Dana Bullister is a longtime Cambridge renter, an award-winning data scientist, and an active member of the local entrepreneurial community. She studied at Wellesley College, where she investigated misinformation in politics, before studying Data, Economics, and Development Policy at MIT. She now researches how to use data to inform and communicate effective policy. She is passionate about both equitable housing and transportation, as someone fully reliant on walking, biking, and transit.
How have your experiences, prior to or outside of seeking elected office, shaped your views on housing and land use in Cambridge?
As a longtime Cambridge renter, I have experienced firsthand the task of finding affordable housing options in this city. I currently live with four roommates in East Cambridge, a neighborhood I love. Despite (at times) needing to economize heavily on living space, I enjoy being in a location where I don't need a car. I rely exclusively on the nearby Bluebike station, the Kendall Square T, and walking to get where I need to go (with the rare borrowed car or shared ride). This is only viable because everything I need is within walking distance: groceries, shopping, my favorite park, the community garden, school, work, multiple libraries, my doctor, and even my dentist.
My situation, I believe, represents all that is wrong and all that is right in Cambridge. It is wrong because, were I to ever need more living space or to (for example) start a family, it is unlikely I could continue affordably living here or accessing all of these things. It is right because, at least for now in my immediate neighborhood, Cambridge offers a mix of local businesses, public amenities, places of work, and neighbors I continually bump into as I walk to all these places. It offers a glimpse of what it can mean to live not just efficiently and sustainably, but as part of a real, organic social fabric.
This experience has shaped my views on housing and land use by embodying the importance of a reasonable balance of features within a neighborhood. This crucial balance enables a community to function effectively as a vibrant, sustainable, and livable unit. We cannot be a city of just life sciences labs or units upon units of monotonous luxury housing. We need a mix of different people-centered amenities. And, just as importantly, we need to make these accessible to a range of people from all walks of life.
In your own work, what have you done to advance the goals for the City of Cambridge that you care about?
As a member of my local community, I have participated in various ways to try to make it better. I have spoken at public comment in support of providing non-congregate housing for our unhoused population as well as for rethinking public safety to better support youths in our community. I've contributed to participatory budgeting, suggesting and supporting various youth engagement programs, mitigating traffic congestion, and aiding in climate preparedness. I've donated to local civic groups and participated as part of Our Revolution Cambridge in supporting local candidates through canvassing, phone banking, administration, liaising with existing Councillors, and technical support. I've also been a longtime and active member of the local entrepreneurial community in which I've offered support, advice, and guidance to local business owners.
What is a stand or action you have taken that has displeased some Cambridge voters?
I've long been a passionate supporter of 100% publicly financed elections. Many Cambridge voters I've spoken with have opposed the idea of paying for (what they consider to be) political spam, irritating outreach, and wasteful paper advertising. I disagree. The alternative to public financing means orders of magnitude more waste and a system that invites rich candidates and monied interests to skew elections in a way antithetical to any fair democratic process.
Here in Cambridge, individual campaign contributions are capped at $1000 per person per year. This does restrict the practice somewhat. However, we live in a reality where nearly half of Americans would have trouble paying an unexpected $400 expense - let alone a $1000 gift. People who can contribute $1000 are simply not representative of our population. And they are allowed to disproportionately influence election outcomes.
Furthermore, councillors who do accept donations from any particular groups inevitably become beholden - or give the impression of being beholden - to those interests. This is not a phenomenon that reinforces public confidence in our system.
In addition, there is no limit on what candidates themselves can contribute to their own campaigns. So nothing at all prevents a millionaire or billionaire from plowing as much as they want, without any limit at all, into an election that directly enriches their bottom line. Amazon already tried to do this in Seattle, injecting millions into a local election that would decide critical real estate priorities impacting their office headquarters. Something similar can happen here. And to be frank, why wouldn't it?
We need to plug this loophole. There are undoubtedly limits to what our government can do given federal court decisions about money as political speech. However, even if we cannot fully implement 100% public financing, we must do everything within our power to restrict the impact of campaign contributions in every way possible.
What are models and/or strategies Cambridge should use to create more income-restricted affordable housing?
Cambridge should experiment with every possible way of encouraging income-restricted affordable housing. Limited equity co-ops and land trusts are two models that could help organize and administer such developments. Additional funds toward public housing, housing vouchers, as well as increasing the percentage of required affordable housing as part of inclusionary zoning are other measures that should be reconsidered. We could also explore programs that support and incentivize homeowners in renting out individual units as affordable.
Inclusionary zoning also has the potential to be useful in fostering fully mixed income developments. In addition to the 20% already required to be earmarked as "affordable" for large developments, an additional 20% could be required to be moderate income units. These units would be tailored to those of middle income - people who fall through the cracks, currently, in their access to housing in our present system. This would be one way of addressing our increasingly bipolar income distribution.
Ultimately, I think we should be open to creative solutions to enable more units for low- and middle-income people to live in our city. We also need to encourage integrated, vibrant neighborhoods of people across the income spectrum so that all have access to similar, largely geographically-based community resources. Cambridge, unfortunately, is a tale of two cities. A critical, though by no means sufficient, step to addressing this problem is making sure that less advantaged residents are not confined to worse neighborhoods with poorer resources, creating destructive spirals.
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. Cambridge can and should provide more housing, especially affordable housing. This is clearly a part of the solution in our housing crisis. We should do so using smart urban planning that favors diverse, sustainable, livable, and transit-oriented neighborhoods that function for the wellbeing of residents.
How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement? (Please focus your answer on strategies within municipal authority.)
Cambridge should take measures to support and protect tenants both within and outside of the eviction process. One key element of this is implementing tenant right to legal counsel. While 90% of landlords typically have access to lawyers, only 10% of tenants typically do. Tenants should have ready access to such resources and a full understanding of their rights. The city might also consider providing mediation services.
The city can also implement an efficient, easier-to-navigate system for applying for affordable housing. Other online systems could also be useful in connecting tenants with each other so that they can share insights. Such networks and tools can empower tenants with critical information and leverage.
The city can also implement flexible, sustainable loan options for low-income tenants in addition to bond programs that facilitate accessible paths to home ownership.
Do you believe we have a climate obligation to pursue greater density and allow more people to live here?
Yes. Assuming we exercise appropriate urban planning and strategic design, especially around transit hubs, density can be used as a means to increase efficiency and sustainability. We certainly have an obligation to provide housing in a way that is optimally responsible to the environment. Such planning should also be implemented to enable good quality of life and complemented by effective transportation infrastructure.
Do you support the affordable housing proposal at 2072 Mass Ave?
Yes. After learning more about this development, it is clear the project embodies productive planning best practices in being located near a transit hub (walking distance from the Porter Square MBTA) in addition to sustainable building design. If elected, I will work to update legacy setback and height requirements to match with current realities of building norms and character, rather than outdated theoretical standards, such to enable smoother and more streamlined permitting processes. I'll also explore additional mechanisms for enabling responsibly designed affordable housing outside of the AHO. Additionally I will advocate for increased and higher quality alternative transit, including bike lanes and busing, which would increase opportunities for transit-oriented affordable housing.
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. I support updating zoning rules and dimensional standards to allow small-scale multi-family housing such as triple-deckers, four-plexes, and six-plexes. Such buildings complement existing neighborhoods and add flexible living options for families.
Do you believe Cambridge should stop requiring new off-street parking for all residential development?
Yes. New off-street parking should not be a requirement in all cases, since it does not make sense specifically for developments near major transit hubs. This is especially true as part of major corridors like Central Square.
Do you believe Neighborhood Conservation District rules need reform?
Yes. It makes sense for the process to incorporate a reasonably substantive degree of community input before imposing additional restrictions on homeowners. Historic Conservation Districts certainly have a place and should be taken seriously. Their process should acknowledge the nontrivial nature of many of their restrictions and include a more deliberate, community-inclusive process before active enforcement.
Do you support a municipally funded right to counsel for every Cambridge tenant facing eviction?
Yes. As mentioned above, 90 percent of landlords typically have legal representation, while only 10 percent of tenants do. Tenants should have ready access to such resources, a full understanding of their rights, and fair hearings. The city might also consider providing mediation services.
How far, if at all, should the City Council go in encouraging transit-oriented development? How should the City Council go about doing it?
The city should be reasonable in its approach to requiring parking spaces for only cases where they are necessary. This often doesnâ€™t apply in places that abut major transit hubs. We can invest money and space otherwise allocated toward unused parking to instead invest in transit or additional housing. Such investments could include expanding and upgrading bikeways, investing in additional city-provided busing in areas not well served, and reducing barriers to using such public transit (for example, providing discounts and vouchers). The city can also update requirements for setback and height to match with current realities of actual building norms such to alleviate restrictions in central areas well-served by transit.
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?
I think the city has made impressive strides in addressing climate change and preparedness via programs like Resilient Cambridge, which advocates for closer communities, sustainable building, stronger infrastructure, and a greener city. However, I think we have also fallen short in advocating for a better balance of housing versus additional commercial development. The new Volpe site, for example, should have been negotiated to enable a greater percentage of housing relative to commercial use. Yet more commercial units in our already job rich city means more demand on strained housing resources. Such building also forces more employees to commute from outside the city, which exacerbates congestion and resulting environmental consequences. Our city needs to do a better job of advocating for more housing relative to commercial development.
What can the next City Manager do to promote your housing priorities?
The next City Manager would understand the importance of investing in well-planned, transit-oriented development complemented by effective infrastructure. He or she would also pursue a balanced, people-centered approach emphasizing a large proportion of new housing relative to new commercial development. He or she would maintain a good relationship with the Council and be an open and engaged collaborator in transparent, inclusive processes. The Manager would also understand the importance of effective, streamlined tools to manage affordable housing programs such as online portals for easily navigating options.
What should the city do to increase walking, biking, and transit usage in Cambridge?
The city should invest in implementing a connected citywide network of protected bike lanes as outlined by the Cycling Safety Ordinance. The city can also invest in both sidewalk and road infrastructure to encourage safety and explore providing additional busing in areas not well served by transit. The city can also explore reducing barriers to using such public transit (for example, providing discounts and vouchers).
Aside from housing and land use issues, what are some major priorities you hope to push for on the City Council?
I hope to push for additional youth and workforce programs that prepare young people for current jobs and connect them with employers in the area for internships. Such programs can help tie in youth with their local communities, hone marketable skills, and forge mentorship relationships.
I also hope to champion equitable, sustainable transit as well as a city structure that leads to greater accountability and transparency. I support climate preparedness on the city level through moving the city toward net zero carbon emissions, expanding our tree canopy, and expanding permeable surfaces. I support modelling a fairer election process by restricting campaign contributions to the greatest extent possible. I also support exploring the feasibility of implementing municipal broadband in our city.