Housing Policy for Cambridge

Burhan Azeem
Jun 24 · 6 min read

Here’s the problem

People want to live in cities. They are diverse and welcoming. They are full of character and community. They have good jobs, public transportation, and great schools & universities. Cambridge is among the best of these cities.

We are at a turning point, however. Cambridge has become too expensive for the middle class — housing prices have doubled in the last decade. We have not lived up to our ideal of an open, welcoming community. We have barely built any housing to welcome the growing population. We have pushed out our most vulnerable — leading us towards a city of haves and have nots. We have not redeveloped our city to focus on the issues of our generation, namely: climate change (read my climate policy here). We need to build more homes, protect our tenants, and fundamentally rethink our land use.

We can do this. We know how to do this. The difficult part is finding the political will for change. We must choose between being a closed society that rejects outsiders, shuts down new ideas, stops real reform in the name of trying to recreate a nostalgic past or one that is open, innovative, welcoming, and willing to accept a real change to building a better future. We can — and must — build an equitable city for all.

Here in Cambridge, we are the most progressive, prosperous, scientific, and resourceful community in the Commonwealth. Progress can and should start with us. And if we are to succeed, we will need to be bold.

If we don’t lead, who will?

Leading on Housing

Cambridge is nearly the same size we were in 1920 (1). A hundred years ago, the US population was under a third of what it is today. Forget everything else, we have not built enough homes just to keep up with population growth. It is not physically possible for all the children born in Cambridge to have stayed in Cambridge — this is the root of the problem. We have not done our part. If we had grown with our country, we would have the same density as many European cities like Barcelona and Paris. We should follow in their footsteps.

Here in Cambridge we can — and must — lead on this issue.

We need to build much more housing, particularly in high-income areas.

  • This means allowing more housing to built across the city.
  • This means allowing density in areas are wealthy not just ones that were previously redlined and pushing the problem to our low-income and minority communities.
  • This means pushing for the 100% Affordable Housing Overlay, banning single-family zoning, allowing subdivisions & accessory dwelling units, and pushing for city-wide upzoning.
  • This means pushing our universities to build more student housing when there is demand.
  • This means taking into account that the population will grow over-time and taking that into account with auto-upzoning.

We also need to recognize that this is a regional shortage.

This problem has become a crisis because no city around MA has done its part.

  • This means we need to push at the state level for broader zoning relief, such as Rep. Connolly’s “Housing For All” (2) and the Governor’s “Housing Choice” Bill (3).
  • This also means not leaving it up to the state alone and working with our neighbors to make sure we are all building housing together.

Development Without Displacement

We need to have more housing to treat the root of the problem. We need to do this while protecting our most vulnerable residents.

We need to fight for tenant protections.

  • This means allowing people access to the legal counsel in their most vulnerable times. We know that, given the same facts, people with representation are much less likely to lose their homes. (4)
  • This means fighting for sealed eviction notices. If you were evicted once, that shouldn’t follow you around for the rest of your life — we are more than our lowest points.
  • This means fighting for rent stabilization bills like the one passed in Oregon because no-cause evictions and dramatic rent hikes are unfair to people who have done everything right. (5)

Restructuring Land Use

Much of our current zoning code was written in a different time. A time that was racist, classist, discriminatory, and did not face the challenge of our generation: climate change (read my climate policy here). We need to rethink the way we design our cities.

We need to allow for housing that fits the diversity of our population.

Not everyone aspires towards a nuclear family and the traditional American lifestyle — we should reform our zoning to allow people to live the life they want to.

  • This means being allowing for a greater range of housing sizes. Some people want to live with large extended families so they will always be at home. Some people want to live in Co-Ops so they can build a community in their home. Others still want to live by themselves, at all costs. We should allow housing of all sizes to accommodate all these types of lifestyles.

We should comprehensively update our zoning for the 21st century.

Currently, we have three times as many zones and styles as the country of Japan. We keep putting overlays over current zoning, convoluting it further. We should stop and instead develop a comprehensive plan (let’s build off Envision).

More broadly, we should adopt ideas for a great modern city.

  • This means mixed-use development — we don’t need to segregate our stores from our homes. The separation makes our city less dynamic and requires people to go further to get where they need.
  • This means rethinking old beliefs in the value of setbacks, lot sizes, and adopting a new form-based code. We have learned a lot about creating beautiful, dynamic & walkable cities in the last fifty years.
  • Fundamentally, this means putting concerns around density on the backburner. We are facing a climate crisis, a housing crisis, and a new era of urbanization. Focusing every conversation on housing around density, height, and fear of change is actively harmful.

We need to rethink land use.

We cannot treat housing as a speculative investment — not in a city with such a shortage of land.

  • This means fighting for a real estate transfer fee. This is a sales tax for real estate sales and will allow us to capture some of the value of new development for the neediest in our community.
  • This means fighting for a long-term vacancy tax. We need people to use the property they own and not hoard it for years and decades.
  • We need structural change. We should fight to transition to a land-value tax over a property tax.

Last Comments

I was born in Multan, Pakistan. At age 4, when I moved to the US — we could not afford a home of our own so family friends took us in and allowed us to live with them. It was a tiny three bedroom with eleven people, but it was the first home I can remember. There was always laughter and joy. We took care of each other. Although, at times, we also needed to hide together. We were always afraid of being caught by the landlord and kicked out because our stay was not legal. We moved many times when I was young and it took years for us to find stable housing. I understand the housing crisis on a visceral level and am devoted to fighting it.

References:

  1. US Census Data from 1920: https://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/41084506no553ch2.pdf
  2. Rep. Connolly’s Housing for all Package: https://www.wickedlocal.com/news/20190621/cambridges-rep-connolly-offers-housing-for-all-package
  3. Gov Baker’s Housing Choice Bill: https://www.mass.gov/news/baker-polito-administration-highlights-housing-choice-bill-in-grafton
  4. Example of Legal Counsel for Tenants from NYC: https://www.citylab.com/equity/2017/08/nyc-ensures-eviction-lawyer-for-every-tenant/536508/
  5. Model Legislation for Rent Stabilization in Washington: https://www.seattleweekly.com/news/would-rent-control-work-in-washington/

Candidate for Cambridge City Council

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