Burhan Azeem is an MIT-graduated engineer who grew up with housing insecurity. The runner up to the 2019 Cambridge City Council election, he was on the board of A Better Cambridge, and founded a housing nonprofit called Abundant Housing. An engineer by day and a volunteer EMT at night, he has gotten to know Cambridge from inside an ambulance. He was an early employee at Daytoday, a start-up doing COVID work, which is on track to have 800 employees by year end.
How have your experiences, prior to or outside of seeking elected office, shaped your views on housing and land use in Cambridge?
My views on housing and land use have been shaped by both personal and professional experiences. As an immigrant to the United States, I grew up with housing insecurity, sharing an apartment with many family members. I personally experienced the effects of a limited housing supply. Driven by this, I joined ABC and eventually served on the board. I am also a founding board member of Abundant Housing MA, where I’ve worked on regional and state-level solutions to the housing crisis.
In your own work, what have you done to advance the goals for the City of Cambridge that you care about?
As a founding board member of Abundant Housing MA, I’ve worked to supplement our municipal work on the housing crisis by working toward regional and state-level solutions, ensuring a Commonwealth with abundant housing for all. As a previous board member of ABC, I worked to advance inclusive growth in Cambridge, advocating for and helping pass the Affordable Housing Overlay.
What is a stand or action you have taken that has displeased some Cambridge voters?
My advocacy for the AHO, as a member of ABC and a candidate in the 2019 election cycle.
What are models and/or strategies Cambridge should use to create more income-restricted affordable housing?
Cambridge should increase funding to the Affordable Housing Trust, and the Council should make sure that the money is actually being spent and that there is adequate managerial capacity to put the money to good use. The Affordable Housing Overlay has already added 350 (and counting) affordable income-restricted units, and protecting and possible expanding it are key. “Superinclusionary” zoning, as described in the Envision Cambridge plan, is another policy I support.
Do you agree that only broad market affordability will maintain Cambridge as a community for everyone and Cambridge should lead the region to increase local and regional housing supply?
Yes. Yes. It is absolutely necessary to pursue broad market affordability. In an environment with restricted supply, as Cambridge is right now, it’s in essence a game of musical chairs: with too little housing, prices get bid up and all but the wealthiest are pushed out. To solve this, we need more housing, both income-restricted and market-rate. As a co-founder and former board member of Abundant Housing MA, I’ve worked on regional solutions to the housing crisis. It’s important that Cambridge both lead the way on housing production and tenant protection, and keep up pressure on state government and neighboring municipalities to do their part.
How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement? (Please focus your answer on strategies within municipal authority.)
Addressing displacement requires stability, supply and subsidy—we absolutely must pursue all three. For stability, a condo conversion ordinance such as the one currently before the council, and expanded tenant right-to-counsel, are both key steps that the City can take quickly. In addition, the City should ensure that rental relief continues to be made available to assist in a strong recovery from COVID-19. For supply and subsidy, the Affordable Housing Overlay was an important and necessary step; to build on it, I’ll advocate for strengthening the AHO, more support for mixed-income transit-oriented development, and increasing funding for the Affordable Housing Trust. All of these strategies can be pursued within municipal authority.
Do you believe we have a climate obligation to pursue greater density and allow more people to live here?
Yes. Yes. Housing policy is climate policy. This means reforming out-of-touch policies so that green, smart housing can be built. Building dense housing in Cambridge means less sprawling, carbon-intensive suburban development, fewer vehicle miles traveled, and more use of transit and active transportation (and, by reducing commute times, increases quality of life). Another, under-appreciated, aspect of this is that this policy gives the City the ability to ensure that even more units of housing are fully electric and decarbonized, again assisting in meeting our climate goals.
Do you support the affordable housing proposal at 2072 Mass Ave?
Yes. Yes. I fully and enthusiastically support the proposal at 2072 Mass Ave. We need to make it clear that the AHO is a floor, not a ceiling, on what should be built. We need to consider expanding AHO options along key transit corridors, and to implement superinclusionary as defined under Envision.
Do you support changing neighborhood zoning, including dimensional standards, to allow small-scale multi-family housing like triple-deckers, four-plexes, and six-plexes?
Yes. Yes. As indicated earlier, broad market affordability is necessary to meet our goals of ensuring an affordable Cambridge, limiting displacement, and reducing emissions and car use. None of this is possible without having small-scale multi-family legal to build, by-right, across the City.
Do you believe Cambridge should stop requiring new off-street parking for all residential development?
Yes. Yes. Off-street parking requirements take up land that could be put to far better uses, and they increase the cost of building housing. A Brookings estimate found that structured parking (such as in a parking garage) can add more than $50,000 per space.
Do you believe Neighborhood Conservation District rules need reform?
Generally. Cambridge is an old city and we have a lot of history. There is value in preserving that. At the same time, as Einstein et al. show, some neighborhood processes are often dominated by a highly unrepresentative group of local landowners. Policies, such as the current low threshold needed to establish an NCD, make it more difficult to get the true feeling of the community which should be needed for such large changes.
Do you support a municipally funded right to counsel for every Cambridge tenant facing eviction?
Yes. Yes. It is vital that tenants have excellent legal representation. Far too many evictions occur over small sums of money or other issues that could be resolved; providing legal counsel is a first step toward addressing that.
How far, if at all, should the City Council go in encouraging transit-oriented development? How should the City Council go about doing it?
To meet our climate and housing goals, It’s imperative that the City Council encourage transit-oriented development. Superinclusinary near transit and major corridors are key steps. Furthermore, in a dense, walkable, and transit-connected city like Cambridge, I believe that all land-use policy is relevant for TOD. Solutions like the Affordable Housing Overlay and legalizing missing-middle housing citywide, combined with improvements in pedestrian and bike infrastructure, will make Cambridge a denser city where transit is more accessible.
How would you evaluate the City Council's approach to sustainability over the last few years--what is one aspect you agree with and one aspect you disagree with?
It’s clear that the Council values sustainability, but it could also be both more ambitious and more thoughtful in its approach. I support increasing the tree canopy, net-zero zoning, and other bills. However, I disagree with thinking about emissions just within the city; it’s vital to understand how our land-use policy affects travel patterns and emissions outside of Cambridge.
What can the next City Manager do to promote your housing priorities?
Making sure that Affordable Housing Trust money is used, and making sure Board appointments reflect the City.
What should the city do to increase walking, biking, and transit usage in Cambridge?
Walking, biking, or using transit in Cambridge should be just as safe, easy, and convenient as using a car or any other means of transportation. This means ensuring that sidewalks are kept in excellent shape and clear of snow and ice; building protected bike lanes throughout the city; and implementing bus lanes, queue jumps, and transit signal priority along key bus routes. It also means ensuring adequate staffing in City departments and a clear framework to make sure these improvements are implemented; the Cambridge Bike plan is a good model here, but it should be expanded to include more areas and bus infrastructure as well.
Do you have anything else you'd like to highlight or add regarding housing or land use in Cambridge?
The difficulty in getting 2072 passed show we should extend the AHO to include buildings like 2072 Mass Ave and move past such fights in the future.
Aside from housing and land use issues, what are some major priorities you hope to push for on the City Council?
Other major priorities include investing in bus, bike, pedestrian infrastructure; investing in public safety; universal day-care, and implementing municipal broadband.