Alanna Mallon is serving her second term on the Cambridge City Council and is currently the Vice Mayor. Her lived experience with both food and housing insecurity has given her the insight to represent and provide direct aid for the most vulnerable in our City. She has had an incredibly productive 2 terms on the Council, leading on food insecurity, affordable housing, the Arts, and small business support. Alanna has also worked on a UBI Program to combat income insecurity and inequality.
How have your experiences, prior to or outside of seeking elected office, shaped your views on housing and land use in Cambridge?
Growing up, my family struggled with both food and housing insecurity, and I deeply believe that our City’s vast resources should be allocated to promote the end to pervasive income inequality. I know what a positive impact on my family’s life that a weekend backpack program or more affordable housing would have had, and that’s why I've made it my mission to expand both of these programs in Cambridge. Opportunities to be part of our community shouldn’t be based on whether you can afford it, especially when we have both the policy solutions and resources to implement solutions. As someone who grew up in poverty, I have also personally struggled with the rhetoric surrounding our low-income and vulnerable neighbors here in Cambridge. The shame that comes with poverty is something that I’ve been fighting against by expanding our wrap-around services, which directly helps our most vulnerable and affirms our stated values that we are, and should be, a welcoming city. Throughout my time on the Council, I’ve been informed by my life experiences as well as the direct advocacy and outreach that I’ve done in our community. I never make policy at City Hall without including our most vulnerable or underrepresented voices, and I meet residents where they are to ensure that privileges like time and knowledge of complicated City processes do not bar residents from the feedback process.
In your own work, what have you done to advance the goals for the City of Cambridge that you care about?
In addition to being a leading advocate for passing the Affordable Housing Overlay, I spent much of this past term developing programs to provide direct assistance to our residents in response to the COVID19 public health crisis. When the pandemic began, I saw the immediate need to ensure that students who depended on school lunch and residents who depended on our food pantry network, both of which closed virtually overnight, could still keep food on the table. To respond, I helped set up both the Cambridge Food Line for residents who could no longer access food pantries to receive home deliveries of free groceries, and helped to establish and staff eight remote school meal sites which served 70,000 meals to students from March to June of 2020. Working closely with the Mayor, we developed innovative, flexible grant based assistance to our small businesses, Cambridge Artists and Arts organizations and our hard hit non-profit community. These programs infused over $4M to small businesses, $1M to non-profits and close to $1M for Artist relief and Arts Organization recovery. More recently, I have also worked with Mayor Siddiqui, Councillor McGovern and Mayors for Guaranteed income to establish a UBI pilot for single-caretaker households - beginning this month, 130 single-earner households in Cambridge will be given $500/month with no strings attached. Studies show promising results from UBI programs: recipients of direct-cash assistance overwhelmingly spend it on basic necessities like food and housing, and increased financial independence lowers rates of depression and anxiety. To increase transit equity, I have been working on a fare free MBTA bus pilot in Cambridge and worked with a local non-profit Cambridge Bike Give Back and the CambridgeSide Mall to ensure they had access to free, flexible space to provide bicycles to our low income residents. I have also co-sponsored amendments to the Cycling Safety Ordinance which will provide over 26 miles of protected bike infrastructure over the next 6 years.
What is a stand or action you have taken that has displeased some Cambridge voters?
My yes vote on the Affordable Housing Overlay zoning petition was one of the most controversial votes I have taken in my two terms on the City Council The conversation preceding the eventual vote was extremely contentious, but I found that much of that came from confusion and lack of clear information about what the zoning would do, and who would benefit. As a supporter of this targeted zoning reform, I met residents where they were to address their concerns. I noticed that many of the City’s resources were written for the people who already had the time to come to long City Council and Ordinance Committee hearings, and written by those who had a deep knowledge of zoning. This created a vacuum of easily digestible, easily understood information about this critical tool to create more affordable homes in Cambridge. To combat this and ensure access to more user-friendly information, I published infographics, op-eds, and made sure that community meetings were accessible and provided easily understandable information. I found that after having measured, and informative conversations with residents, they understood why I supported the proposal even if they still disagreed with it as a policy tool. That’s not to say that I convinced everyone, because the Overlay continues to face criticism. However, the creation of affordable housing is one of my top priorities, and I remained committed to supporting the proposal while answering every resident question during the process. In the end, I was proud to vote yes on the Overlay when it finally passed in 2020, and it now has over 350 new affordable homes in the pipeline as a result.
What are models and/or strategies Cambridge should use to create more income-restricted affordable housing?
Now that we have the Affordable Housing Overlay as a tool in our policy toolbox, we need to make use of it as frequently as possible. Additionally, continuing to reform our overly-restrictive zoning code must continue to be a priority. Because our zoning code was written after much of our City was already built, 67% of all existing structures are non-conforming in Cambridge, which makes the creation of new projects extremely difficult. Even the slightest variance must go through the BZA, which is not representative of the changing demographics of our City, and does not align with the Council’s goal of creating more affordable housing. I am supportive of adding more housing through both the creation of more rental units, and expanding access to homeownership for low to middle income families. I’ve always been a proponent of our Homebridge Program, and want to continue to ensure it has the resources to keep our middle income families in Cambridge. However, Homebridge and other home ownership models need to be reformed to both ensure a greater amount of annual equity, and the ability to pass the home to a future generation. Homebridge was created as a housing stability tool, but has not been a tool for wealth building and this needs to be remedied if we seek to close the racial wealth gap. I also support the repeal of racist, exclusionary zoning, but want to caution that this is not a blanket solution due to the persistent high land costs in single-family areas. If we are able to end single-family zoning, I would be the leading candidate to ensure that we partner with our affordable home builders so that they are able to compete fairly for available lots.
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 should absolutely be a leader in increasing regional housing supply, along with our Greater Boston neighbors. As a region we have created the jobs, but we have not created a commensurate amount of new homes which has exacerbated the displacement we have seen, and continue to see especially in Cambridge. This means that our socio-economic and racial diversity has decreased, increasingly stratifying our City. Additionally, this shortage of homes fuels displacement and ensures that residents must seek housing further and further from the urban core and their employment, and forces longer commutes and single occupancy vehicle trips into Cambridge and the Greater Boston area. Having more available, affordable units combats many of the issues we face in our City: tenant displacement; shortening our housing waitlist; meeting our aggressive climate goals and more, and we must work to increase our local housing supply.
How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement? (Please focus your answer on strategies within municipal authority.)
The Tenant Displacement Task Force is a roadmap that was created with the direct input of tenants, to curb the scourge of displacement in our City. There is currently a strong and informed tenant network (many of whom served on the task force), but they need the resources, including direct funding from the City to bring their work to fruition. As the task force report states, we need to develop "a funded partnership with ACT to sustain their efforts to disseminate educational materials and improve individual tenant advocacy skills." We also need to build out our office of housing stability, currently headed by Maura Pensak, who is doing an intense amount of case management for individual residents and families. But we need more funding and more case managers so that Maura’s position can get out from the weeds and take a necessary 30,000-foot-view on what policies are needed so that we don’t continue to overwhelm our department with case management. This includes a “one-stop-shop” for housing stability, like an educational, user-friendly website, a single point of contact for tenant issues, directly combatting Section 8 discrimination, access to legal counsel, access to interpreter services, and the enforcement of tenants’ rights to organize. Lastly, the CEOC has a very popular “Cash directly assistance” program that has been helpful to many of our most vulnerable residents; the City should expand on programs like this (in addition to UBI) to ensure direct funding so that people can stay in their homes.
Do you believe we have a climate obligation to pursue greater density and allow more people to live here?
Yes. Study after study shows that housing and the environment is NOT a binary conversation, and this is a point that I made often when I encountered opposition to the Affordable Housing Overlay on environmental grounds. Just one unit of (affordable) housing reduces as much carbon as 450 trees due to reduced traffic, reduced waste, and reduced resources that a suburban, single-family home will require. When developments are proposed, it’s often on existing heat-islands that are dilapidated lots or surface parking - redevelopment of these areas, which include landscaping plans, allows both the creation of new housing and mixed-use spaces, as well as the conversion of these lots from gray to green. Furthermore, traffic studies indicate that 80% of traffic in Cambridge is “through-traffic”, meaning that there is a significant population of people who are required to get in their cars and drive through Cambridge in order to get to jobs, our world-class universities, or our City’s vibrant restaurant, arts, and social scene. If you plan for dense, walkable, mixed-use development that’s built around a single community, the amount of through traffic will decrease. The “5 minute neighborhood” is a concept that we should consider in all developments in Cambridge, both to build a better City and to cut down on our carbon emissions.
Do you support the affordable housing proposal at 2072 Mass Ave?
Yes. I strongly support this project, and have been devastated to see the delays at the BZA and the neighborhood opposition. 350 units is impressive, but still a drop in the bucket compared to the 20,000 families who are desperate for housing in our City. The project that has been proposed for 2072 Mass Ave is exactly what we all hope for: a fully affordable development with a high percentage of family sized units, transit oriented, passive house standard with small ground floor retail right on a transit corridor and close to neighborhood amenities and a great elementary school. The fact that it has met with this much opposition from the BZA and the neighbors is precisely why we passed the AHO. But in this case the AHO was weaponized as a reason to not allow the proposed height along Mass Ave. One step we need to take to ensure buildings like this get built, is to take a serious look at the makeup of the BZA and their purview to stop projects like this that meet so many Council goals. Number one is the creation of affordable housing, while another pressing goal is to mitigate the effects of climate change, which projects like this will.
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. There is no reason why certain types of housing should be labeled as “undesirable” for certain areas of the City. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and demographic trends are showing increasing preferences for proximity to mixed-use developments and urban centers. We still have room in our City to create more units, and single-family zoning in an urban area is a relic of a racist past where excluding certain types of housing was synonymous with excluding certain types of people. We are not, nor should we be, that kind of City, and we need to align our zoning code with our values.
Do you believe Cambridge should stop requiring new off-street parking for all residential development?
Yes. Requiring parking minimums is antithetical to the City Council climate, vision zero, and other stated goals. Parking takes valuable land away from lots that could be turned into housing, and encourages the use of cars in our City when we should be focusing on transit-oriented development. Additionally, after a survey of lots in the Greater Boston Area, a study found that 30% of all spots in the City were unused. In order to meet our housing goals, as well as our climate goals, we should work toward eliminating parking minimums for new residential development.
Do you believe Neighborhood Conservation District rules need reform?
Yes. The current rules by which a Neighborhood Conservation District study is initiated needs immediate reform. The original municipal code outlines a process in which just ten residents can organize to petition for the Cambridge Historical Commission to study a neighborhood to determine if there should be a Neighborhood Conservation District. These ten residents can impact hundreds of homes within a district for up to a year during the study period, and in the case of the East Cambridge NCD study, studies can be arbitrarily extended for even longer. During the subsequent study period, the entire district is treated as though it’s already part of an NCD, making changes and proposed projects difficult. In a City struggling with skyrocketing prices, combined with an out of control housing market, raising property values should not be a goal of any neighborhood group or preservation effort. I am 100% behind historic designation and protection for buildings deemed historically significant by the Historical Commission, but an NCD seems to increasingly be used as a protectionist tool for entire swaths of neighborhoods led by a very small number of residents. Reforming the current process to be more inclusive, as well as ensuring equity and rising housing costs are centered in the conversation, is imperative
Do you support a municipally funded right to counsel for every Cambridge tenant facing eviction?
Yes. Tenants that show up to housing court without an attorney are extremely likely to lose their case, furthering the justice gap. However, when tenants have a right to counsel or are provided free legal aid attorneys, the playing field is level, and fully-represented tenants win or settle their cases 96% of the time. Additionally, a study out of Baltimore showed that for every dollar that the City spent on providing tenants with attorneys, it saved the City $3.06 in social and safety-net services that come with the disruption of eviction and displacement. The best way to ensure someone has access to a roof over their heads is to ensure they don’t lose the home they have. No one should go into housing court alone, and I am committed to continuing this program that helps some of our most vulnerable residents.
How far, if at all, should the City Council go in encouraging transit-oriented development? How should the City Council go about doing it?
Parcels of land near transit nodes should be the first pieces of land that the City and affordable builders should seek out to develop. This will increase housing options near our commercial and small business squares, while decreasing the need for cars and surface parking. Although the Council cannot control the value of land or acquire parcels near MBTA stations and other nodes, we can encourage the approval of projects - like the one at 2072 Massachusetts Ave - which will bring much needed affordable housing to a major transit hub.
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?
Over the last decade, the City has embarked on a series of aggressive approaches to sustainable building standards which are codified through article 22.20 of the zoning ordinance, the City’s Green Building Requirements. The City Council is constantly updating article 22.20 to respond and adapt these Green Building Requirements to an ever changing landscape and climate crisis. These requirements promote “environmentally sustainable and energy-efficient design and development practices. The requirements apply to developments of 25,000 square feet or more, including new construction and some types of substantial renovation.” The best examples of these practices are in recent developments or renovations of our affordable housing stock. As these housing non-profit organizations will keep these buildings in their portfolios for decades to come, they are heavily incentivized to implement the most energy efficient systems and buildings possible to reduce costs. For an example of this, we can look at the renovation of the Manning Apartments in Central Square, 50 York Street by Just a Start and Finch Apartments by Homeowners Rehab, Inc. which was built to a passive house standard. Our affordable housing developers are leading the way in green building, and we should continue to amend article 22.20 for market rate and commercial builders to follow their lead and example. Where we have missed the mark is the recent “Green Roofs Petition'' which requires that 80% of the usable roof space be a vegetative roof covering, and solar panels can only be built above the green roof. I argued during the zoning process that though I believe that green roofs and increasing urban gardens and vegetation are an effective tool to combat climate change, without a solar only option builders wouldn’t have enough flexibility to use the best onsite renewable energy option we have in our urban environment, PV panels. Other municipalities who have implemented green roof zoning, like Denver, CO have had to revise their policies to allow for a solar only option. Since its passage, we have already seen one large project from MIT apply for a special permit to opt out of this requirement because complying would not allow them to meet their own internal aggressive climate goals. When we target and pass zoning to address the looming climate crisis, we need to ensure we are maximizing the impact through the zoning we pass, rather than limiting effects for political gain.
What can the next City Manager do to promote your housing priorities?
The next City Manager needs to take a hard look at past practices on how we expend our City’s vast resources in protection of our most vulnerable residents, and our residents who are increasingly housing insecure. Residential property taxes are kept artificially low year after year, while rents have risen at a staggering rate. This has impacted the demographics of the City in a fundamental way, and the new City Manager and their executive team should make looking at past practices a priority to make adjustments on which residents we are prioritizing for protection. They can also make more of an effort to develop our City-owned lots, particularly ones that are adjacent to major transit nodes, working with our affordable housing builders like HRI and Just A Start to create units in those locations. We also need to do some deep reflection on who gets appointed to bodies like the BZA and why; appointments must reflect the racial and socio-economic diversity of our vibrant City. We need to include the voices and lived expertise of renters, people of color, and public housing residents in our dialogue so that they can have an equal voice in how our neighborhoods are shaped.
What should the city do to increase walking, biking, and transit usage in Cambridge?
I was proud to co-sponsor the amendment to the Cycling Safety Ordinance to create 26+ miles of a protected bike lane network in Cambridge. If we want to effectively mode shift from fossil fuel dependence, decrease the amount of cars on our streets and increase cycling in Cambridge, building out this network is critical. Not only is it important that we finish building out our protected bike lanes in Cambridge, but we must also ask who this new protected network is being created for. I’ve been working with the Cambridge Bike Giveback program to ensure that low-income residents have access to bicycles and ways to repair them, so that everyone in Cambridge has access to this low cost transportation method. I have also advocated for a fare-free MBTA bus route in Cambridge to promote transit equity as well as improving bus service in the City to encourage increased ridership. We must ensure we are creating accessible transportation options to increase usage and mode shift away from cars to meet our climate goals and ensure our streets are safe for everyone.
Aside from housing and land use issues, what are some major priorities you hope to push for on the City Council?
I hope to continue building out our wrap-around services, aiding our small businesses, strengthening our arts community and arts economy, and ensuring that our City has an equitable recovery on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic.