businesses that we are studying to see if similar programs could be created here. Mayor Domenic Sarno of Springfield, Massachusetts recently announced a “Prime the Pump” grant program for restaurants, supplying a $15,000 grant to restaurants who have shifted to a take-out model. New York City’s “Employee Retention Program,” will help small businesses with one to four employees retain their workers. Up to 40% of payroll costs for eligible businesses experiencing lost revenue will be covered for two months, up to $27,000. Meanwhile, San Diego, California just announced a $6.1 million economic relief package for struggling small businesses impacted by Coronavirus. A City-supported relief fund will award zero-interest micro-loans for affected businesses, and this package is expected to expand in the coming weeks. As the Chair of the City Council’s Economic Development and University Relations Committee, I look forward to further exploring additional ways the City and our community can support our Main Streets.
This is undoubtedly a complex and challenging time to be a small business, but I am hopeful that with all the work being done at the local, state, and federal levels to uplift our small, local businesses, we will have a recognizable Main Street and a strong local economy when this public health emergency has ended. As the City continues to introduce new programs, resources, and supports for our local economy, you can stay updated by clicking here. Alongside the already-established sections on financial, technical, and workforce assistance for small business leaders on the City’s website, we hope to add an FAQ list from this Town Hall conversation. To listen to our Town Hall conversation, click here.

How the City is Preparing for Coronavirus

Like you, I am watching the news anxiously as the world deals with the spread of the COVID-19 virus, commonly known as the Coronavirus. Many of you have sent questions about the City and what we are doing to prevent the spread of infection, especially for our residents who are older and have underlying health issues. While there are currently no positive cases (presumptive or confirmed) among Cambridge residents, Mayor Siddiqui has been meeting regularly with Chief Public Health Officer Claude Jacob and other City staff, who have organized a COVID-19 working group that is assisting in guiding and coordinating the City’s response. The City and the School Department have also updated their websites with pages dedicated so we can communicate with you about this rapidly evolving issue. Please find the pages here:

City of Cambridge

Cambridge Public Schools

We will continue to update these pages as more information is known, and as we announce new procedures and protocols. In particular, many people have asked me about how we will meet the nutritional needs of our students in the case of a school or district-wide closure. I assure you that, alongside Mayor Siddiqui, City and School leadership as well as with Food For Free, we are developing a plan to ensure our kids have what they need should schools be closed. Currently, no school closures have been announced in Cambridge at this time.

Additionally, many large organizations and institutions in Cambridge have announced large scale closures to assist in “flattening” the cases of infections and not overwhelm healthcare facilities and hospitals. We need to be taking preventative measures to shield vulnerable populations against the threat infection. At the same time, as Cambridge residents, we should be mindful of our small, local businesses at this time who may not be able to weather the large scale closures of their patrons and losing employees virtually overnight in some cases. We have so many small businesses that could use your support and your dollars in the coming weeks, so if you can, show them some love.

If you have any questions, please contact my office at any time by calling (617) 349-4263, or by emailing

The Public Charge Rule is Inhumane – But We Can Fight Back

Following the 2016 presidential election, I ran for office because I knew that the Trump administration would wage a war on our most vulnerable communities, and that having local and state level leadership pushing back against future harmful policies would be critical. This Administration’s cruelty has known no bounds; we have seen asylum seekers separated from their families, LGBTQ+ rights clawed back, and women’s reproductive rights suddenly back on the table, the list is endless at this point. But it has been especially cruel to our low-income, immigrant community. Since being elected in 2017, I have dedicated my time and efforts both on the City Council and at Food For Free to find ways to protect our vulnerable communities against this Administration’s heartless agenda.

One of the most inhumane policies suggested by this Administration is the Public Charge Rule, which allows public charges (ie. residents who take advantage of federal programs like SNAP, WIC, etc.) to be denied admission to the U.S., or an adjustment of immigration status. To avoid future problems with their immigration status, countless vulnerable residents are being forced to make difficult choices between their future immigration status, and the vital food programs that help keep their families healthy and food-secure.

The Public Charge Rule has been rumored since early 2017, and is not currently adopted policy; in fact just weeks ago three federal judges rightfully blocked the Rule from taking effect, but the devastating consequences of the Public Charge Rule have already taken hold. Both enrollment rates in and overall spending on federal food and nutrition assistance programs have declined at a rapid rate, and the reduction in enrollment rates for these programs can be attributed to fears among immigrant communities, who worry they will be unable to stay in the U.S. if they receive public benefits (source).

Here in Cambridge since 2017, we have seen the number of residents signed up for WIC, a critical nutrition program for expecting and new mothers, decline each year. Additionally, the total amount of school meal debt in public schools has increased significantly during the past few school years, despite the recent introduction of free breakfast and elimination of reduced-cost lunches in favor of free lunches. Struggling immigrants, fearful of the repercussions they would face should they enroll in free meal programs is the likely cause of this debt increase. While the Rule does not apply to certain benefits, including WIC and subsidized school meal programs, misinformation is proving to be dangerous for countless immigrants, who cannot make ends meet without assistance. When paychecks are already stretched too thin, and food benefits are either inaccessible or clouded with confusion, the health and quality of life of immigrants are negatively impacted.

Having grown up in a food insecure household that relied on government benefits to get by, I knew I had to act when I saw how prevalent food insecurity was in my own children’s school. In 2013, I founded the Weekend Backpack Program. By sending meals home with over 600 students on Friday afternoons, the Weekend Backpack Program ensures that pupils who depend on school meals return to school on Monday with hungry minds, not hungry stomachs. Outside of the school year, I’ve worked to implement Free Summer Farmer’s Markets in City parks to offer fresh, nutritious food to all who need it. To further expand food access for children during the summer, I successfully worked with Project Bread and our Human Services Department to fund more summer meal program sites in locations easily accessible to high-need neighborhoods, and where children already are in the summer: movie nights, basketball leagues, City libraries, and right onsite at public housing.

As this type of cruelty that denies the most vulnerable members of our community access to healthy food is characteristic of this Administration, it has been crucial to specifically design, or actively work to expand emergency food programs that do not require forms or proof of income eligibility. By not requiring identification, immigrants are able to use these resources free from future scrutiny.

When the interests and needs of our neighbors are neglected and undermined by a governmental office meant to protect us, responsibility falls on officials at every level of government to emerge as leaders. As the Federal Courts determine the legality of the Public Charge Rule, the immorality of it is clear, and we, as municipal officials, are empowered to subvert harmful policies and fill in any resource gaps during this time of uncertainty. By using our direct knowledge of our local communities, our municipal powers, and our nearby resources, like Food For Free, we possess the unique ability to create small-scale yet meaningful change for vulnerable members of our population. In 2017, I ran for public office to safeguard the City I love and the people within it from cruel regulations, and will continue to do so, should I be given the privilege of serving a second term on the City Council.

Read the Final Report and Recommendations of the Mayor’s Arts Task Force

For 9 months, I was fortunate enough to collaborate with working artists, leaders in our creative economy, nonprofit partners, and City officials to examine the barriers to artists living and working in Cambridge. Several long-standing issues, including of lack of space, affordability, equity and inclusivity, and bureaucracy that’s hard to navigate, have caused great losses to our historically vibrant arts community.

The Task Force hard at work building consensus to submit a Policy Order

Displacement and the high cost of both living and practicing art in Cambridge is an ongoing crisis that demands immediate action. Unlike other task forces, which followed a model of meeting for a period of time and producing a report with recommendations to be acted upon at a later date, the Arts Task Force acted as a live advisory body, producing real-time recommendations – also found in this report – that I brought forward at Council meetings over the duration of the Task Force.

“The Task Force wants this report to serve as the document that holds us all accountable for making substantive change for artists in Cambridge.”

-Report conclusion

The report also includes long-term recommendations to improve the quality of life for artists here in Cambridge. As of Fall 2019 when the Council is back in session, I am excited to begin bringing these recommendations to the full Council, and working with our City staff to implement them as soon as possible.

You can read the full report with all of our recommendations below:

Moving Forward After the Affordable Housing Overlay Vote

During my first term as a City Councilor, Cambridge residents have often come to me expressing legitimate concerns about the affordable housing crisis. The single mothers in need of emergency housing, Section 8 tenants unable to enjoy the security afforded by a lease, and the middle-class families worried that a rent bump could displace them demonstrate that the housing situation has become dire for too many people. While I have done everything I can to serve as a resource for those in need, a lone Councillor is not enough to properly address the underlying causes of skyrocketing housing costs. The only way to create a meaningful, lasting solution to the affordable housing crisis is through systemic change.

It is this imminent need for systemic change that makes the Affordable Housing Overlay vote so frustrating. On Monday night, the City Council failed to reach the necessary six votes to pass the Housing Overlay, and the initiative was tabled. After months of thoughtful debate, hearing from passionate residents, and collaboration between Mayor McGovern and myself to propose amendments remedying many environmental and financial concerns about the Overlay, it is disheartening that a measure that had promising potential to improve the lives of many members of our community could not earn a super-majority of support from the Council. Although this does not constitute a “negative action”, which would prevent further discussion of the proposal for 2 years, it does mean that action will not be taken this term, ensuring that any kind of systematic zoning reform – a critical piece of the solution to our housing crisis – is delayed. The Housing Overlay was not perfect, but it was a start, a step in the right direction for the countless Cambridge residents facing sleepless nights and depleted savings due to the looming possibility that they will not be able to afford to live in the city we love.

Nevertheless, the failure to pass the Housing Overlay does not mean our efforts were in vain. The dialogue around affordable housing created by the Overlay continues, and shows no signs of ending with this vote. In fact, I hope to expand on this dialogue in the next Council term. The City needs to do a better job from the start of the process about communicating the real impacts of the Overlay and who would benefit from it. Over the last 8 months of this community-wide conversation, my role as Councillor was to ensure that residents understood this proposal and why it was desperately needed, and to advocate on behalf of our most vulnerable populations. At the same time, I was in constant communication with our nonprofit partners, housing advocates, and residents to be a leader in introducing amendments that would refine the Overlay proposal and make it the best fit for implementation in Cambridge. I also believe that our community has yet to have the critical racial equity discussion of the history of exclusionary zoning, how it continues to contribute to disparate economic outcomes for people of color, and policies to remedy this injustice; in order for us to reform our Zoning Ordinance, all residents should understand their responsibility and own stake in this process.

I look forward to contributing to these conversations both within the Council’s Housing Committee and beyond, should I be given the opportunity to serve another term as a City Councillor. My commitment to ensuring that Cambridge is a place where anyone can live, grow, and thrive without the fear of displacement, and ensuring the affordable housing crisis is addressed in an environmentally, fiscally, and socially conscious way has only strengthened. For as long as I have the privilege of serving on the City Council, I will advocate for every Cambridge resident’s access to safe, high-quality, affordable housing.

My Suggested Amendments to the Overlay

The Affordable Housing Overlay is a policy tool that the City Council is discussing as one way to alleviate the affordable housing crisis. This proposal could allow our affordable housing partners to compete on an even playing field with large market-rate developers, and increase the stock of affordable housing in all neighborhoods throughout the City. Since the beginning of this process, I have been in constant communication with our affordable housing partners, Just-A-Start and HRI, as well as residents who have questions and concerns about how the Overlay would impact their neighborhoods. As a City Councillor, it’s my job to listen to the concerns of both our affordable housing partners and our residents to implement the Overlay in a way that is the best fit for our community.

The zoning as written is not perfect, and as such Mayor Marc McGovern and I have suggested some amendments to CDD’s current Overlay proposal. These amendments are a direct response to the main concerns of residents around height, density, and open space, but are also thoughtfully written based on conversations and feedback from our affordable housing partners to ensure that projects are still financially viable and can serve a meaningful number of people in need of housing. A list of amendments with a short explanation of each can be found below:

Include “Progressive Transitional Zones”

CDD has created its own district made up of a combination of zones allowing 40-80 feet. In these districts, CDD proposes allowing affordable housing projects up to 80 feet by right. In looking at our zoning map, many of these districts that have been lumped into CDD’s 40-80 foot category are BA or BA-2 districts, which directly abut residential neighborhoods with a 35 foot by right height limit. Examples of these areas are Inman Square, Kirkland St, and a section of Mass Ave in Porter Square, etc. where surrounding buildings are no more than 2-3 stories now. The Overlay needs a transitional zone between neighborhoods and more built-up commercial districts, so the Mayor and I are proposing a “middle tier.” Instead of combining zones that have a base zoning of anywhere from 35 feet to 80 feet, we propose a “middle tier” in these “transitional zones” where the by-right height for affordable projects would be 60 feet, not the proposed 80. 60 feet as of right in both BA and BA-2 zones will integrate much better with existing buildings than 80 feet. Additionally, this transitional zone will allow the extra height needed for affordable projects in active business districts, while not overwhelming existing 3 story structures that are directly adjacent to residential neighborhoods.

Most buildings on Cambridge St. in Inman Square are 2-3 stories tall. Allowing 6 stories by right would be a good compromise so that affordable developers can get the extra height needed, but existing buildings aren’t overwhelmed by 8 stories.

Prohibiting Dwelling Units Below Grade

Basement apartments should be disallowed from the Overlay proposal. All units should be above grade to offer the best quality of life for all tenants, as well as ensure that all new units are climate-resilient and protect tenants against flooding.

FAR Limitations in Residential Districts

FAR bumps and density increases are essential for the financial feasibility of many affordable projects however, density within residential districts should have a limit of 3.0. The density cap of 3.0 will be limited to districts where base zoning allows 40 feet or less so that larger projects can be built in the dense, commercial districts which allow building heights over 40 feet.

Eliminate the Open-Space Reduction for Parking

Just last week, a study by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council was released indicated that 30% of all parking spaces in new apartment buildings were unused. Open space should not be sacrificed for parking and should not be a reason to seek a reduction in open space by half of the required percentage. As Cambridge moves further toward reducing single-car trips, and car ownership is on the decline, we should be prioritizing public transit, micro-mobility, and cycling over car parking accommodations.

Allow Roof Decks to Count Towards Open Space

Roof decks and gardens are quality spaces where residents can congregate outdoors in urban environments. Although private porches at grade level and private balconies at any level should not count towards open space, community spaces like roof decks and balconies accessible to all residents, should.

Adjusting the Requirement for Keeping Traditional Ground-Floor Retail in Business Districts to Allow for Greater Flexibility

CDD’s goal with this requirement is to ensure that new residential buildings are compatible with the vibrant streetscapes that are currently found in many business districts that directly abut residential neighborhoods. But this kind of requirement is not found anywhere else in our Zoning Ordinance, and while traditional retail should be encouraged, it should not be required by this new zoning. Our affordable developers offer tenant services, and workforce development programs, that could also be valuable in these “retail” spaces and the flexibility this amendment would provide could help ensure that the ground floor spaces are active, serve the neighborhood and the tenants, while not being what would be considered “traditional retail”. Retail uses are valuable and encouraged in our community, and our affordable developers especially are more friendly than for-profit developers about providing affordable space to small businesses and other local retailers – and this amendment would still give them the option to do this. But they should also have the option to utilize these ground floor spaces, and we should think beyond “traditional retail” as what constitutes an “active use.”

The Just-A-Start development on Tremont St. is home to YouthBuild, its workforce development program to help 16-24 year olds begin a career in the trades.

5 Year Review of the Affordable Housing Overlay

Affordable projects take years to develop because of the complicated financing involved. The Affordable Housing Trust and CDD should be presenting updates and progress reports to the Council every 5 years to review the effectiveness of this Ordinance. Less than 5 years is too tight a time frame for many of our affordable housing partners and won’t present a realistic picture of our progress; more than 5 years is too long without making adjustments that may be needed.

Housing and the Environment: It’s Not a Binary Conversation

Crisis is a word that describes the two of the most pressing issues we face today – the skyrocketing cost of housing and the current climate emergency, but at a recent health and environment committee hearing about the proposed Affordable Housing Overlay, I was struck by the binary conversation we were having surrounding these two issues. For those new to this discussion, the City’s Community Development Department (CDD) has produced this innovative proposal to change our Zoning Ordinance which would allow us to increase the number of affordable units for low and middle income families. The simplest explanation of the Affordable Housing Overlay is that it would relax some zoning rules solely for 100% affordable housing projects, which lowers land and legal costs for nonprofit and affordable housing builders. Since the proposal was unveiled, one of the top concerns from residents has been how this proposal, and the potential new residential buildings that would be built as a result, might affect the preservation of our tree canopy and green space.

I’ve written previously that the overlay presents us with a unique opportunity to transform abandoned and vacant lots, whose gray infrastructure contributes to our urban heat island, to energy efficient buildings complete with green infrastructure and landscaping plans that would yield a net increase in our tree canopy. You can read more of my comments on using these lots to their full potential and transforming them from gray to green here.

Since then, I’ve heard from many residents who are concerned about what the proposal might do to individual lots, if the affordable housing projects built there were to have greater density and height, and what that would mean for the amount and quality of open space. But the benefit of living in an urban environment is the dense, walkable neighborhoods that are close to amenities, like public parks, and when it comes to evaluating open space we should think at a more macro-level, rather than a lot-by-lot mindset. Cambridge is lucky to be home to the highest quality and variety of urban open space: pocket parks and neighborhood tot lots, as well as vast green areas like Danehy Park, Fresh Pond Reservation, the banks of the Charles River, and Joan Lorentz Park. Most residents and families, including mine, don’t play on isolated green lots immediately surrounding their homes, and a front lawn isn’t the only way to enjoy the outdoors, especially in a City. Instead, they walk to their nearest open space which not only gives them more room to enjoy the outdoors, but gets them out into the community to socialize with friends and neighbors.

The urgency of our climate crisis demands that we not get caught up in the micro – where we can get a few more feet of grass or one more tree – but instead, look at the big picture: the net benefit of redevelopment, green buildings, and 100% affordable projects. Neighborhood resiliency in the face of future climate events has been a priority of our City in every major planning study. Just like shared green space is better for socialization, so is increasing the amount of affordable units that promotes housing stability and strengthens our families. At the hearing, our DPW Commissioner affirmed that affordable housing buildings act as socialized housing because of the communities that live there. When we talk about climate mitigation, conversations about green infrastructure and stormwater management are critical, but we cannot lose sight of the importance of building and maintaining socially resilient communities.

We also have to look beyond the borders of our City. An often repeated talking point is that Cambridge cannot solve the housing crisis alone, but we cannot solve our climate crisis alone either. The Affordable Housing Overlay would also allow for taller buildings (80’) along some of our city’s corridors and thus near transit. One of the benefits of transit-oriented development is the lower carbon emissions that come from a reduced demand for single-car trips. This is illustrated on the interactive carbon emissions map, developed by UC Berkeley, which visually represents how dense cities emit significantly less carbon than their suburban counterparts.

A State Wide view of emissions by zip code. Greater Boston is much lower than its suburban counterparts.

State-wide, our highest-emitting zip codes are from Boston suburbs where people are likely to commute into the urban core.

The fact that density and urban living lower carbon emissions isn’t just true in Greater Boston. You can explore carbon emissions zip code by zip code nation-wide with UC Berkeley’s interactive map here.

Cambridge has some of the highest green development standards in the State, but they are nullified when the high cost and low supply of housing forces people to the outskirts beyond the reach of alternative transit, making single car trips into the City a necessity. In fact, 80% of Cambridge congestion is from out of town traffic through the City, not from current or new residents. The Greater Boston Area is a desirable place to live, and no zoning ordinance – no matter how restrictive – will stop the tech boom, job creation, or new residents from moving into the area. Those that are wealthy are increasingly competing with lower and middle income families for what used to be “naturally occurring affordable housing”, and without units to meet the demand for all income levels, it’s the middle and low income families in our community who are increasingly priced out.

A zoomed in view of emissions by zip code. Greater Boston is much lower than its suburban counterparts.
A close up of Greater Boston and its surrounding suburbs.
The lowest carbon emitting zip codes are from Boston’s highest density neighborhoods. Suburbs of Boston emit at significantly higher rates and are some of the highest emitters in the State.

Alarming reports about the health of our planet make environmental concerns justified, and as a policy maker, I’ve been particularly concerned with the balance between a need for new affordable housing and a need to be good stewards of our environment. Too many times thought, we’ve gotten stuck in false perceptions of conflict between trees vs. housing, open space vs. affordability, dividing our community between two critical priorities. We can promote environmental justice by giving low and middle income residents opportunities to live in affordable housing in low emitting communities with access to green space. Current residents will see abandoned lots transformed with new neighbors that are both people and trees. As the Ordinance Committee begins its work this summer alongside interactive, community meetings, we have the opportunity to think about these priorities in tandem and see the Overlay as a tool to make a positive impact on both housing affordability and climate change.

For more of my comments on housing and the environment, watch my remarks from the June 4th Health and Environment Committee hearing.

Bias in the High Arts

I have to admit, the story in this week’s Boston Globe about a racial incident at the Museum of Fine Arts, where students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy were subjected to racial comments and slurs by patrons and tour guides didn’t shock me. It didn’t even surprise me. As someone who has chaperoned many field trips to Boston area “High Arts” institutions for my children’s very diverse elementary school classes, I have seen this bias first hand. We have long known that there is deep institutional, structural and implicit bias in what’s considered the “High Arts”, and their institutions have had a long history of keeping the status quo for wealthy, mostly white patrons and donors. Until recently, ballet dancers of color have had to color their ballet shoes with dye to match their skin because there were no manufacturers that provided them, and curators of large art institutions face many challenges to display diverse art on their walls, mostly due to fear of their major donors and the members of their boards. These are but a few examples where bias exists in the high arts, and it’s no wonder that artists and patrons of color don’t feel welcomed in these highly vaunted arts spaces. Ballet dancers are literally being told “you don’t belong here”, and patrons of color do not see themselves reflected on the walls of these institutions.

Nine months ago, I was chosen to chair the Mayor’s Arts Task Force here in Cambridge, to look at ways the City could better support the Arts and the artists who create it. Choosing a diverse group was key to the groups success; both racial diversity and diversity of arts mediums. Once the members were finalized, I took on the daunting task of speaking with each of the 20+ members by phone to better determine what they each wanted to cover during the nine months of meetings we would have together. During those conversations, every single member made it clear that without a real discussion how racial bias would show up during our meetings, this work would not have the foundation necessary to deeply and honestly cover the topic of the arts in Cambridge. The fundamental questions of “what is art, and who gets to decide?” and “who is represented and reflected in art?” needed to be carefully considered in each and every conversation we would have. Whether the topic was public art, licensing and permitting, zoning, funding or others, these fundamental questions needed be answered, and an equity and inclusion lens needed to be used by all members. In order to ensure that our work as a Task Force had that foundation, early in our schedule we dedicated an entire meeting to diversity, equity and inclusion in Art with a skilled facilitator, Malia Lazu from The Urban Labs. Ms. Lazu laid the foundation for our work by asking these questions, helping us understand where we might discover bias in our work, and how we could confront bias with a shared language and understanding. She taught us how to work together as a diverse group, dealing with difficult issues with a solid understanding of the inherent racial bias in art, and how to move through our conversations with that as a prominent lens.

The Arts Task Force undergoes an anti-bias training/discussion at its second meeting.

That shared foundation Ms. Lazu laid has been critical to us having difficult conversations about race, inclusion and equity in art. That conversation has allowed every member of the Task Force to speak up forcefully when issues of bias arise, not leaving it to our members of color to do that work — as often happens in group dynamics. This led to incredibly productive conversations, and immediate outcomes. Without that initial training with Ms. Lazu, I often wonder if we would have had the successes we have had together. My guess is no. The truth is, any healthy committee, task force, or organization needs to be doing this incredibly difficult, but ultimately rewarding work to fully realize their potential for inclusivity and bias free outcomes.

The Museum of Fine Arts and other “high art” institutions; The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Boston Ballet, The Isabella Stewart Gardner and others have an absolute responsibility to be on the forefront of this anti-bias and inclusion work. The institutional, structural and inherent biases that exist in large, high art institutions need to be addressed wholesale. Their employees, from the executive leadership level to the guards and box office employees, need to have intensive anti-bias training. Their Boards of Directors themselves need to be diverse and each member clearly needs to understand that what is inside their buildings must reflect who comes to visit, and that all must feel welcome. Their curatorial staff must feel supported in choosing diverse works, diverse artists and exhibits. These institutions must have a no tolerance policy for patrons who make others feel that they don’t belong, simply because they don’t look like them.

I was not shocked to hear that Museum of Fine Arts employees and patrons were racially biased, but I will be if the MFA rises to the challenge to deal with this head on, and lead the way for other high art institutions. It’s high time, and I am ready to be shocked. Your move MFA, we are all watching.