Mandatory mask policy: initial thoughts

Wearing a mask is now mandatory anytime you go outside. My thoughts on this policy (also available as a Twitter thread):

One of the most discussed agenda items leading up to Monday night’s City Council meeting was the proposal to make wearing a mask in public mandatory, but the City Manager preemptively announced such an order before the Council even had a chance to discuss it. The intent of this policy is right and I support it as one way to help prevent the spread of the virus during the peak we are currently experiencing. It is also important to recognize that this policy is largely in alignment with Somerville’s policy.

With that said, the City Manager’s preemption sidelined the voice of the Council and our democratic process, which would only have improved the policy. There wasn’t enough discussion of the immense potential for bias in enforcement, especially given the announced $300 fine. Context is important: the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on Black Americans including here in Cambridge, there is record unemployment, and we are struggling to even provide enough masks for the clients of the War Memorial emergency shelter.

So while there is a need for stronger messaging, I am worried about our most vulnerable residents being issued fines that they cannot afford. I expect to not hear any horror stories stemming from this policy, and ideally, there will be no enforcement at all. My suggestion is to have the police actually hand out compliant masks, something present in the Somerville order but not in Cambridge’s. This is a more proactive approach that recognizes that not everybody has ready access to a face covering that is both clean and compliant.

While this would certainly not eliminate the potential for bias, it seems like it would lead to more positive, productive outcomes in these interactions. What we really need is more space, not more policing. I hope the City Manager will listen to the will of the Council and support the closure of some streets, including Memorial Drive, to car traffic. New York City just announced it will close up to 100 miles of streets to pedestrians.

While Plan E Government may have thwarted substantial discussion of this topic on Monday, I plan to continue asking questions both behind the scenes and at future meetings of the City Council in an effort to continue improving on the policy decisions being made.

4/27/2020 Agenda summary (COVID Special Edition #6)

A picture of the cafeteria at the city’s War Memorial emergency shelter, posted with permission from someone living at the shelter. You can see that food has been left out and the chairs definitely aren’t six feet apart. Folks staying inside the shelter have reported to my office that they are completely uncomfortable with these arrangements. You can read a more detailed update on this situation, or scroll down to Charter Right #1 to learn more about the upcoming vote to improve conditions. Please consider taking a moment to email the council about this in solidarity with the unhoused community.

Based on the daily case count, it does appear that Cambridge has entered the peak, the period during which we expect to see the most simultaneous active cases of COVID-19. Following this, we will hopefully see a mostly declining caseload. Based on the current data, Cambridge may have hit peak caseload, or is about to, but that is all subject to change because much of the data is still incomplete and gets filled in over time. So we won’t know for sure until after the peak has happened.

Unfortunately, that also means we will see an increase in fatalities, which lag behind total cases for obvious reasons. Last weekend’s Boston Globe obituary section ran 15 pages long, and soon most of us will know someone who died of COVID-19. It is going to be a very difficult next few weeks, and what lies beyond is anyone’s guess at this point.

You can still give public comment virtually at council meetings by signing up here. Once you sign up, you will receive instructions on how to enter the Zoom meeting on Monday night. For assistance with this, please contact my office directly: qzondervan@cambridgema.gov, 617-901-2006 (leave a message and Dan or I will get back to you).

City Manager’s Agenda

CMA #1: Funding for family support and parent education programs

 Families are going to need support now more than ever. It is good to see this grant funding, and I wonder if we can do even more.

CMA #2: Funding for Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

This is $309,676 in funding for LIHEAP, which helps low-income families in Cambridge and Somerville pay their heating bills during the winter.

CMA #3: Funding for Y2Y Youth Shelter

This appropriation of $114,359 will allow the Y2Y Youth Shelter in Harvard Square to continue running through May 31. I am glad to see this funding because there is significant concern around the potential placement of these youth clients at the War Memorial emergency shelter. 

CMA #4CMA #5CMA #6: Funding for snowstorm-related expenses

These appropriations will fund snowstorm-related expenses incurred this past winter including snow removal contracts, new equipment, and related street repairs. There obviously wasn’t much snow this winter, a mere 22 inches over 11 events. Given this, I don’t really understand why we are being asked to spend 1.1 million over what was budgeted. Do we budget for winters with absolutely zero snow? Why are we comfortable using Free Cash as a slush fund for snow removal, but not for housing the homeless during an emergency?

CMA #7: University funding for the War Memorial emergency shelter

Harvard and MIT each donated $250,000 to fund the construction and operation of the War Memorial emergency shelter, and this item makes it official. Frankly, given how large the endowments of these two universities are, I find these donations insulting. Harvard and MIT refused to shelter people on their campuses and only made this contribution when criticism began to build. Neighboring institutions are doing more for their communities with fewer resources. I created a petition calling on Harvard and MIT to step it up: you can sign here if you haven’t already. Over three hundred people have signed, including many Harvard and MIT alums, students and faculty! The War Memorial emergency shelter is fundamentally unsafe, and you can read more about my thoughts on that below, in Calendar #1.

CMA #8: City Manager update on COVID-19

This is yet another placeholder, and we will undoubtedly receive an actual update in person on Monday night. But I don’t understand why we cannot get written updates on the agenda ahead of time? I realize this is a rapidly changing situation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have written reports on Thursday that are elaborated on in person on Monday.

Calendar

Charter Right #1: Repurposing the War Memorial emergency shelter

I exercised my charter right on this policy order at last week’s meeting for the purpose of giving us more time to truly hear from the unhoused community about their needs. Over the last two weeks, my office has been in direct dialogue with several unhoused individuals, many of whom are living at the War Memorial emergency shelter and are reporting unsafe conditions. The council also received a citizen’s petition from the unhoused community, with over 100 signatures, asking for safer arrangements. This week I met (via telephone conference) with members of the community, the City Manager, and Councillor McGovern, to have a more formal discussion about how we can improve safety and comfort for the unhoused. The unhoused people on the call asked repeatedly to be housed in hotels or dormitories to safely practice social distancing, and this ask was strongly supported by their advocates in MAAP.

I will propose amendments to the policy order that bring it up to date, and hopefully, my colleagues will be more supportive of moving in this direction after hearing from the unhoused community directly about their needs. If Cambridge wants to be known as the best when it comes to human services, we need to do everything possible to protect our most vulnerable. So far we have not done that yet, great intentions notwithstanding.

Communications

Communication #5: Green Cambridge comments on proposed Alewife upzoning

This is an important letter from Green Cambridge about the environmental concerns raised by a proposed development from Cabot, Cabot, & Forbes. Separately, it is unclear how the new economic conditions will impact this and other proposed developments in the city. Chances are that as the recession deepens, projects will be delayed or even canceled. It’s a whole new world and we’re going to have to get creative about making sure we meet our affordable housing goals even as the recession eats into our revenues and private sector contributions. For the record, I have never taken campaign contributions from any real estate developer, including executives at Cabot, Cabot, & Forbes.

Communication #6: Petition from the unhoused community

This agenda item is actually a petition from the unhoused community in Cambridge, with over 100 individually signed letters (presumably collected that way to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission). The petition calls for safer accommodations from the city, specifically mentioning hotels and dorms. Here is an example:

Resolutions

Resolution #8: on the death of Donald Reed Herring, brother of Senator Warren

 Condolences to our Senator, who lost her brother this week, as well as to everyone who is experiencing loss in this difficult time.

Policy Orders

PO #1: Food delivery app service fees

 This policy order asks the City Manager to look at restricting service fees charged by food delivery apps like Uber Eats and Grubhub. Right now the fee structure is outrageous and it is really hindering the ability of our small businesses to stay above water during this crisis. It strikes me as fundamentally unfair that delivery services charge based on a portion of the meal cost, cutting directly into the restaurant’s profits. Why not charge a reasonable delivery fee instead? This is yet another unfortunate example of how the gig economy infected and weakened our economy, long before the appearance of COVID-19.

PO #2: Mandatory face masks

This policy order asks the City Manager to make wearing a mask in public mandatory. I support this, but we need to be careful to avoid unintended consequences by acknowledging the potential for racial bias in enforcement. We also need to recognize that not everybody has the resources to create a cloth mask, so we need to make sure there is a proactive effort to supply people with masks, rather than just slapping them with a fine that they may not be able to afford. If we can’t provide everyone who doesn’t have one with an appropriate mask, it wouldn’t be right to require everyone to wear one.

With that said, making this mandatory clearly communicates to people what is expected of them in order to protect the vulnerable. Many people are dying from this disease; the least we can do is prevent spreading it by staying home and wearing a mask when we have to go out.

PO #3: City workforce safety

This policy order asks the City Manager to establish specific steps to ensure the safety of the workforce upon the reopening of City offices and to provide special guidance for those employees who may be especially susceptible to COVID-19. It is important to protect our staff as they begin to return to physical offices over the next few months. Hopefully, this will lead to the city allowing a more flexible work schedule so that more people can work from home, de-densifying the offices, and making it easier to practice social distancing for those who come in that day. Even once we open back up, special considerations will need to be given for those who are particularly vulnerable. 

PO #4: Mental Health Awareness Month

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for everybody, but especially for those who struggle with their mental health. Some have found solace in connecting with friends and family over the internet, but that has only made things more difficult for others. We need to find better ways to support each other and protect our mental health. This policy order, which recognizes May 2020 as “Mental Health Awareness Month” in Cambridge, is a good initial step in that direction.

PO #5: Videoconferencing technology for Council meetings

I totally agree with this order from Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler which asks the City Manager to look into a way of doing committee hearings over Zoom that would comply with the open meeting law. Monday night may actually be the first council meeting with a majority of councillors on Zoom- I’ve been using it for a few weeks but it hasn’t been fully integrated into the city’s A/V broadcasting system until now. We did a test run on Friday and it seemed to work ok, so hopefully, Monday night will be a successful first Zoom-based Cambridge city council meeting. With those kinks worked out, we should be able to start having committee meetings again via Zoom, of course initially dealing with COVID-19 related matters only, but eventually getting back to at least some of the other business that still awaits.

Communications & Reports from Other City Officers

COF #1: School Committee budget update

First, I really appreciate Mayor Siddiqui’s communications keeping us abreast of the school committee discussions around the budget. These regular updates have been quite useful and are an important part of open and transparent communication between the City Council and School Committee around our collaboration on the school budget, which ultimately requires approval from both bodies.

Second, I’m heartened by the depth and breadth of discussion taking place on the School Committee around racial equity and closing the achievement gap. It seems to me that this is the most airtime this topic has received in decades. Talking about it does not equate with solving the problem, but we certainly cannot address the problem without talking about it. I look forward to an ongoing robust discussion and ultimately to a budget that begins to make real, meaningful change in the direction of equity. And if it doesn’t, I will once again not vote for it.

4/21 Post-meeting thoughts

Here are my thoughts after last night’s special City Council meeting on COVID-19. Photos published with the permission of someone living at the city’s War Memorial emergency shelter.

Photo of the sleeping area at the War Memorial emergency shelter. Photo posted with permission of someone living at the shelter.

We all appreciated the City Manager’s update, but too little time was left for questions from the council. The presentation took so long that we barely even got through a first pass of the council before time expired. My notes are full of constituent questions that went unanswered. Far too much time was spent prematurely thanking & congratulating each other instead of answering questions. I understand the need to keep morale up, but it was excessive. This is an emergency, not an awards ceremony, and we are still at the very beginning of our response!

People are dying, & the most vulnerable are counting on us to think critically and sharp. But we are given very little info, and questioning anything is met with dirty looks. I get that people don’t like criticism, but saving lives is more important than sparing feelings. At last night’s meeting, the City Manager said that clients made a “smooth and uneventful transition” to the War Memorial emergency shelter, and the Police Chief called the opening “seamless”. But I am hearing a different story from folks actually living through it…

Does this look safe to you?

Photo of the dining space at the War Memorial emergency shelter. Food has been left out, and the chairs definitely are not 6 feet apart. I have heard from clients who are uncomfortable with this arrangement. Photo posted with permission of someone living at the shelter.

Here are just some of the things I’ve heard from folks staying at the War Memorial shelter:

  • No privacy
  • Seated uncomfortably close together during meals
  • Sharing cigarettes
  • Not enough PPE
  • COVID-positive individuals have entered the facility

Folks staying in the new shelter recognize that the conditions are unsafe. The problem is more than the space between chairs or a lack of partitions. We were told last night that there are temperature checks daily, but I spoke to someone inside the shelter who said that is not the case.

Photo of a lounge area at the War Memorial emergency shelter. Photo posted with permission of someone living at the shelter.

We fought tooth & nail to have everyone tested before entering the new shelter, and 30 people were pre-tested at the Warming Center last Thursday. But since the WC closed at 5 AM the following day, people who had just been tested had no safe place to go and were left exposed.

It wasn’t until Saturday that the Warming Center was kept open and people were asked to stay put until the results came in, so those who tested neg could be transferred to the Field House. Fortunately, only 3 people ended up testing +, and they were sent to shelter in hotels.

We obviously can’t force people to stay inside the shelter, but we also can’t test people every 5 minutes. Because of this, it is impossible to pull off a congregate shelter approach safely. & don’t the unhoused deserve dignity too? There aren’t even partitions between cots.

Photo of the outdoor space at the War Memorial emergency shelter. Photo posted with permission of someone living at the shelter.

We are ignoring lessons learned from other cities, and the City Manager insists on celebrating a shelter that is inherently unsafe. Will it take a massive outbreak within the facility to get us to provide everyone with the isolated space they deserve?

The obvious solution: put those who need shelter into space where they can safely isolate, like a hotel or a dorm. If those who test positive for COVID-19 can be safely isolated in hotel rooms, why not those who tested negative? Wouldn’t that be the safest and most humane thing to do?

Compare all this to what we were told during last night’s meeting when I questioned the shelter:

  • Everything is fine
  • No problems here
  • Quit criticizing from the sidelines

We need to get this right, and I will keep advocating for the safety & dignity of the vulnerable!

Planning for our infrastructure needs

At a November 26 hearing of the Ordinance Committee, We discussed a zoning petition introduced by Councillor Carlone and I that would ensure the impacts of large new projects on electricity and natural gas infrastructure are properly considered as part of the permitting process.

There was broad agreement that it would be helpful to require developers to provide the Planning Board with information about the expected utility demands of their proposed projects, but the committee was not ready to require the Planning Board to base their decision directly on this information. I will return to this topic in the next term to find appropriate ways to ensure we are never again presented with a surprise on the scale of the proposed Eversource transfer station on Fulkerson Street. It’s critical that we plan carefully for the future while conserving energy and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and that will require a more stringent approach than the “build first and ask for more electricity later” approach that we’ve been following so far.

Eversource & the Fulkerson Street Substation Proposal, part 1

In response to Kendall Square’s recent explosive commercial building growth and without accounting for future demand projections, Eversource has proposed a massive 150-180 Megawatt power substation on Fulkerson Street in East Cambridge, right across from the Kennedy-Longfellow School and Ahern Field. I vehemently oppose this substation, as well as the proposed substation expansions on Putnam Ave and in Alewife. Over the last six months, I’ve made it clear to Eversource, large property owners, and the City that they need to find a more suitable location in Kendall Square, and that they need to find a more sustainable and thoughtful way to meet our energy needs going forward. East Cambridge should not get stuck with dangerous and disruptive infrastructure that would power Kendall Square, but simply finding a different site is not good enough. Electric utility expansion is counterproductive to our climate goals, and Eversource should not be building any more of this infrastructure, period.

With 34 building projects permitted or under construction in Kendall Square and electric load already reaching 98% of capacity at peak usage times during Summer 2018, something clearly needs to be done. However, the Eversource proposal is a band-aid solution that perpetuates the lack of planning that got us into this mess in the first place! The demand projections presented by the utility don’t even factor in the millions of square feet of growth anticipated at the Volpe site in the coming years.

The demand projections presented by the utility don’t even factor in the millions of square feet of growth anticipated at the Volpe site in the coming years.

There has been a frustrating and unacceptable lack of coordination between the City and the utility, and the City seems perfectly comfortable to continue growing without serious infrastructure planning. If we continue along this path of mindless commercial growth, we will be back at the table in a few years having another conversation about the need for a new substation. Not on my watch! I will not vote for any more upzonings that add to our grid electricity consumption. Enough of us have taken such a position with respect to the Fulkerson Street proposal that the big developers in Kendall Square have come to the table to discuss alternative sites for this substation. I have also filed a zoning petition along with Councillor Carlone that would amend the special permit criteria to require that the Planning Board consider a project’s impact on our public utilities, including the electrical grid and its capacity.

86% of the electricity on the grid in Massachusetts does not come from 100% renewable sources, so any additional grid electricity consumption adds to our fossil fuel emissions, which need to be decreasing, not increasing! Though it may seem counterintuitive, we don’t need to increase our grid infrastructure in order to meet our electrical demands. Con Edison’s Brooklyn Queens Demand Management (BQDM) program is an excellent illustration: instead of spending a billion dollars on traditional solutions including a new substation (as proposed), the utility invested $200 million into demand management strategies and efficiency upgrades. This option worked better than anyone expected and addressed the electrical needs of the growing neighborhoods without the need for a new substation. 

If these alternative approaches can be effective in New York City, we should be able to explore them in Cambridge, but Eversource has refused to do so every time I bring it up during committee hearings. It is no surprise that the utility would be perfectly comfortable with endless additional grid infrastructure as most of their profits come from the distribution of electricity (as opposed to the generation) and they turn quite the profit despite being a “public” utility! Ultimately we need to move away from the for-profit utility model altogether. That is why I support Rep. Connolly’s bill, H.3893, “An Act Facilitating Public Ownership of Public Utilities”. I will continue to push for more aggressive investments in energy use reductions and for increasing local renewable energy deployments in existing buildings, and for net-zero ready and net-zero standards for new construction. We have built several net-zero ready municipal buildings at this point, and it is past time to do the same in private development through energy efficiency and local renewable energy sources like solar, geothermal, and air-source heating/cooling. Through all these strategies, we can reduce our building emissions, which account for 80% of Cambridge’s total emissions, and minimize the need for new grid infrastructure. Finally, I will continue to advocate at the state level to increase the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) up from the current 14%, and for other ways to accelerate the timeline to a 100% renewable electricity grid statewide.

Gas Ban Introduced

I recently introduced an ordinance that would ban natural (fracked) gas infrastructure in new construction in Cambridge and chaired a committee hearing to begin the discussion. 

Several cities in California have already passed similar laws, and several others here in Massachusetts are currently considering a similar ban on gas. Through air-source heat pumps, geothermal, rooftop solar, and maximally efficient design, we can electrify our building energy needs and avoid on-site combustion of fossil fuels entirely. Cambridge has already proven this concept in several municipal buildings, including the brand new King Open School complex, which has been built net-zero ready. 

We face a huge and expensive challenge in retrofitting our existing buildings to eliminate gas combustion in the future, and it makes no sense to worsen that problem by adding more buildings that burn fracked gas. 

HEET and Mothers Out Front delivered an excellent presentation at that hearing to educate us on what the word “fracked” actually means!

Currently only 14% of grid electricity in Massachusetts is renewable, and at current rates we won’t reach 100% for decades. So an all-electric, grid connected building today will not be truly net zero emissions unless it provides all of its own energy from renewable sources, which is difficult to accomplish. However, buildings designed as all-electric will automatically transition to net-zero emissions as the grid becomes increasingly green, whereas even the most energy efficient gas-reliant building cannot become net-zero without replacing the gas burning components, or supplying them with biogas, neither of which is particularly easy or cheap. Any individual or small business can get 100% renewable electricity through Cambridge’s Community Choice Aggregation program for a very comparable price to Eversource today. That means in Cambridge, a net-zero ready building can be converted to a true net-zero building with the stroke of a pen (have you signed up for 100% renewable electricity yet?)

I understand the concerns from residents who have lived through expensive bills from resistance heating (traditional electric heating), but air-source heat pumps (which can be thought of as air conditioners in reverse) are much more efficient and affordable than traditional electric heating. I have also heard from some residents who are concerned about having to give up their gas stoves, but it is important to realize that this change would only apply to new construction, so nobody is being forced or even asked to give up anything. Induction cooktops are garnering great reviews as a substitute for gas cooking.

Ultimately it will be important for all buildings to move away from fossil fuel combustion as an energy source because our aging gas infrastructure is an immediate and omnipresent safety hazard. Explosions caused by gas leaks happen routinely across the country; we all remember last year’s tragedy in Merrimack Valley and recently a major gas leak on Beacon Hill caused folks to have to evacuate so quickly that they couldn’t even put their shoes on before they left the house. According to HEET there were 280 unrepaired gas leaks in Cambridge in 2018, and there is no reason to continue living in fear of gas explosions when we have much safer and cleaner technology at our fingertips.Thanks to strong community support, I’ve been able to build considerable momentum around this proposal to ban gas in new construction. But passage is not guaranteed, and the conversation could very well drag into the next term.

If you haven’t already, please take a moment to let the council know how you feel about this policy by emailing us at <council@cambridgema.gov>. I’m also planning a community meeting in December to continue the discussion and learn more about the alternative technologies to gas that will power our transition to a renewable future.

Welcoming Community Ordinance Introduced

Cambridge has been a sanctuary city for more than 20 years as a matter of policy, but there is more that we need to do to protect immigrants in our community. I worked with Councillor Carlone to introduce the Welcoming Community Ordinance that would make it the law, as it should be, for the Cambridge Police Department to serve the public without consideration of immigration status or citizenship. Several other municipalities have already passed similar language, and the ACLU joined us at a recent hearing in support of the ordinance as proposed.

Specifically, this ordinance would:

  • Prevent police officers and other city employees from inquiring about the immigration status of anyone with whom they have contact, except to provide a public benefit.
  • Officially end any role the police may currently play in immigration enforcement by preventing them from participating in federal immigration enforcement operations, or from initiating investigations of their own on the sole basis of actual or perceived immigration status.
  • Prevent police officers from arresting or detaining individuals solely on the basis of an ICE detainer or ICE administrative warrant, including extending the length of detention by any amount once an individual is released from local custody.
  • Prevent the Police Department from providing a federal officer with information related to a person in the custody of the Department, including their home or work address, unless otherwise required by law.
  • Codify a policy of issuing a court summons instead of making an arrest when a person is caught driving without a valid driver’s license, assuming there are no other violations causing the person to be arrested. Instead of impounding the vehicle, the driver would be provided with a reasonable opportunity to arrange for a properly licensed operator to drive the vehicle away.
  • Require the Police Department provide individuals in custody with any documentation related to their immigration case, including any immigration detainers or ICE administrative warrants they receive.
  • Prevent ICE agents from being allowed to access individuals in custody of the Police Department (either in-person or virtually) except in response to a judicial warrant or other court order.

This work is deeply personal to me. I am an immigrant and naturalized citizen who came to the United States when I was 15 years old to escape dictatorship and oppression in my home country of Suriname in South America. Soon after their arrival, my family was served a deportation notice, and it took them eight years to get their legal status. I was fortunate to have arrived ahead of them on a student visa and ended up getting a green card (permanent U.S. residency) separately, so I was a witness in the rest of my family’s court proceedings (I became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1996). At the court hearing, I testified that my younger sisters would face immense difficulty if they were to be deported back to Suriname. The judge used my testimony to grant them permanent residency status, and then allowed my parents and brother to stay as well in the name of keeping the family together. It was an incredibly difficult situation but at least we were given due process and in the end my family was allowed to stay together and in the United States. 

The current administration’s war on immigrants is despicable. Keeping families together is no longer a priority and due process has been thrown out the window. Thousands of children are separated from their parents and kept in what are effectively concentration camps in which they are denied basic necessities like soap, and forced to sleep on concrete. HUD Secretary Ben Carson has proposed to evict mixed status families from public housing, a policy that would put up to 55,000 children who are legal US residents out on the street. Our country is deporting people into dangerous situations, like the diabetic man from Detroit who was recently deported to Iraq, a country he had never set foot in, where he soon died of a lack of access to insulin. It is time for Cambridge to step up in the face of this abhorrent abuse of power and do more to protect our immigrant community. We should stand with Somerville in building a protective legal wall to counteract this administration’s vicious attacks.

We held a committee hearing on this proposed ordinance a few weeks ago, but unfortunately the conversation was derailed by our City Solicitor who came unprepared to deliver a legal opinion on the ordinance despite having had nearly five months notice. I was ready to move the ordinance forward to the entire council for consideration, given that this language has already been reviewed by the ACLU and passed by several other municipalities. This conversation cannot drag on indefinitely with lives at stake, and I will do what I can to move this language forward before the end of the term. A benign interaction with the Cambridge Police or the court system should not be allowed to lead to deportation and separation for an immigrant family in Cambridge.

Councillor Zondervan’s Thoughts on the Sullivan Courthouse Vote

In one of the most consequential votes of this term, the Council approved the disposition of public assets at the First Street Garage, allowing a private developer to remediate the Sullivan Courthouse and convert it into primarily high-end commercial office space. The carefully orchestrated last-minute negotiation that took place on the chamber floor was a fitting end to a long process that exposed at every turn how undemocratic our city government truly is, and the extent to which powerful special interests rule. Putting the courthouse into private hands is a grave mistake, and I voted against proceeding in that way for reasons I will explain below. 

I am glad the project will contain twice as many affordable housing units than some were so eager to accept, although the additional units will not offset the impact of this development on the surrounding neighborhood and the people who hope to be able to continue living there. I am so proud of the overwhelming grassroots movement and true leadership from Representative Mike Connolly that it took to get us to the point where striking such a deal was even possible. To everyone who was a part of that, thank you for your work and your activism. I also appreciate Councillor Siddiqui’s willingness to demand more of the developer, though I am uncomfortable with the backroom approach, and ultimately we still left a lot on the table given the council held all the cards in this matter. 

Of particular concern is the impact that 400,000 square feet of high end commercial office space will have on the neighborhood and vulnerable renters who live nearby. Massive commercial development like this accelerates displacement, and the city has chosen to concentrate too much of it in the East Cambridge area. With millions more square feet set to come online over the next several years, the council had an opportunity to move in a different direction on land that had been in the public domain for more than 200 years. We should have denied the disposition and pursued the city purchasing the courthouse building instead. If successful in acquiring the building, we could have engaged in a democratic, public process that spread some of the development rights of the courthouse throughout the city so as not to overburden any particular neighborhood, while still being able to finance the cleanup and redevelopment of the site. Instead of an oversized commercial tower on the site itself that will worsen displacement, we could have built even more affordable housing than was obtained through this terrible deal. 

Hundreds of additional daily car trips in and out of East Cambridge will still be added by this hideous project despite the reduced number of disposed spaces in the proposed deal (which is subject to planning board approval). Even if the new deal is approved by the Planning Board, no actual car storage reduction will take place, because the number of spaces in the First Street Garage remains exactly the same. Keeping more of those spaces in the public domain for the next 30 years *is* a benefit to the community, because as we continue to eliminate on-street car storage to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety, we need public garages, as a matter of economic justice, to assist those who cannot afford alternatives to driving to work every day.

It was fairly obvious that the compromise brokered on the floor had been worked out ahead of time, as the developer took only a minute to mull over a complicated package that will necessitate a trip back to the Planning Board to seek amendments that have no guarantee of passing. The deal was negotiated without input from anyone opposing the disposition, including the neighborhood group (East Cambridge Planning Team). There wasn’t even an opportunity for the council to discuss the substantial changes, let alone space for public comment. 

The choice to privatize is particularly concerning given the abhorrent condition of the building. Sensational claims that the building represents an immediate safety hazard made by proponents of privatization turned out to be baseless, but the city and state alike chose to drag their feet on reaching this conclusion publicly. Instead, they allowed fears to fester in the community, putting additional pressure on the council to vote yes. Everybody agrees that the building must be remediated immediately, but the fear-mongering that took place was inappropriate and unnecessary. 

The neighborhood deserves a remediated site as soon as possible, but privatizing the courthouse means it could be many years before that work gets done, if at all. It has been 11 years since the last economic recession, the longest such period in US history, and our President is reckless and unpredictable. The developer’s ability to remediate the site is contingent on outside funding that could easily vanish if we have a recession soon, at which point the developer could sit on the asset or even sell it off to another party. Most of us remember how development in Northpoint was stalled for years after the last recession, and the unfortunate circumstances around Jerry’s Pond show us that the city has very little ability or appetite to control public safety concerns related to private assets. Selling off this asset was the absolute worst choice we could have made if our goal is to remediate the site as quickly as possible for the neighborhood.

I am disappointed by the cheap shots on social media that were made in the aftermath of this vote, especially those that were directed against some of my colleagues.. At his inauguration last year, the Mayor gave a beautiful speech about “Cambridge United”. I hope the Mayor recognizes that in this case his office did not live up to that slogan. Policy disagreements should not translate into personal attacks on individual councillors.

Unfortunately, the courthouse building will stand for decades to come as an ungainly monument to injustice, reminding generations to come that government by the people and for the people, remains an aspiration that we must continuously strive towards, and that even the best intentions to negotiate a better deal can produce unjust outcomes in the end.

Councillor Zondervan’s Proposed Amendments to the Affordable Housing Overlay

Councillor Zondervan recently joined his colleagues in submitting amendments to the proposed Affordable Housing Overlay. You can find them below, along with jump-links to a red-lined version of the proposed language. Please reach out to let him know what you think by emailing <qzondervan@cambridgema.gov>, or just by leaving a comment on this post!

Introduction

With nearly 20,000 individuals and families on the housing waitlist, it is frustrating to have spent most of the term and so much energy on a proposal that the city claims will lead to a few hundred additional units (at best) over the next decade, beyond what would have otherwise been built. Nobody disagrees that our zoning code could use a citywide overhaul, and the conclusion of the Envision master plan process seems to be a great time to do it. But this proposal takes a very narrow lens to that task, and for all the controversy, it seems likely that it will not meaningfully address the problem at hand.

Ultimately, we will need to be much bolder in our approach if we truly want to make a difference. Nonetheless, the AHO is before us and it is our duty as a council to carefully weigh the costs and benefits and to improve it as best we can before finally making a decision. I have listened to the perspectives of hundreds of constituents on this issue, and I have taken the time to seek out voices we don’t often hear from. A few themes have emerged from these conversations, which I have done my best to capture in the attached amendments for your consideration. 

In order for me to support an as-of-right citywide rezoning, there are three critical points I will be considering:

  1. We must protect existing tenants from displacement, and we must protect our local businesses as well.
  2. We must build with the climate crisis in mind, and that means anything we build should not be making global warming worse, and should protect the health and safety of its occupants from the impacts of climate change.
  3. We must be assured that the resulting buildings will be of the highest quality, that they will meet the architectural and design standards that we expect, and that they will serve the needs of the occupants.

This is by no means a final or exhaustive list of changes that will be required, and we are very much still at the beginning of the conversation in terms of evaluating whether or not the AHO is a good idea for Cambridge. The question does not hinge on the severity of the housing affordability crisis, which is high, but on the expected benefits of the policy proposed to address it. 

Whether or not we approve the AHO, we still have a lot more work to do in meeting the twin challenges of housing our residents affordably and protecting ourselves from climate change. That is why I am an outspoken supporter of Representative Connolly’s Housing for All agenda, and that is also why I will be introducing a bolder series of reforms this fall, including a ban on fracked gas in new construction and a proposal to allow multifamily housing everywhere in our city.

Summary of Zondervan Amendments

  • I was glad to finally receive draft AHO design guidelines from CDD. While these are a good start, a great deal more work remains to be done before these guidelines can be considered an acceptable tradeoff for eliminating discretionary project design review. I look forward to the continuing development of these guidelines. 
  • Any tenant directly displaced by an AHO construction must be guaranteed a right to return. (definitions, 3.b.iv)
  • For AHO units, we should give preference to those who have experienced a no-fault eviction from a market unit within city limits within the past year. (3.b.i)
  • AHO construction should not be exempt from the Tree Protection Ordinance. This is a fundamental matter of equity; everyone deserves access to the health and safety benefits of trees in close proximity to their dwelling units. The Affordable Housing Trust Fund should cover any additional costs incurred while achieving these standards, so that compliance won’t limit or prevent affordable housing construction. (7.6)
  • AHO buildings must be built Net Zero Ready (definitions), which means: as energy efficient as possible, with no on-site fossil fuel combustion, and maximum on-site solar production (if technically feasible), geothermal or air-source heating & cooling, and rainwater capture. (7.6)
  • FAR (density) should be limited to ensure sufficient land area for green open space for residents to enjoy and to protect against the heat and flooding impacts of climate change. (7.6.d)
  • Protect existing retail in buildings that are rebuilt/refurbished under the AHO. (4.b.i)
  • Allow retail services in any AHO building. (4.b)
  • 20% of GFA should be set aside explicitly for homeownership purposes in projects greater than 10 units. We could put these units directly into the city’s Homeownership Resale Pool, so there would be no additional administrative overhead. (3.b.iii)
  • Off-street surface parking cannot be counted as part of the 30% minimum open space requirement. (5.2.3.a.i)
  • 100% of the required open space shall meet the city’s definition of permeable. (5.2.3.c)
  • Waive the minimum lot area per dwelling unit dimensional requirement in table 5-1 to allow multiple dwelling units on a site. (4.a).
  • We should completely eliminate parking minimum requirements for AHO construction, with the only exceptions being to provide sufficient accessible parking as well as ample space for pickup and dropoff. Developers would still be allowed to build parking, but they wouldn’t be required to do so. (6.1.a)

Initial Thoughts on the Affordable Housing Overlay

Cambridge is one of the least affordable housing markets in the entire country. Our addiction to commercial development has fueled the crisis by continually attracting lots of higher-salaried workers to the Cambridge area. At some point, the market got so hot that international investors started speculating on property that they had no intention of living in. Meanwhile, nearly all the new housing built in the city is market rate, designed and priced for the wealthiest segment of the population because of the profit motive. As prices continue to skyrocket, tenants are displaced and communities are ripped apart. A lucky few get subsidized housing, and the rest are forced to live elsewhere, pushed farther and farther away from the city they once called home.

We have lots of opportunities to build 100% affordable housing above retail on transit corridors, like this site on Mass Ave.

Addressing this crisis of affordability has been the stated top priority of the City Council for years, and most agree that the answer lies in some combination of tenant protections and subsidized affordable housing construction. The council has begun seriously discussing tenant protections this term, though we are largely limited in what we can do by state law and inaction of the legislature. We have also asked the City Manager for a significant increase in the funding of affordable housing construction, a request I hope he will grant in the FY20 budget. The city’s inclusionary housing program ensures that 20% of the floor space of large new market-rate housing developments (10 units or more) is set aside as income-restricted housing managed by CDD. Unfortunately, the remaining 80% is completely unaffordable to people being displaced from our city, and itself further accelerates the displacement by significantly raising nearby land values. If there’s one thing the last few decades have taught us, it is that we can’t simply rely on the market to build our way out of this crisis.

The situation is further complicated by a troubling regional history of white flight and racist zoning practices & patterns that systematically prevented people of color from purchasing homes in desirable areas, and therefore from accumulating the kind of generational wealth that helps people move out of poverty. The impacts of these policies are still felt today, and I support examining the zoning code to identify bold ways we can further assist those who remain at a huge disadvantage. While we do so, we must carefully balance trade offs to avoid things like further degrading our tree canopy and losing our small businesses.

At the same time, we need to carefully examine any proposed policies to make sure they have a chance to achieve the stated goals. To maximize the benefits of incentivizing affordable housing construction through the overlay, we should prioritize locations that are readily accessible by transit so as to both minimize the parking and traffic impacts, and to maximize the transit accessibility for the residents who will be living in these new homes.

Finally, we should look for ways to achieve social justice, by providing additional affordable homeownership opportunities and providing a right of return for residents who have been displaced by our city’s growth, including people of color.

Here are some ideas I urge my colleagues to strongly consider as we begin this important conversation:

Applicability of the Overlay

The priority of this overlay should be to unlock more sites throughout our city that have immediately accessible public transit options, while protecting local retailers. We can accomplish the important goal of incentivizing more AH in every neighborhood without making car ownership effectively a requirement of tenancy. We are fortunate as a city to benefit greatly from public transit services including many bus lines and six subway stops. With that in mind, the overlay should be limited to the transit hubs and corridors, including:

  • Huron Avenue
  • Concord Avenue
  • Mount Auburn Street
  • Brattle Street
  • Massachusetts Avenue
  • Putnam Avenue
  • Western Avenue
  • River Street
  • Cambridge Street
  • First Street
  • Hampshire Street
  • Columbia Street
  • Broadway
  • Prospect Street
  • Main Street

This is not mean to be an exclusive list, but rather a starting point for the discussion of where the overlay should apply. In particular, we could also look at smaller streets adjacent to each of the subway stations.

Protect Local Retail

We want to ensure our policies will help small businesses thrive. Under the overlay, developers should be required to provide swing space for impacted businesses and offer a guaranteed right of return at affordable rents in perpetuity. If the right of return is declined, a replacement merchant should be recruited at affordable rates in perpetuity (formula businesses would not be eligible for affordable rates). Having such a model in place could actually encourage more owners to negotiate with non-profit developers, as a way of preserving their business amidst rising rents and competition from international investors.

Green Space and Trees

The overlay should build upon and improve existing setback and greenspace requirements for transit corridors and hubs. It should incorporate the important work of the Climate Resilience Task Force and the Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force to ensure that all residents are protected from climate change and receive the full benefits of a healthy and thriving tree canopy. We need to be mindful of what we allow to be built in areas of the city that are particularly vulnerable to flooding and extreme heat caused by climate change and the urban heat island effect, as determined by the city’s Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment. We should not be making trade-offs in affordable housing construction that limit or reduce access to green and open space on site for those who live there.

No Parking Minimums

The focus on transit-oriented development will enable us to entirely eliminate minimum parking requirements aside from accessibility needs, saving time and money on each project. Just because we eliminate parking minimums doesn’t mean developments can’t or won’t have parking. But they will almost certainly have less parking than if we require it, because of the expense associated with adding it. Less parking means fewer cars and ultimately less congestion, provided, again, that we build along transit corridors and near transit hubs.

Design Review

Advisory design review by the planning board (providing input but not making a yes/no decision) is not necessarily less desirable than discretionary review by the planning board (having the ability to deny a special permit) for affordable housing projects, provided the standards we set are rigorous in meeting all stated priorities of the city council. Advisory review with strict criteria will streamline the permitting process and save the affordable housing developers precious time and money. If we limit applicability of the overlay to the transit corridors, incorporate reasonable aesthetic requirements, find ways to protect our small businesses, and respect the data we have on Cambridge’s climate vulnerability and the need for tree canopy expansion, I could support advisory review.

Right of Return

We should create a preference for former Cambridge residents who would like to come back to their hometown. At this time both CHA and CDD offer a strong preference for current residents in their respective subsidized housing application processes, but that vanishes as soon as someone leaves the city. I have witnessed firsthand the challenge this creates for residents who are forced out of their home by an eviction or burdensome rent increase, but would desperately like to stay in the city they call home. Imagine being in the position of not being able to afford anything on the market in Cambridge, but knowing that going elsewhere will mean giving up virtually all hope of ever finding a stable housing situation in Cambridge. We can’t control how the housing authority allocates their units, but the overlay is an opportunity to experiment with a potential solution by setting aside e.g. 10% of gross floor area (GFA) for former residents, with a higher priority based on recency of residency. This could be one way to enhance social justice  for people who have been disproportionately impacted by our inequitable economic policies, including many people of color.

Current preference system for CDD’s Inclusionary Housing Program (click to enlarge or read in full online).

Affordable Homeownership Opportunities

Another way to achieve some social justice through the overlay would be to set aside 10% of GFA explicitly for affordable homeownership purposes. Such a policy would begin to directly address the historical injustices caused by redlining and other racist housing policies, particularly if we gave a preference to first time homebuyers, as well as to both current and former residents of Cambridge (as described above). We could put these units directly into the city’s Homeownership Resale Pool, so there would be no additional administrative overhead. The Homeownership Resale Pool already has more than 500 units citywide, but that represents less than 1% of the total housing units in our city, and we need to create many more opportunities for affordable homeownership.

Conditional Upzoning for Market Rate

Through our inclusionary zoning program, we are already using the market to drive some affordable housing development. The AHO presents an opportunity to further enhance this approach and create more opportunities for both affordable housing and market rate housing along transit corridors, without allowing market rate development to continue to overwhelm our city and accelerate displacement.

We could allow for-profit developers to take advantage of the same density bonuses as affordable housing developers in the AHO districts, but only after (and not until) an equivalent amount of 100% affordable housing has first been built in the same district. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be on the same parcel or even part of the same project, and inclusionary zoning would still apply to the market rate housing. CDD would be responsible for certifying every square foot of subsidized housing that is built, and would allow those credits to be applied against any market rate development that is proposed.

Creating an artificial scarcity of high-density, market-rate housing permits in desirable areas along transit corridors could invite more intense cooperation between affordable and market-rate housing developers. This could potentially lead to more market-rate housing production in a ratio that would not accelerate displacement in our city.