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

Proposed Fare Free Bus Pilot is a Step in the Right Direction

For so many Cambridge residents, public transportation is a lifeline. Over a quarter of Cantabridgians rely on public transportation to get to work each day, and for many others, the MBTA is what connects them to their kids’ schools, their doctor’s office, and even their favorite Sunday brunch spot. With the #1 bus stop right in front of the City Hall steps, and the Central Square T Stop just a few minutes’ walk away, I am always reminded of my responsibility to promote transit justice and help ensure every resident can get where they need to go. That is why I was proud to introduce a Policy Order, along with my colleagues Councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler and Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, last Monday night to ask the City to develop a fare-free bus pilot program, and even prouder to see it be passed. 

Time and time again, residents have come to the City Council with the same message: our current transit system fails to equitably serve the people who need it most, our low-income neighbors. For a single mother struggling to get by, a senior living on a fixed income, or a college student without a strong support system, the $3.40 fare for a round-trip bus ride can make a significant difference; for low-income individuals who take public transportation regularly for school, work, or other commitments, the cost burden can be especially high. Although bus routes were thankfully spared from the unjust MBTA fare hikes last summer, the fact that there is even talk of increasing rates while so many riders struggle to pay at the fare box illustrates just how crucial it is that the City takes action. It is our hope that working closely with the City Manager’s office and the Community Development Department, a pilot could ensure that riders on a popular bus route with high connectivity, like the #1, #68, or #69, will have the chance to participate in riding the bus fare-free.

Cambridge is not alone in this movement to make public transportation free. Cities across the country, including Kansas City, Missouri, Olympia, Washington, and Lawrence right here in Massachusetts, have recently made their own buses fare-free. Worcester, along with our neighbor Boston are also actively considering fare-free routes as well. With the success municipalities have seen since implementing fare-free public transportation, we can only expect countless more cities to join us in this transit equity movement. 

While supporting our low-income neighbors and expanding transit justice is a major benefit of fare-free public transportation, it is not the only one. Other cities and towns that have made their own bus routes fare-free have enjoyed faster boarding times, greater ability to stay on schedule, and decreased noise pollution. Notably, going fare-free also presents a unique opportunity to address our climate crisis. The Boston Metropolitan Area has the worst traffic congestion in the United States, so it is critical that we get as many people out of their cars and onto buses as possible. Just one full capacity MBTA bus has the potential to take 36 cars off the road. Bus travel is growing increasingly greener too, as a modern bus releases 98% less pollutants into the atmosphere than its 1980 equivalent. Moving towards a public transportation-centric model is not only the environmentally-conscious option, but also the future of sustainable and equitable urban life. 

As a City, we need to be intentional about the intersection of climate justice and racial and economic justice when it comes to transit equity. Addressing the climate crisis as well as the needs of our low-income neighbors is in everyone’s best interest, and will help us make sure our children will get to enjoy living in Cambridge for years to come. While this, or any, fare-free bus pilot program will not solve climate change in its entirety, nor all of the multifaceted barriers low-income individuals face, it is a start. This is just the start; just one piece of the puzzle to making the City we know and love the best it can be. Thank you to my co-sponsors on this order, Mayor Siddiqui and Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler, and to the entire Council for joining me in support of a fare-free pilot program. I am so grateful for this opportunity to take a step in the right direction, and to ensure every Cambridge resident can get where they need to go.

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.

Update on the 2020 Budget

On Monday night, the City council passed our FY20 budget of over $680M. Funding reflects our values as a City, so during this year’s budget season, I wanted to ensure that our arts funding in particular was being used effectively. As Chair of the Arts Task Force for the past 8 months, I know that arts is an economic driver in our City, responsible for millions of dollars of revenue each year. During the budget hearings, I used the opportunity to highlight and identify some structural changes that could be made to help strengthen our economic development and the Arts through the Office of Tourism, as well as better use the Arts resources the City financially supports, specifically at the Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge. 

The annual operating budget for the City is over $678 million for FY2020.

 At the budget hearing, I was pleased to hear that the Office of Tourism announce its’ intentions to shift their focus to better support our small businesses and retailers, and I wanted to take this opportunity to create the connective tissue between 3 City departments:  CDD’s Economic Development Division, the Office of Tourism, and the Cambridge Arts Council. Each of these offices are a key support of the “3 legged-stool” that keeps our economy strong and healthy. The arts, tourism, and our small businesses not only rely on each other to thrive, but are part of what makes Cambridge unique, which is why I asked that CDD convene these three departments in a monthly working group. Our small businesses are facing a tough retail climate, but all of them see sales rise during festivals and arts events, and the Office of Tourism can provide that “missing link” to bring in more visitors so that we’re supporting both arts and small business in an impactful way.

The Multicultural Arts Center is located at 41 Second St. in East Cambridge and receives $200,000 in funding from the City annually.

Another area where I placed funding under review was at the Multicultural Arts Center. The additional information from the Multicultural Arts Center (MAC) in their answer to my review left me with more questions than answers. The $200,000 that the City provides to the MAC is vital to its survival, but this only increases the MAC’s responsibility to provide an accessible and affordable community arts space. To achieve this goal, operational practices need to change, and funding can no longer be unconditional and unsupervised. The MAC relies on private events for much of their funding, and these events have taken precedence over the arts in recent years. Artists have dealt with logistical conflicts, inadequate infrastructure, and the expense of buying out the MAC when their performances “interfered” with potential private events. As a result, I proposed that we preserve the space by allocating the funding, but the MAC will not receive the $200,000 in a lump sum like usual. Instead, they will receive $100,000 up front, and to unlock the rest of the funding, will have to meet quarterly with the City Manager and staff to report on their progress, and I also asked that a member of City leadership join or attend the MAC’s board meetings this year, a proposed which they welcomed.

 I’m grateful for the opportunity to champion the arts not only during these budget hearings, but at Council meetings every week. Institutions like the Multicultural Arts Center and the City as a whole need to make a more robust effort to accommodate artists, engage the community, and make space accessible to artists – both logistically and financially.

Affordable Housing Overlay

For too many in our Cambridge community, the cost of housing has reached a crisis level, and I am reminded of this nearly every week when I get emails from residents at their most vulnerable. They often face dramatic rent increases that create emergency situations, or are in danger themselves: a mother trying to escape a domestic violence situation, an elderly woman whose long-time home was just sold and is facing a no-fault eviction, an entire building of Section 8 tenants who were living affordably, but without leases and the legal standing as tenants that could protect them from displacement – and they are in immediate and dire need for housing.

As a Councillor, I have some, but not nearly enough, power to help them. I’ve written letters to vouch for Section 8 tenants’ credit to get them into inclusionary housing, or I’ve made calls to every realtor I know, trying to get an apartment for a single mom so her child can stay in Cambridge, finish high school, and graduate from CRLS. But these are band-aids on a systemic problem: that there’s just not enough housing to keep our most vulnerable residents in our community.

Many Cambridge residents have been following the Affordable Housing Overlay proposal with interest, and I have received hundreds of emails, particularly from residents who have questions, concerns, and those who outright oppose the proposal. To reassure residents, provide them with more details, and stem the tide of misinformation, I have replied to virtually every email and taken any meeting with residents who have questions about the Overlay to address their personal and specific concerns. But not all of you can, or feel comfortable, emailing the Council or showing up in person to Sullivan Chamber to speak at public comment. I’ve also noticed several recurring themes to residents’ concerns when they express them to me so I’m hoping to use this post to talk to our community all at once, not only to answer questions but also to be transparent in my thinking about this proposal as we move forward with this conversation as a community.

Why will there be different rules for affordable housing builders?

One of the reasons why we’re seeing a proliferation of luxury condo development is because of high land costs, an unpredictable and expensive zoning and permitting process, and the high costs of legal challenges to building projects. Affordable housing builders and nonprofits rely on already scarce Federal/HUD funding, State and City funding, with occasional contributions from other sources as well. Though the City has dramatically increased our contributions to affordable housing, we are not the sole financer of these projects, or even the largest ones. For most low income and affordable projects, nonprofits can apply for Federal and State funding, the source of the bulk of their financing, once a year in November, and zoning and permitting are required to be in place. If zoning complications arise, a single permit is denied, or they face a legal challenge, funding isn’t awarded, and they must wait an entire year before reapplying. Unlike large, for-profit developers, nonprofits cannot carry the expensive land costs for an entire year, which means the project doesn’t get built, and our community has lost a vital opportunity to produce low and middle income units. This is how we get the luxury-centered development that has frustrated so many in our City, including myself.

How long will units be affordable?

Developers reneging on their word and turning a profit on housing that was intended to help our community is a deep worry, and after what is happening with the Fresh Pond Apartments, what we call “expiring use” was a concern even before this draft zoning language was written. To ensure this never happens, every unit in every project will be deed-restricted, so that it remains affordable in-perpetuity and can never be converted into market-rate housing. This housing is protected specifically for individuals making between 30%-100% of the Area Median Income, or between $32,000-$107,000 annually, which means that residents like teachers, police officers, firefighters, retail shop employees, and home healthcare workers can have the housing stability they need.

How tall will buildings be in my neighborhood?

Building height is a concern for many who worry that their low-rise neighborhoods will be overwhelmed by larger structures. The proposal would allow buildings only up to 4 stories in residential areas, and they could only go up to 50’ if they contained an active ground floor use, and are located in a part of the neighborhood that is already home to businesses. Buildings that could reach up to 7 stories, or 80’, would only be allowed in major transit corridors, such as Massachusetts Ave. I have been advocating for a “middle tier”, because I think there are some identified “major transit corridors” that are too close to residential neighborhoods or are home to only 2-3 story buildings now, and would be more appropriate at 60’ rather than 80’. A good example of this is on Cambridge Street, between Inman Square and Lechmere station in East Cambridge. While these small, local businesses would benefit from the increased traffic that new residents would bring, the existing structures, even in the business district, are only 2-3 stories tall, and in my opinion, too closely abut residential neighborhoods to allow 80’. Instead, 60’ would allow the additional units without being out of context in these types of neighborhoods, which are typically located in BA districts on the zoning map.

Will the overlay take away green space?

Increasing the amount of green space in our City is something that’s important to me, as I think that residents who live in affordable developments should have just as much access to high quality green space as those who do not. Locating more residents in our City and near rapid transit will decrease the amount of “through traffic” and single car commuting trips, which is vital to reducing the effects of climate change as it allows residents to bike, walk, or take transit to work. Affordable and non-profit builders generally look to build on unused hard surface parking lots, or on lots with dilapidated buildings that could be rehabbed into energy-efficient housing, which would need to meet our City’s high green building standards. The Overlay would require that for fully affordable projects 30% of the lot to be green space, and half of that space must be permeable. If you look at the most recent Affordable Housing projects, sites like the old Kentucky Fried Chicken on Walden and Mass Ave., and the Concord Highland project on Concord Avenue, as well as missed opportunities due to this overlay not being in place, such as the Rite Aid in Porter Square or the Hondar House on Prospect Street, these were all previously lots with zero permeable or green space. By utilizing these lots to their full potential, we have a great opportunity to turn more space in our City from gray to green.

Will the overlay add too many new residents and deplete our resources?

Many residents are concerned about overcrowding, but the truth is that most of the units the Overlay produces will benefit people who are already residents of Cambridge – low and middle income people who are facing displacement or eviction, which is a concern of so many residents who are active in conversations about housing. The housing crisis is becoming so acute that both low and middle class families are shouldering housing costs that are so high, that they’re going without other essentials like food, proper nutrition, and medical care. As someone who has spent over five years in the non-profit sector, delivering food right into the homes of our most vulnerable residents, I’ve seen how disproportionately high housing costs have been detrimental to the quality of life of low-income seniors and residents with disabilities in particular and the devastating life choices they are forced to make when choosing home costs over critical medical care or food.

There are many other questions that residents have asked, but these are the most common themes and issues I’ve seen regarding the Affordable Housing Overlay. When so many emails voice similar concerns, those with starkly different tones stand out. I recently received yet another housing email from a resident in Cambridge, but the perspective and  questions in this one were unique. It was from a lower-middle income family, living affordably now, but are just one untenable rent increase away from displacement. Unlike so many other emails, this is not an emergency situation, but the expression of a constant, nagging fear – an anxiety that lies in the back of their minds as they live their everyday life that home might not always be home. This resident wrote that while they want to keep living in Cambridge, they are increasingly seeing that it is not a community where everyone can thrive and participate fully. They also said something that resonated, and it’s what our overall messaging should be about the Overlay as a community: that they “wanted to know what they could do to help” in this time of crisis for so many, because “it’s not just about me.” They’re right. The Overlay is not just about us as individuals, but is one of our tools to remedy a systemic problem: that our overly-complicated Zoning Ordinance, which is intended to “preserve our community”, has not in fact, done that. Combined with the hot housing market, it has instead become a contributor to exclusion and displacement, and it’s our job as City leaders and policy makers to confront this challenge head on, and consider all opportunities to reverse these harmful effects.

The Affordable Housing Overlay proposal is one I support, but is still just that – a proposal. In my mind, it’s not perfect, and while nothing ever is, there are several aspects that need to be refined to make it a better fit to implement in our community. The draft zoning language continues to be a living document while it undergoes edits, and I am looking forward to the next step in this process which is discussing it in the Ordinance Committee amongst the full Council. I am grateful for the input and comments from our residents as we have had, and will continue to have this community-wide conversation.