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.
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:
Mount Auburn 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.
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.
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.
Note: This op-ed was co-authored by Vice Mayor Devereux and Councillor Zondervan, and was originally published in the Cambridge Chronicle on February 5, 2019.
More and more Cambridge residents are taking action to reduce their carbon footprints — from installing solar arrays and electric heat pumps to driving electric cars or choosing to bike, walk or take transit more often. We recycle, compost and carry reusable shopping bags; we schedule (free) home energy assessments, add insulation to our homes, replace older windows, program our thermostats and switch to LED bulbs. Some of us are choosing to eat less meat (and/or only sustainably raised meat), and others are growing vegetables and adopting and planting new trees through city programs.
Every one of these actions helps, yet there is one simple and very affordable action that surprisingly few Cambridge residents and businesses have taken so far: choosing the 100 percent Green option for their electricity supply through Cambridge’s Community Choice Electricity program. In fact, last year only 708 accounts (1.82 percent of an eligible 39,000) opted into the 100 percent Green option.
As co-chairs of the City Council’s Health and Environmental Committee, we see a tremendous opportunity this year to get more Cambridge ratepayers to join the newly reformatted 100 percent Green Plus Program (100% Green+) offered through the city’s CCE supplier, Direct Energy. At a cost 13 percent lower than Eversource’s current Basic Rate, the 100% Green+ option provides electricity offset by Renewable Energy Certificates obtained from local New England renewable sources, and also contributes a small amount ($0.002/kWh) to fund a local Cambridge community solar project. Before the end of 2020, this solar project will begin to provide renewable energy to subscribers. This is truly a win-win opportunity. The new Standard Green option, which does not involve any RECs and still contributes $0.002/kWh to the community solar program, represents a 19 percent savings compared to Eversource’s current Basic Rate. Eversource’s Basic Rate is set every 6 months, while the CCE rates will remain fixed for all of 2019 and 2020.
In partnership with Mothers Out Front, Green Cambridge, the Cambridge Community Development Department and others, we are setting an ambitious but achievable goal of enrolling at least 10 percent of Cambridge ratepayers in the 100% Green+ this year — and going above that next year. Will you help us reach our goal?
If you have not yet signed up for 100% Green+, we urge you to do so now. Eversource customers can switch to 100% Green+ by contacting Direct Energy at 866-968-8065 or by visiting cambridge100green.org.
It has been an incredible first year in office. I’ve learned a lot about the inner workings of our city while tackling the many interconnected issues and challenging our government to expand our imagination of justice. The victories we’ve achieved together have been sweet and numerous, but there is still so much to do! Click on each section below to read about what we accomplished in 2018 and where I’m planning to lead in the coming year. It has been a delight to serve as your Cambridge City Councillor for the past year, and I look forward to a spirited re-election campaign in 2019. As always, don’t hesitate to reach out to discuss whatever is on your mind- no time is too inconvenient, and no issue is too small.
My work on housing has been centered on helping tenants find stability and remain in Cambridge amidst an out of control real estate market and rapidly rising rents. My office has helped several individuals and families facing eviction or burdensome rent increases. Often we were the last line of defense against displacement or even homelessness, and I’m glad we were able to help find stable housing in many cases. I really appreciate the dedication of our partners in this work: the Cambridge Housing Authority, the Multi-Service Center, Greater Boston Legal Services, city staff, and my colleagues on the Council. Though I am not a member of the Housing Committee this term, I attended every meeting and found ways to keep tenant protections in the conversation as much as possible.
Tenant Right of First Refusal
Early in the year, I was one of just three councillors to vote in support of having a conversation about the concept of Right of First Refusal, which would give tenants faced with eviction an important opportunity to purchase their building, perhaps with the help of one of the city’s affordable housing nonprofits. This is an important conversation that Somerville is already having in support of Rep Denise Provost’s enabling legislation, and I remain disappointed that the effort was squashed before the conversation even began.
Relocation Assistance for Tenants
Later in the year, I submitted an order asking for a legal opinion on the renter relocation assistance ordinance recently enacted in Portland, Oregon. Portland’s ordinance, implemented despite a statewide ban on rent control, gives tenants a sum of money when they are faced with moving due to a no-fault eviction or burdensome rent increase. It also significantly increases the amount of notice landlords must give in these situations. The order was referred to a new commission on tenant protections, organized by Mayor McGovern and chaired by Councillor Siddiqui, which will begin meeting this month, January 2019. I am optimistic and hopeful that tenants will be well represented on the commission and that bold ideas such as relocation assistance and even right of first refusal will be seriously considered as the meetings begin.
Comprehensive State Level Reform
During December’s informal sessions, Statehouse Leadership tried to pass Governor Baker’s “Housing Choices” bill without discussion, opportunity for amendments, or even a vote. I support Rep Mike Connolly’s decision to oppose the bill as written to give the legislature an opportunity for transparent conversation about more comprehensive reform, including tenant protections, during the formal session. An attempt was made to put the Cambridge City Council on record urging Mike to reconsider, but when more than 100 residents (including many tenants) spoke out in opposition, the resolution ultimately failed 4-4. The vote was a huge symbolic victory for those who believe, as Mike and I do, that we must pass a comprehensive reform package including tenant protections and new opportunities for revenue generation this year during the formal session. Read more about Mike’s position and plan for moving forward on his blog.
Climate & Environment
As co-chairs of the Health and Environment Committee, Vice Mayor Devereux and I have worked to make sure climate change and environmental issues are a top priority of the council. The recent IPCC report on staying below a 1.5° C temperature increase has given a new sense of urgency to the issue, and it has never been more important for municipalities to take the lead. This year however, it became clear our choices at the local level continue to prioritize convenience, development, and profits over people, tree canopy, and even our own safety. There was, however, reason for hope: thousands of young people stood up and demanded a Green New Deal to rapidly shift our electric grid to 100% renewable energy while creating jobs for those willing to help make it happen. I was proud to stand with activists from Sunrise Movement at Rep Katherine Clark’s district office in Cambridge as we asked for her support. Not long after, she signed on! I also stood with Sunrise activists at the doors of Harvard’s “Bipartisan Congressional Orientation” as we called for newly-elected reps to show their support. Our calls were so loud that freshman Reps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Rashida Tlaib (MI), and several others came down to speak! This surge of energy and enthusiasm in the streets, combined with our incredible class of Freshman legislators, including our own Ayanna Pressley, gives me hope for the future.
Public EV Charging Stations
We built on the Vice Mayor’s work from the previous term and asked about increasing the number of publicly accessible electric vehicle (EV) charging stations around the city. Lack of charging options remains a barrier to widespread EV adoption in dense urban centers, even as prices have dropped to largely affordable levels. The resulting report from the City Manager reminded everyone of the goal: to increase conversion from combustion engine to electric without increasing overall car ownership in the city. In order for Cambridge to hit our proportion of the state’s overall goal, we would need to have 4,000 EVs on the road by 2025. The City Manager has appropriated funding in the FY19 operating budget to develop an “EV Strategy” which will better determine how we achieve that goal. Additionally, several new public EV charging stations will be installed in Spring 2019:
99 Sherman Street (Danehy Park)
73 Sherman Street (St Peters Field/Salt Shed)
177 Garden Street (St Peters Field / Montessori School)
375 Green Street (Lot 8)
420 Green Street (Lot 9)
Protecting our Tree Canopy
In April 2018, data was collected on our tree canopy via a LiDAR study, and I immediately asked that (1) the results of that study be delivered before the end of the year and (2) future studies be carried out more frequently, especially until the canopy stabilizes. We were told that the frequency will change to once every 2-3 years from once every 4-5 years. Not long after, we got the preliminary result of an 18% decline in our city-wide tree canopy since 2009. While we wait for soon-to-come recommendations from the urban forest master plan task force, I proposed a series of stopgap measures: requiring a permit to cut down a healthy, mature tree anywhere in the city, requiring additional steps for removal of healthy street or park trees in non-emergency situations, and funding for new street trees in the most impacted neighborhoods, which tend to also be the lowest income neighborhoods. To those orders, the City Manager responded that the Council would be formally notified anytime a healthy tree on city property has to be removed from now on, and he also allocated $100,000 for planting and care of additional trees, with a particular focus in East Cambridge and The Port, both areas that are particularly vulnerable to the urban heat island effect. Click here to see the list of streets that will soon or have already received new plantings. If there is one on your street, please help take care of it! Read more about the data and our tree canopy loss on my blog.
Net Zero Progress
In May, we held a committee hearing to receive a progress report on the Net Zero Action Plan which I helped develop and advocated for extensively in the years prior to taking office, starting in 2013. The plan is fully staffed and being implemented since it was adopted by the council in 2015. It is important to make sure the plan stays on track, and I am expecting an update to the Green Building Requirements Ordinance soon, that will require more insulation and other efficiency measures as part of construction. Meanwhile, the city has already begun a commendable effort to achieve net zero emissions in new municipal building construction in advance of the 2020 deadline. The buildings replacing the former King Open School and associated buildings in Wellington Harrington will be completely fossil fuel free! This building complex, to be completed in 2019, will host the King Open School and Extended Day program, the Cambridge Street Upper School, the Valente Branch Library and the Gold Star Mothers Pool, as before. In addition, the entire Cambridge Public School Department’s administrative offices will move into the new buildings as well. The entire complex will be heated and cooled via geothermal heat pumps and solar panels, with a bio-diesel backup generator in case of a power outage. Some electricity will still come from the grid, but the city is on track to zero out those emissions entirely over the next several years. The MLK school on Putnam Ave, completed in 2015, was certified LEED Platinum in 2018, and the YWCA’s women’s shelter at 859 Mass Ave was constructed net zero by the city.
Getting to Zero Waste
In October, I chaired a committee hearing to discuss the three prongs of the city’s zero waste effort: recycling, curbside organics, and the recent bans on plastic bag/polystyrene. The city’s Curbside Organics program has gotten off to a great start: 800 tons of food scraps were diverted from landfills in the first 6 months of the program, an 8% overall reduction in what we are sending to our landfills. While there are legitimate concerns about how those scraps are being composted, currently there are no facilities nearby that can accept such a large amount of food waste. Diverting our food waste away from landfills and incinerators is a huge step in the right direction, and hopefully more ecologically sound composting options will become available that can process such large volumes. When it comes to recycling, China’s efforts to reduce contamination has raised costs by $35/ton for the city and upended the industry. Our contamination rate for recycling is around 10%, which is nearly twice as good as Boston! If we can get down to 7%, costs will decrease significantly, so remember: absolutely no plastic bags in recycling! But the reality is, improving recycling purity is an impossible chore and the real focus needs to be on banning all single use plastics. I plan on introducing such a ban this year, with necessary carve outs for items we simply cannot eliminate at this time, including plastic straws for use by those with medical needs.
In November, I chaired a hearing on fracked gas infrastructure and gas leaks. We heard from representatives of HEET, Mothers out Front, Green Cambridge, USW 12003, and Eversource. I called this hearing in the aftermath of the tragic Merrimack Valley explosions because the state’s network of contractors, utilities, and overseers is so interconnected that the same contractor on the job the day of those explosions routinely does work in Cambridge, and was even responsible for the negligent destruction of a magnificent oak tree on Gore Street last summer. The city was compensated at over $67,000 for the oak tree, setting an important marker on the monetary value of trees in our city. Following the hearing, I submitted a resolution calling on Governor Baker to adequately fund the inspectional division of the DPU after it was revealed that there were only 3 qualified inspectors on staff in the weeks leading up to September’s Merrimack Valley explosions, which is shameful. There are fundamental problems at every level of service, and our aging infrastructure isn’t getting replaced fast enough! The only real answer is to move towards renewable energy, but in the meantime we need to make sure there are no more blow-ups! You can read more about this issue and the hearing in my December Update.
Climate Adaptation & the Climate Safety Petition
Last Spring, residents from across the city filed a zoning petition which called for stronger flood protections and additional green space requirements in new developments. The city’s own research indicates that areas of the city will be highly susceptible to climate change-induced flooding and the urban heat island effect in the coming decades, especially in East Cambridge, Alewife and the Port. Imagine your elderly neighbor getting trapped in her home during a major flooding event, or a young child suffering from heat stroke during a heat wave! The petition contained many common sense and necessary measures to protect our loved ones against such dangers, including elevating mechanicals, raising buildings to be above projected flood levels where appropriate, and an innovative “green factor” that would mandate trees and green space to soak up water and help cool the air, something that is already being implemented in Seattle. These ideas are critical to protecting our safety as we continue to develop dense residential housing in the Alewife Floodplain and throughout our city. Unfortunately, the Council voted this petition down without seriously exploring or discussing its contents, over concerns that the new requirements would adversely impact the development of additional housing. It is a false dichotomy to position climate protections as in opposition to housing development, especially when we consider that it is precisely those residents with the fewest resources and fewest options that are hit the hardest by the calamities of climate change. This outcome was particularly disappointing because the negative vote may end up making it more difficult to implement some of the necessary concepts, many of which had broad support. At the time, I wrote in the Cambridge Day that the Council had made an “egregious error” voting it down in that way. Fortunately, Mayor McGovern has convened a task force, co-chaired by one of the original petitioners, to develop concrete zoning proposals in 2019 to help protect us from the dangers of climate change. I intend to work closely with the task force to implement these important climate protection measures in the council as soon as possible!
Lowering our Speed Limits
Based on the past work of Councillor Carlone and his former aide, current State Representative Mike Connolly, the state recently granted municipalities the authority to lower the regular speed limit from 30 to 25 MPH, and to 20 MPH in certain specially designated “safety zones”. Cambridge promptly lowered speed limits to 25 MPH citywide, and to 20 MPH in the five major squares (Kendall, Central, Inman, Harvard, and Porter) which were all designated as safety zones. The law gives municipalities latitude to designate safety zones much more broadly, however, and I put forward a policy order with Vice Mayor Devereux calling on the City Manager to do this more quickly and cover as much of the city as possible, especially areas adjacent to “parks, schools, youth centers, small residential streets, senior centers, senior housing, public housing, or anywhere else in close proximity to land-uses serving vulnerable populations”. A few months later, Vice Mayor Devereux chaired a committee hearing to further discuss the topic. Councillors were unified in their support for implementing more safety zones as quickly as possible, and city staff have begun to evaluate the impacts of the initial safety zones in preparation for creating additional ones. I will continue to join my colleagues in insisting on more safety zones implemented as fast as possible, so that everyone will be safer as they travel around our city.
Autonomous Vehicle (AV) Safety
Shortly after the deadly Uber AV crash in Arizona, I wrote a policy order giving the City Manager recommendations on best practices for AV testing in our city. Governor Baker plans to move ahead with a program that allows companies to test AV in cities and towns across Massachusetts, and it is important that we demand that this testing is only done with safe practices in place. The policy order calls for having two human drivers inside the vehicle at all times, ensuring vehicles comply with all posted speed limits including the recently enacted 20 MPH safety zones in our squares, extensive data sharing with the city, and written documentation of the safety practices put into place by the companies before they begin testing in Cambridge. The City Manager and his staff are actively negotiating with the state and interested companies based on these policy guidelines. In 2019, I will continue to advocate for these essential safety measures being in place before any autonomous vehicle testing is allowed on our streets.
Protected Bike Lanes
I am committed to implementing a network of protected bike lanes (PBLs) in Cambridge so that people of all ages feel more comfortable getting out of the car and onto their bike. I have been insisting on a more comprehensive implementation plan, and finally in November 2018, the City Manager announced an appropriation of $200,000 for that purpose. In the meantime, here are the specific streets and squares I have prioritized in my first year:
Longfellow Bridge: the bridge was under reconstruction for many years, and I successfully asked the council to go on record in support of the effort led by Reps Connolly and Livingstone, as well as many activists, to install a PBL as part of the new layout. Amazingly, the state listened and included a wider lane with flexposts! I hope at some point they will make the protected bike lane even wider to better accommodate cyclists of varying abilities.
Porter Square: In support of and based on requests from safety advocates, with the support of my colleagues, councillors Carlone and Devereux, I called on the city to install PBLs in Porter square as part of upcoming intersection improvements, which ultimately led to a reconsideration of the design and the installation of a protected lane for turning from Somerville Ave onto Mass Ave. While there is still much to be done in Porter, this represents a significant improvement to one of the most dangerous turns in the square.
River Street: I put forward a policy order asking the City Manager to include a PBL along the entire length of River Street as part of the upcoming redesign. Such a lane would complement the award winning southbound cycle track on Western Avenue as the only protected route northbound from Memorial Drive to Central Square to create a continuous protected loop between the square and the river. Speeding is a particular problem on River Street because of its proximity to the highway, and current conditions are treacherous for cyclists and pedestrians seeking to access numerous amenities including grocery stores, pharmacies, and a park. I am grateful for the prompt response we received from the City Manager that noted “separated bike facilities as identified in the bicycle plan…are critical to the success of the project” and highlighted the diverse 15-member Working Group that will begin meeting this month to figure out the final design.
Inman Square: The effort to make Inman Square safer began before I joined the council, and I am glad we finally moved this project forward last year. Though the plan isn’t perfect and contains significant tradeoffs, I pushed as hard as I could to get the best outcome possible. This included: many meetings with individual stakeholders and city staff including the City Manager, an insistence on additional community meetings, and chairing an additional committee hearing to ensure the project was thoroughly vetted and community voices were heard. Though I am sad to lose the 4 beautiful honey locust trees in Velucci Plaza, ultimately the final plan will be safer for all modes of travel. Through my direct efforts the city will move some of the smaller trees and plant even more additional trees than originally proposed, in order to replace the lost canopy as quickly as possible.
Memorial Drive (Paul Dudley White Path): Memorial Drive is a major commuting thoroughfare for cyclists, who have to share a narrow, deteriorating path along the highway with pedestrians, strollers, and joggers. Last Spring, I began meeting with stakeholders and officials to discuss how we can improve the situation. Because the land is state owned and managed by DCR, I put forward a policy order, passed by the council, that asked the City Manager to convene a meeting with DCR and prioritize this work. Fortunately, DCR announced significant funding earmarked for improvements along this stretch over the next few years. I look forward to continuing this conversation in 2019 to ensure improvements are made as soon as possible.
South Mass Ave: A major accomplishment of 2018 was the installation of a PBL along Mass Ave from Memorial Drive to Sidney Street in both directions, along with dedicated bus lanes as well. Kudos to our city staff for this major rethinking of how road space can be re-allocated on one of our busiest and most dangerous thoroughfares. Looking ahead, it will be important to fill in the gaps along Mass Ave to create continuous protection from the Arlington line to the Charles River.
Legal Cannabis Implementation & Equity
Voters overwhelmingly approved Question 4 in 2016, which legalized the growth, sale and possession of cannabis across the Commonwealth, and over the past year the council has had an important opportunity to ensure that equity and justice are prioritized as this new industry enters Cambridge. While it may feel like this process took too long, it was important to carefully minimize the risk that the industry could become dominated by big money applicants, leaving smaller, less generously funded equity applicants sidelined and unable to participate in the market. Councillor Siddiqui and I worked together from very early on to put forward policies that would guide the industry to develop as equitably as possible and to create opportunities for people who have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition. In the long term, we will benefit from the careful consideration of how to balance our equity goals with a timely introduction of adult-use cannabis businesses in our city. Read more in a detailed post on my blog, or review the final zoning language which will take effect on April 20, 2019, along with a separate ordinance specifically focused around the equity component.
As a software engineer by trade, a top priority of mine has been to advance the cause of digital equity, a conversation that had been stuck in stalemate for quite some time following the recommendations issued by the Broadband Task Force in 2016. I began by meeting with residents for whom a lack of consistent broadband access is a difficult reality. One resident, an elderly woman living in public housing, reported having to conduct personal online video conversations with her family from the common room of her building, because that was the only place where she could access the internet. In another case, two siblings I spoke with recently graduated from CRLS without consistent internet access at home, relying on a patchwork system of friends, family, after school programs, and coffee shops to do their homework. When asked directly whether they thought they would have done better in school with consistent broadband at home, they unequivocally said yes.
While Municipal Broadband remains an important goal for me, the City Manager has made it clear he does not want to move forward in that direction. So my focus this year has been to work with the administration on other policies to more immediately help those who are most severely impacted by a lack of access.
The policy order I put forward asked for a plan which included four things:
A clear quantitative and qualitative understanding of the digital divide in Cambridge
A plan to ensure affordable broadband access in public housing by 2025
Expanding the city’s existing fiber optics network, conduits, and right-of-ways to improve broadband access for residents and the public
A review of the dig-once policy to maximize the potential for future expansion of the fiber optic network
In response, the City Manager requested a $150,000 appropriation, which we approved, to conduct a study of the digital divide. He also announced the formation of a new “Digital Equity Advisory Board” that will meet for the next year to discuss goals and strategies. As a global center of technological innovation, however, we have a responsibility to do more than just study the problem and have theoretical discussions. Furthermore, this problem is going to take much longer than 12 months to solve. I am still expecting a formal response to items 2-4 of my policy order, and I will continue to work with our strong community advocates and others to insist that more direct action is taken in the coming year and beyond towards the goal of providing high speed internet access to everyone in Cambridge.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day
My good friend and former City Councillor, Nadeem Mazen, began this important work back in 2016 when he led the Council in voting to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I’m honored to continue this effort, and I began working with Indigenous advocates to discuss how we can make Indigenous Peoples’ Day a robust tradition and celebration beginning in 2019. As the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe continues to resist the Trump Administration’s attempt to appropriate their land, it is not enough to simply change the name of a holiday- we must lift up Indigenous voices and ensure their representation. I look forward to holding another committee hearing in early 2019 to discuss possible funding sources for this important holiday so we can make sure it becomes a permanent Cambridge institution.
Supporting our Trans Community
Bigots put trans rights on the ballot in 2018, collecting enough signatures to force a referendum on the bipartisan decision to protect trans folks under our state’s public accommodations law. I was proud to cosponsor a resolution that put the Council’s weight behind a YES vote to keep the trans community protected from discrimination. YES won overwhelmingly statewide, and earned more than 90% support in Cambridge. It was great to see the commonwealth unite in rejection of hate and in support of keeping discrimination illegal in places of public accommodation. Later in the year, I wrote a policy order co-sponsored by Councillors Mallon and Simmons, asking the City Manager to take a closer look at the city’s website and to make adjustments to ensure everyone feels comfortable using it. There still remains at least one signup form which forces the user to choose male or female without giving a third option for those who are trans or non-binary (see image), and that needs to change! In 2019, the Council will consider asking the state to allow gender neutral birth certificates, something that recently passed in New York City.
Condemning Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
In April, I sponsored a resolution condemning the policies of the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, and criticizing MIT and Harvard for their handling of his recent visit to Cambridge. bin Salman rose to power through incredibly undemocratic means, and is considered the architect of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the Yemeni Civil War, one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet. I was particularly disappointed in my alma mater for the unusual lack of dialogue that occurred around the visit. These institutions should not be nurturing ties with someone this evil. Even after the world learned bin Salman ordered the brutal killing of prominent journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi himself a few months later, MIT released a report recommending that the university continue to maintain ties.
Mass Evictions at the EMF Building
When notorious real estate developer John DiGiovanni evicted more than 200 artists from their workspace and community at the EMF building on Brookline Street, I submitted a policy order asking the city to buy the building outright so that the artists could continue honing their craft within city limits. More than 50 impacted artists showed up to speak at public comment, which was incredibly moving. As discussions advanced, it became clear that the conditions of the building were unsafe and the City Manager decided not to pursue buying the building. However, the magnitude of the loss was understood by everyone involved- if we don’t have workspace for artists, how can we expect them to play at our nightclubs, in our squares, at our events and in our cultural district? This important discussion led to the Mayor creating a task force led by Councillor Mallon, which has already put forward several important policy proposals. I am optimistic that the task force will help us do better in supporting our artists and the arts.
Eliminating Busking Fees
The Council was unanimous in its support of eliminating fees for street performers, in alignment with the policies of Somerville and Boston. At a committee hearing on the topic, my motion to strike all fees from the ordinance passed 6-0 and would eventually gain unanimous support from the full council. Though the administration was hesitant, my colleagues and I insisted that this was one small thing we could do for the artist community after a difficult year. You will still need a permit to perform on Cambridge streets in 2019, but it will not cost anything to obtain.
Direct Support for Artists in our Community
When it comes to the arts, I have made it a point to not just be an advocate from my seat in the Sullivan Chamber, but also to directly experience the ways artists are actively enriching our community whenever possible. I include announcements of upcoming shows and music releases in my monthly newsletters, I seek their perspective anytime related policy comes forward for a vote, and I attend performances whenever possible. Something I particularly look forward to are the performances put on by Bridge Repertory Theater at the Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge. Bridge Rep is quickly becoming a Cambridge institution thanks to the hard work of my good friend Olivia D’Ambrosio and many others, and I was thrilled to support an appropriation from the City Manager for $18,000 so they can continue to expand their community engagement initiatives. The upcoming production of Who is Eartha Mae? will run throughout the month of February and promises to be spectacular.
The Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force was formed earlier this year, as a result of advocacy by myself, Vice Mayor Devereux, and Green Cambridge, and has been charged with advising in the creation of a master plan for Cambridge’s urban forest. The group has been meeting for a few months now and recently held a public meeting to discuss their findings to date. One of their first tasks was to look at the existing state of our urban tree canopy. Preliminary results from the April 2018 LiDAR flyover show that Cambridge has experienced a shocking 18% relative canopy loss since 2009. This means that there is 18% less land area covered by tree canopy today than there was in 2009. Perhaps even more troubling is that the rate of loss actually increased in recent years, jumping from a 7% decline between 2009 and 2014 to an 11% decline between 2014 and 2018. In light of this disturbing information, I will be renewing my call for more immediate interventions by the administration while the task force continues to deliberate through next Spring.
The preliminary report shows that there has been a net canopy loss across every single land use category, including public open space, though residential areas are by far responsible for the greatest overall loss (not surprising as this is the majority of our land area). We lost 171 acres of canopy on private residential land, but added just 82 acres of new canopy through growth and new plantings. That means we would have to nearly double our planting rate in order to simply break even. It is reasonable to conclude from the report that the choices we are making around development and construction, in particular on residential land, are a major driver of the astounding canopy loss we have seen. Clearly, any serious solution to this crisis will have to involve both the planting of new trees AND the mitigation of future loss. Unfortunately we already have baked into our plans significant additional canopy destruction, including at the 14-acre site of the Volpe Transportation building which will be redeveloped by MIT over the next decade or so, and at the former site of Abt Associates, where many large trees are slated to be cut down to make way for new housing. Our current Tree Protection Ordinance does not require that the canopy loss be mitigated, allowing developers instead to pay into a tree fund, which is slowly spent by the city and obviously has not managed to increase canopy coverage. Developers can avoid even that minimal level of compensation to the city by cutting down the trees on their property a year and a day before applying for their construction permits.
These protections currently in place for trees on private land in Cambridge are clearly very weak, but there is precedent around the country and indeed in our own backyard for a stronger ordinance. Austin, Texas protects any healthy tree within city limits that has reached 19 inches in diameter. Oakville, California does the same, but for any healthy tree greater than 5.9 inches in diameter. Here in Massachusetts, the city of Newton protects private trees greater than 8 inches in diameter in certain circumstances. All three cities have implemented a permitting process for property owners who insist on cutting down a healthy tree of significant diameter.
I proposed a similar requirement for a permit1 to cut down any tree over 8 inches in diameter last June through a policy order to amend the current ordinance. The Council voted 5-4 to give the proposed amendment a hearing in the Ordinance Committee. Unfortunately, that hearing has not happened yet while we continue to lose more trees everyday. If we are serious about stopping the bleeding, we cannot afford to wait until next Spring when the task force is expected to finish deliberating. That is why I’ve submitted another policy order this week calling again for a hearing on my amendment, as well as a hearing on the canopy issue in general.
I asked my constituents what they thought of this proposal in an informal poll earlier this year, and 164 Cambridge residents responded to the survey, with 62% saying they are in favor of requiring a permit for cutting down healthy, mature trees on private property. Nobody denies that trees are our urban allies: crucial in stormwater management as well as important protectors against the urban heat island effect and polluted air. Trees are beneficial to everybody, even when they are located on private land. Unfortunately, the report indicates what we all suspected: lower income residents tend to live in areas with less tree canopy coverage. This means that the most vulnerable residents of our city will be the most adversely impacted by canopy destruction. This is a fundamental issue of social justice that must be addressed, and that means planting more trees in those areas. Trees are not just for rich people, and indeed we should be grateful for all the trees that property owners plant and protect, because they benefit all of us. The city has a heavily underused “back of sidewalk” program to plant trees on private property at public expense. We need to find better ways to utilize this program to achieve a more equitable distribution of trees on private land in our city.
Going forward we need to seriously consider how to develop our city and grow our canopy at the same time. Fortunately there are plenty of existing parking lots and low rise buildings that could be converted into both housing AND green space, creating further opportunities for canopy expansion. There are also new building techniques that allow for trees to be more directly integrated into the building, and not just on the roof. As climate change worsens we will need our tree canopy more than ever. Please join us in protecting and growing this valuable resource.
How to make your voice heard: If this issue is important to you one way or another, please write the council and let us know what you think! You can email all nine councillors at once: <[email protected]>. Please also include the City Manager’s office: <[email protected]> and the clerk (so it is entered into the official record) <[email protected]>. You can also submit written comments to the Clerk’s Office at City Hall during regular business hours. As always, if you’d like to reach me specifically you can email me at: <[email protected]> or call my office: (617) 349-9479. I look forward to hearing from you!
The permit would be issued without a hearing and wouldn’t necessarily require a fee; emergency situations would be exempted. The point is not to get in the way of a homeowner needing to remove a dead or diseased tree, but rather to alert the city to large scale tree removal in the hope it can be avoided or reduced in extent.
In a pair of hearings last week, the council made progress towards allowing adult-use cannabis businesses to open in Cambridge. Tuesday’s Ordinance Committee hearing looked at zoning language proposed by city staff, and Wednesday’s hearing of the Economic Development Committee honed in on the equity component, which is so critical to get right before we open up the floodgates and allow this new industry to take hold in Cambridge.
At the suggestion of the Mayor, the Ordinance Committee voted on a series of amendments to provide policy direction for the staff on what we would like to see in the final zoning. The current draft of the ordinance allows recreational sales in all retail districts throughout the city, but limits cultivation and manufacturing to the industrial district. This is an important distinction because cultivation and manufacturing can cause exceptionally unpleasant odors which we want to keep away from denser neighborhoods. Most products will be required to arrive at the retail store pre-packaged, which will significantly cut down on odors in those neighborhoods. Staff had originally proposed a 5,000 square foot limit on production facilities, but my motion to increase that number was approved in committee 6-1 after it was pointed out by several practitioners during public comment that a 5,000 square foot limit would severely limit the financial viability of their operation.
The proposed zoning includes an 1,800 foot buffer between retail stores, which we’re using to ensure access for disadvantaged businesses to the most desirable real estate locations. Applicants who meet certain equity criteria (details to be determined, more below) would be exempt from the buffer and allowed within 1,800 feet of an existing establishment. Staff had initially proposed allowing two stores within 1,800 feet of each other in large squares like Kendall and Harvard, but I made a motion to strike that provision because it undermines the intent of allowing additional stores only for equity applicants. We also voted 7-0 to expand the criteria for who qualifies as an equity applicant. The state regulations include distinct definitions for “economic empowerment” applicants and “social equity” applicants, and state law separately has definitions for disadvantaged businesses, such as women and minority owned enterprises. We basically directed the staff to combine all these categories as much as possible into Cambridge’s definition of who will be considered an equity applicant, in order to cast the widest possible net as we address the injustices of the war on drugs through cannabis business regulations.
The state law sets a maximum 500 foot buffer around K-12 schools, playgrounds, rec centers, and other public youth facilities, but allows local regulation to reduce this buffer. The planning board, in their review of the draft ordinance language, had suggested that this particular buffer should be lowered to 300 feet. I voted with the majority, 5-2, to accept their recommendation and lower this buffer because I don’t think an additional 200 feet is going to make any difference in terms of underage access or exposure1. These stores will be very discreet and no consumption will be allowed on the premises. While a 300 foot buffer does not yield many additional opportunities for retail locations, siting adult use retail stores will already be difficult enough given the constraints of the real estate market in Cambridge, so every little bit of of additional wiggle room helps.
The equity conversation continued the following day in a hearing chaired by Councillor Siddiqui. An ACLU study found that there were over 8 million cannabis arrests in the US from 2001-2010, 88% of which were for simple possession, and on average black people were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than white people, even though both used the drug at similar rates. Councillor Siddiqui and I have worked together from very early on to do everything we can to ensure the industry develops as equitably as possible and does not sideline the very people who have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition.
The state law requires that each establishment sign a host-community agreement, giving the city another opportunity to achieve our equity goals, separately from the zoning provisions described above. I strongly support the state cannabis commission’s recommendation that every other host community agreement signed by the city be with an equity applicant (see earlier discussion regarding the definitional challenge of equity applicant). Alternating in this way instead of simply establishing a quota for equity businesses makes sense to me, because an initial quota can be watered down over time through acquisition of equity applicants by non-equity businesses, and restricting such acquisitions would be very hard to do. To ensure that equity applicants continue to meet the requirements of the designation, we should consider an annually renewable license. Otherwise, a business could present as a qualified equity applicant to get a signed host community agreement and zoning approval (including a possible exemption to locate within 1,800 feet of other adult-use businesses), and then over time transform into a non-equity applicant, without any leverage by the city to enforce its equity goals.
While it may feel like establishing municipal cannabis regulation is taking a long time, it is important to make sure we get this right. If we don’t, we risk the industry being dominated by big money applicants, leaving smaller, less generously funded equity applicants sidelined and unable to participate in the market. In the long term, we will benefit from this careful consideration of how to balance our equity goals with a timely introduction of adult-use cannabis businesses in our city. I look forward to reviewing the next version of the zoning ordinance and continuing to make progress on the structure of host community agreements as well as how we will achieve our equity goals. I also plan to organize a separate hearing on the non-business aspects of cannabis legalization, because it’s important to remember that most people who have been negatively impacted by prohibition will never themselves go into the cannabis business.
Is this topic important to you? Let us know what you think by emailing the entire Council: <[email protected]>, the City Manager: <[email protected]>, the City Clerk (if you want your comments on the official record) <[email protected]>, or just me <[email protected]>. You can also call my office at 617-349-9479 or submit written comment to the Clerk’s office at City Hall during regular business hours.
As a parent I fully understand the concerns around underage access to cannabis products. Unfortunately, under current circumstances, underage youth have shockingly easy access to these products. The most effective way to reduce such access is to undercut the illegitimate street market with properly regulated, licensed businesses, not by overly restricting such businesses based on proximity to playgrounds and schools.