I am a lifelong Cambridge resident who grew up in Cambridge affordable housing. After graduating from Cambridge Public Schools, I attended Brown University and Northwestern Law, and became a public interest attorney. As your Mayor during the COVID-19 pandemic, I helped lead our city through unprecedented challenges. I re-launched the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund, raising over $5 million dollars, expanded the Cambridge daily COVID-19 testing program, organized neighborhood vaccine sites, and chaired the School Committee through multiple school reopenings. I have loved serving the City.
How have your experiences, prior to or outside of seeking elected office, shaped your views on housing and land use in Cambridge?
In the late 1980s, my parents, brother and I immigrated from Karachi, Pakistan to Cambridge, Massachusetts and immediately entered Cambridge’s housing lottery. Before long, we moved into an apartment in the Rindge Towers in North Cambridge, known now as the Fresh Pond Apartments. Many years later, we relocated to Roosevelt Towers in East Cambridge. Currently, I am the only City Councillor with the lived experience of growing up in Cambridge affordable housing—it has truly shaped who I am. My parents still live in affordable housing. This part of my identity deeply informs my values and shapes my views on housing and land use. Throughout my time as a public servant, I have advocated on behalf of Cambridge’s most vulnerable, striving to create more affordable housing and protecting households under threat of displacement from facing eviction and homelessness.
In your own work, what have you done to advance the goals for the City of Cambridge that you care about?
One of my main priorities has been around tenant displacement and affordable housing. During this last term, I was the lead sponsor for the the City of Cambridge Tenants Rights and Resources Ordinance, Chapter 8.71 of the Cambridge Municipal Code. The purpose of the Ordinance is to ensure that housing information and resources are widely disseminated and that best practices are implemented at the start of and throughout tenancies in order to maintain housing stability for the City’s residents, neighborhoods, and community. In 2020 we were also successful in our efforts to preserve the affordability of the Fresh Pond Apartments, where I grew up. Through Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the City, we were able to preserve over 500 units – giving the families who reside there, and those that wish to reside there, a chance to live in Cambridge affordably. In 2019, I submitted a Policy Order to increase funding to HomeBridge, a program that creates a pathway to homeownership in Cambridge. The additional funding was approved in November 2020, and we were able to expand eligibility to 120% of the area median income. I was also the lead sponsor for a policy order around an alternative credit check system. Landlords and property management companies regularly use credit checks to make determinations about renting to potential tenants or employers making hiring decisions, and a low credit score or credit invisibility can limit housing choice and employment opportunities for low-income families. For housing in Cambridge, many residents have their applications denied for inclusionary units or private apartments due to the credit check requirements set forth by management companies. The City of Cambridge and new housing developments have an opportunity to lead the charge in creating new practices on reviewing a potential tenant’s application, including providing ways for applicant’s to file appeals if a decision is made solely on credit score, creating alternative tools to assess an applicant’s ability to pay rent and if certain circumstances led to a decline in credit score, among others. To protect residents from eviction, displacement and homelessness, I increased legal aid funding to organizations that help residents facing housing instability, pushed our City to collect and analyze eviction data, and chaired the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Tenant Displacement, which has developed policies to strengthen tenant protections. One of the recommendations from this report was an ordinance around Condominium conversion, which I also introduced this term, and will be discussed.
What is a stand or action you have taken that has displeased some Cambridge voters?
In September 2019, I voted in favor of the Sullivan Courthouse project and requested that additional affordable housing units be added along with more money to the affordable housing trust. Leggat McCall won the right to redevelop the Sullivan Courthouse in late 2012 but there were various legal battles. I was considered a swing vote. I spent many hours meeting with residents on each side of the issue, and ultimately, I felt that there had been enough process and that another many years of litigation would be a disservice to members of the community, and that getting more affordable housing from the project was the best choice. Although it may upset certain voters, I know the necessity and importance of affordable housing in Cambridge; it is not only a choice of mine to continue fighting for it but a duty in order to ensure equity of our city.
What are models and/or strategies Cambridge should use to create more income-restricted affordable housing?
The City can pursue its own property to create more income-restricted affordable housing. The City should also do better outreach to residents who may want to sell their property to the City. The Affordable Housing overlay will help with adding more units, and so will a future real estate transfer tax, along with increasing our linkage fee, the latter which will add money to the affordable housing trust. Currently, our inclusionary zoning ordinance is at 20 percent, and we can consider amending this in the future as well. I am also interested in the affordable housing bond idea that the council supported this term. Portland, Oregon approved a $652.8 million bond measure to build more affordable housing. The bond measure to create thousands of homes affordable for low-income residents. Another area we have not considered is tapping into big tech, which in California is starting housing projects and investing in philanthropy for affordable housing. Microsoft launched a $750 million affordable housing initiative to help support the creation of more than 1,000 new affordable housing units for greater Seattle. Other strategies are outlined in the Envision report, which include studying ways to provide incentives for landlords who provide affordable housing, and increasing existing City funds for dedicated affordable housing.
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. If we have any new development, there should be housing incorporated. We don’t have too much new land that is available so we have to be prescriptive with development. This will take strategies listed in Envision like requiring the creation of significant new housing in areas that are being rezoned in any way.
How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement? (Please focus your answer on strategies within municipal authority.)
We need to continue supporting our nonprofits and Multi-Service center to help residents with housing stability and housing search services. Supporting legislation at the State level that would allow municipalities to do more locally is also critical such as rent stabilization bills. Making sure tenants have access to information is also key, which is why we enacted the Tenants Rights and Resources Ordinance. One of the task force recommendations was to establish a more permanent, funded partnership with Alliance of Cambridge Tenants (ACT) to continue providing these services and building its organizing capacity in perpetuity. Since last term, we have been able to provide funding to ACT. They have hosted educational workshops and forums for residents. Another strategy within our control is adopting a City Condominium Conversion Ordinance that “updates” and strengthens the state condominium law in the service of Cambridge tenants. Since the task force report, the Cambridge Housing Authority has also had a goal of reducing the number of actions taken against tenants that result in eviction-related court filings. In cases when a housing entity must take legal action against a tenant, it is most often on account of non-payment of rent and does not result in a physical eviction. However, any eviction-associated court filing, regardless of outcome, can be a long-term liability for a renter and may prevent a tenant from securing necessary housing in the future. Encouraging the City and its housing providers to reduce the number of actions is very important. I have supported the HOMES Act (An Act promoting housing opportunity and mobility through eviction sealing). If passed, the HOMES Act would allow for a court record to be sealed if no judgment was entered against the tenant, the tenant was not evicted, or was not at fault. Other strategies include expanding homelessness prevention services, including emergency resources and support, legal and mediation services and foreclosure prevention counseling. In the end, there are a multitude of strategies and they all go hand and hand.
Do you believe we have a climate obligation to pursue greater density and allow more people to live here?
Yes. It is a must to be considering the climate aspects of all decisions and especially those related to density and housing. There is a recent article by Brookings Institute titled “We can’t beat the climate crisis without rethinking land use.” The article discusses low-density development practices stating “low-density neighborhoods require more physical capital per person, meaning more building materials and emissions to manufacture concrete, asphalt, piping, and other material inputs. All that concrete and asphalt radiate heat back into the atmosphere and can reduce public health due to higher temperatures. The same impervious surfaces also lead to water resource challenges such as greater stormwater runoff and flash flooding. In the most extreme situations, sprawling development moves into areas prone to flooding or forest fires.” Thus, you can see see we have an obligation to prevent this. Higher-density development offers the better option to manage growth while protecting clean air and water by placing new developments in areas where the most infrastructure already exists to manage air and water quality. If more housing in Cambridge is achieved by relaxing exclusionary zoning laws and prioritizing high-density housing development, it will have a vast positive impact on the environment and reducing carbon emissions.
Do you support the affordable housing proposal at 2072 Mass Ave?
Yes. As written in multiple Op-Eds about the housing proposal at 2072 Mass Ave, I am in favor. I have been helping lead some of the charter reform work, which if passed, could allow the Council to have more power over our zoning board and who sits on it. I think it’s important to have individuals with affordable housing backgrounds making decisions about 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. Yes, and we must do everything we can to reduce regulatory barriers that limit the market’s ability to build small, lower-cost homes on expensive land.There is extensive research that shows small-scale multi-family housing like triple-deckers, four-plexes, and six-plexes can improve affordability. Additionally, city-wide zoning reforms would then help increase supply of housing, while also making those communities financially accessible to many more families. The devil is in the details with all of this and I am hopeful the council can keep working to address housing affordability through relaxing exclusionary zoning.
Do you believe Cambridge should stop requiring new off-street parking for all residential development?
Yes. We have to be cognizant that this is a mindshift for many in the community who have always had a car or think they definitely need a car. There are some who do need a car because their job may be much further than public transit can provide. The key is certainly expanding pedestrian, bicycling, and public transit options and doing the work to share information around we do have enough parking and that increased parking undermines many of the city’s goals. The cost savings from going car-free can be substantial, and money saved can be put towards other things that increase quality of life.
Do you believe Neighborhood Conservation District rules need reform?
Yes. Yes. The process is flawed based on what we have seen happen with the East Cambridge conservation district. Conservation District Board members must be more representative of the diversity of that District and given that the current ordinance was drafted over 40 years ago, I am supportive of ways to reform the rules and update the ordinance. I was a co sponsor of a policy order that asked the City Manager to confer with the Cambridge Historical Commission and other relevant City Departments to ensure that any report or recommendation for a new Neighborhood Conservation District in Cambridge presented to the City Council include an analysis of the potential effects on City housing affordability based on current research, as well as any mitigations that the Cambridge Historical Commission recommends, so that the City Council may holistically evaluate the matter.
Do you support a municipally funded right to counsel for every Cambridge tenant facing eviction?
Yes. Yes, I have been an advocate for increasing funding to our legal aid nonprofits and would love to see a full right to counsel. I have worked with the Massachusetts Right to Counsel and we became the first city to pass a resolution to become an official supporter of the Massachusetts Right to Counsel Campaign. De Novo Center for Justice and Healing, formerly Community Legal Services and Counseling Center, provides on-location legal aid support at the Middlesex Session of Eastern Housing Court and every Friday at Cambridge District Court through its ‘Lawyer for the Day’ Housing Clinic program, coordinated by one of De Novo’s part-time attorneys; and since 2019, I’ve advocated for funding to sustain its “Lawyer-A-Day” program and continue providing much-needed support to those lacking representation at housing court. The City has also contracted with Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services to expand its services to elder residents, increase the number of office hours it currently provides at the Cambridge Multi-Service Center and serve ~ 30 more resident cases each year. I am hopeful we can continue doing more.
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 Council should encourage transit-oriented development whenever possible, we have some good examples of where it exists. We know that when more people live and work near transit, more people use transit. Some cities like Chicago have adopted an Equitable Transit-Oriented Development ordinance. Right now we have goals for the percent of new housing units within a half-mile walk from an MBTA subway station and the percent of new gross floor area within a half-mile walk from an MBTA subway station. We can codify these goals and make sure the city is applying to any state grants that incentive transit oriented development. Boston also has an equitable Transit-Oriented Development Accelerator Fund (ETODAF) created by LISC Boston, The Boston Foundation, and the Hyams Foundation to provide developers with streamlined access to acquisition and predevelopment capital that can be used to acquire and advance strategic properties along transit corridors.
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 have agreed with the City’s work around flood mitigation. I like that the City created a web-based GIS application and associated database called FloodViewer, where property owners can assess projected flood elevations — with climate change projections — at a parcel level. This application is publicly available to inform residents about the risk and vulnerability of specific buildings and facilities. As the Resilient Cambridge report states, new development in the City should be informed by predicted climate change and flooding risk in 2070, which will help contribute toward making the neighborhood more resilient.
I am a supporter of the City’s Tree Protection Ordinance to protect the tree canopy in Cambridge which aims to curb the loss of trees and promote a healthy canopy. Effective urban canopies help combat climate change and rising temperatures by holding carbon and combating the urban heat island effect. I have disagreed with the trees v. affordable housing approach-I think it can be both. I drafted an amendment to this ordinance to stipulate that developers of 100% affordable housing projects were not bound by this ordinance and can apply for funding to the tree replacement Fund to expand the canopy. Affordable housing developers like CHA have committed to expanding the tree canopy and the City should continue to support those efforts.
What can the next City Manager do to promote your housing priorities?
The next City Manager should prioritize building on any city owned property, pushing to identify any vacant property, working with our universities to help with housing (including gearing up for reviewing the PILOT agreements that are up for renegotiation in a few years), and increasing resources to fund affordable housing.
What should the city do to increase walking, biking, and transit usage in Cambridge?
o increase transit usage, Cambridge should introduce a fare free bus pilot, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on this. Additionally, we can continue to support bike lane implementation and bike infrastructure. I would be supportive of car-free street’ or ‘open-street’ days. I have had many conversations about the areas that the CRA report identifies as issues in North Cambridge: a missing connection at Alewife Brook Parkway underpass, an insufficient connection to the Alewife Red Line T-Stop across Alewife Brook Parkway from Rindge Avenue, including long waiting times at pedestrian signal along the parkway, cracked sidewalks, missing bike lane and narrow sidewalks on Rindge Avenue, fenced areas within the Rindge neighborhood, and an insufficient connection to the Fresh Pond Mall, Danehy Park, and other points south. I’ve sponsored policy orders to prioritize this area in particular because it is an environmental justice area (the median annual household income is equal to or less than 65 percent of the statewide median ($62,072 in 2010); or 25% or more of the residents identify as a race other than white; or 25% or more of households have no one over the age of 14 who speaks English only or very well - English Isolation. The Rindge neighborhood area is the only Cambridge community designated as an EJ community, and that meets all three criteria. Therefore, improving connectivity in the area is very important and will increase walking, and biking. I think our pedestrian plan from 2000 can also be redone with new strategies.
Aside from housing and land use issues, what are some major priorities you hope to push for on the City Council?
My office has led on the guaranteed income pilot (Cambridge RISE) for 130 single caretaker households, and I look forward to being involved in how that builds a body of evidence to show that a guaranteed income and cash payments can help families. Additionally, I will keep advocating for additional money in scholarship funding for low-income children to attend high quality community based preschool while we make progress toward universal pre-k. Another priority is the improvements to the Rindge Ave neighborhood, including Jerry’s Pond given that it is an environmental justice community. I am also excited about many of the other initiatives I have underway including an early college partnership with Lesley University, language access and justice work through the Family council, and the roll out of a Children’s Savings Account (CSA) for each kindergartener in the city through a partnership with the East Cambridge Savings Bank, which will seed these accounts with $50 dollars and provide finance literacy for families.