E. Denise Simmons
Denise Simmons is a lifelong resident of Cambridge, currently serving her 10th term on the Cambridge City Council. She has spent the past four decades working to better her community – first as the Executive Director of the Cambridge Civic Unity Committee in the 1980s, then as a member of the Cambridge School Committee in the 1990s, and since 2002, as a member of the Cambridge City Council. Denise has twice served as Mayor of Cambridge, and she continues working to make City Hall more accessible and more accountable to a greater number and scope of people. Her priorities have included increasing the stock of, and access to, affordable housing units throughout Cambridge; working to increase the housing stability of people who are most at risk of being displaced, via being a key figure in increasing City funding for legal services dedicated to helping tenants fight evictions, and in pushing for the creation of the Housing Liaison to the City Manager position. Denise has also been a staunch advocate for our city's senior population, and has worked to ensure that their voices are represented on the Council.
How have your experiences, prior to or outside of seeking elected office, shaped your views on housing and land use in Cambridge?
I have served on the City Council for 20 years, I was in elected office on the School Committee for a decade prior to that, and I have long been someone that people have turned to for help when they’ve hit a dead end and are facing a housing crisis. Oftentimes, these have been people I’ve known for decades, so for me it’s not an abstract issue, it’s a very personal one. The people that are getting displaced due to skyrocketing rents are people I grew up alongside, or they taught my kids in school, or they’ve been the neighbors down the street that have been a constant in my life. These aren’t bad people, they’re not facing displacement due to any crimes – unless you call working a job that pays modest wages a crime. So for me, my views have been shaped by seeing this city gentrify, by seeing Kendall Square turn into this white-hot area of bio-tech development and landlords suddenly realizing they can ask for top dollar when renting out their units. I’m happy that we have a city that everyone wants to live in, but I do not think it should come at the expense of those who have lived here all their lives and wish to stay a part of this community.
In your own work, what have you done to advance the goals for the City of Cambridge that you care about?
If we’re focusing on housing: aside from working one-on-one with countless constituents in helping them navigate the local affordable housing market over the decades, advocating for them and counseling them, I have worked with a small group of housing advisors over the years to develop, propose, and push for the passage of numerous housing policies. I have served as either chair or co-chair of the City Council’s Housing Committee over the past several terms to vet legislation like the updating of our linkage program (nearly tripling the linkage fees), updating and doubling the mandatory amount of inclusionary units that developers must include in their residential developments, and most recently, I brought the citywide Affordable Housing Overlay District to the floor and worked to get that passed into law this term.
What is a stand or action you have taken that has displeased some Cambridge voters?
Just in the past several months, the City Manager appointed me and Councilor McGovern to co-chair a task force that was charged with reimagining public safety in the wake of police misconduct cases at the national level. My co-chair and I worked with a number of residents from across the community, seeking to develop a set of recommendations that focused on some very specific categories of emergency calls to the City that would send un-armed first responders, rather than armed police officers, to ensure that situations would not escalate, result in violence or injury, and that would connect people with mental health counselors or social workers rather than entering them into the criminal justice system. I am proud of the work we did and I have been pushing the City Manager to implement these recommendations. There are some members of the community that feel these recommendations did not go far enough, they would prefer that we defund or even abolish the police department, and they took great exception with how my co-chair and I ran this task force. I appreciate the passion they bring to this matter, but I believe that our work is sound and pragmatic, and if people are seeking to reduce the footprint of the CPD in our community while still placing an emphasis on keeping people safe, I believe we threaded that needle.
What are models and/or strategies Cambridge should use to create more income-restricted affordable housing?
The single biggest thing that we did this term was to pass the citywide Affordable Housing Overlay District, which is going to make it easier for developers of 100 percent affordable units to build as a right – but we are already seeing some community pushback on projects that would fall under this new policy, with community opponents either mistakenly thinking they can still band together to create legal challenges to these projects, or otherwise trying to exert pressure on developers and the Council to delay or block these developments. I believe we do need to have more of a public education campaign to show what is and is not allowed under the AHO, and part of that campaign does need to attempt to cut through some of the bias and stigma people hold against affordable housing and the people who live in these buildings. Beyond this, I will point to the Comprehensive Housing Plan that I released to the City Council in September 2017, which had a number of policy recommendations that I think remain worthy of discussion and consideration: https://cambridgema.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_LegiFile.aspx?Frame=&MeetingID=1914&MediaPosition=&ID=5496&CssClass=
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. I do agree. We know that there is no single policy that is going to help us attack our affordable housing crunch (just as we know that Cambridge, acting alone, cannot tackle this with real hope of success – we must be a leader, but we also do need a regional response). We need to explore every tool at our disposal: increasing linkage payments from developers, strengthening our Inclusionary Housing program, strengthening policies like the just-passed AHO, adding to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and working in close collaboration with organizations like the Cambridge Housing Authority, HRI, and JAS – we need to do all that we can to increase our portfolio of affordable units, and we need to be willing to be creative and bold.
How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement? (Please focus your answer on strategies within municipal authority.)
I think we’ve started going down the road on this during the pandemic: we increased City funding to legal services to aide those tenants at risk of eviction, we increased funding to help tenants impacted by Covid pay their rent, and we have added staff to assist the Housing Liaison to the City Manager. Even if the Covid threat subsides in the new year, I think we will need to augment this funding and add staff to assist the Housing Liaison and the folks working at the Multi Service Center to serve as case managers and help people not fall victim to displacement.
Do you believe we have a climate obligation to pursue greater density and allow more people to live here?
Yes. Yes, I do believe we have this obligation. If we were to look at buildings like Market Central, for example: here we have a 19 floor building that is right in the heart of Central Square, that is along major public transit lines, and that does not provide parking spaces for all tenants (and for those tenants that do wish to have parking, they must pay a premium) – buildings like this speak to those people who want to live in the city, live near where they work, and who wish to live in a building that will allow them to dispense with owning a vehicle so that they can take public transit, or they can walk or bicycle to work. I think developments like this are imperative for our city going forward.
Do you support the affordable housing proposal at 2072 Mass Ave?
Yes. I do support this proposal, and I hope it moves forward. As I said in an earlier response, I think we do need to develop some sort of public educational campaign, and something that pushes back against the “housing for me, but not for thee” attitude that we’ve seen from too many members of our community. When people are stating that they oppose a project because it may ruin their skyline or it may cast shadows, or because they don’t want “poor people” to move in and change the character of the neighborhood, that’s a problem for me because for them, this is all very abstract, and for me, it represents the hope of affordable housing and the chance to stay in this community for people who otherwise are going to be forced out. In addition to participating in this type of education campaign, or perhaps a PR push for this type of housing, I will continue to use my position on the council to strongly urge the Planning Board and the members of the community to be more open to these desperately needed projects.
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 often say that Cambridge isn't creating any new land upon which we can build housing, so what choice do we have but to re-visit existing policies and ensure that we have the wisest laws and policies governing what we can do with the land we have? We need to ensure we're not leaving laws in place that make it unduly difficult to utilize land and develop new housing units where we can.
Do you believe Cambridge should stop requiring new off-street parking for all residential development?
Generally. I generally do. With policies like the AHO, we are actively pushing for new housing to be located on or near mass transit sites. We know that adding off-street parking dramatically increases costs for new developments, and we really do need to be making a concerted effort to encourage people to use our buses, subways, and bike-shares.
Do you believe Neighborhood Conservation District rules need reform?
Generally. I generally do think this is something that should be considered. If we’re finding that Neighborhood Conservation Districts are being used to increase housing prices, or to discourage certain types of people from living in certain neighborhoods, then we do need to explore whether reform is appropriate.
Do you support a municipally funded right to counsel for every Cambridge tenant facing eviction?
Yes. I give this my unqualified support, and if I am on the Council in the next term, I will certainly be pushing for increased funding for this, just as I did this year. This year, we were able to justify the increase due to the impact of the pandemic, but it’s clear that this is a policy that can save so many people from displacement that otherwise might not have the money or wherewithal to obtain adequate legal counsel.
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 Council should absolutely work to encourage transit-oriented development. We are a relatively small city, area-wise, and there is nowhere in our community that is so off the beaten path that it cannot be considered relatively close to a bus stop or a subway station. I do believe that if transit-oriented development comes online, people will take to it. The Council can and should consider incentives to developers of this kind of housing, and perhaps work with developers and management companies to offer incentives (such as free or discounted memberships to bike-shares) to potential residents of these types of developments.
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 believe the City Council has done a solid job of encouraging sustainability in recent years. I agree with the efforts we have made to ensure that new City buildings over the past decade have been made in an energy-efficient fashion, adhering to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) criteria. I think this is the right way of trying to reduce our carbon footprint and to walk the walk; the area that I am less thrilled about is more what I view as the blind spot that the City appears to have in regards to putting the concept of open space above the immediate needs of creating more desperately needed affordable units (for example, there are some who have been advocating that the Cherry Street lot that we acquired from MIT several years ago should be turned into green space for area residents. I vehemently disagree with that idea, as we acquired this with the specific intent of using it for some sort of affordable housing, which is in far too short a supply).
What can the next City Manager do to promote your housing priorities?
The single biggest thing the next City Manager could do would be to whole-heartedly adopt the Comprehensive Housing Policy that I proposed to the City Council in September 2017 and declare that she or he will make implementing these proposals a top priority.
What should the city do to increase walking, biking, and transit usage in Cambridge?
Beyond encouraging the building of transit-oriented developments, I think we need to find new and creative ways to encourage residents. Whether it’s through offering financial incentives, or offering perks like free or reduced-fare memberships to bike-shares or movie tickets or coupons for groceries, we need to explore ways to make these modes of transportation seem too good to ignore.
Do you have anything else you'd like to highlight or add regarding housing or land use in Cambridge?
There is an old hymn I often use, in a variety of contexts: “May the work I’ve done speak for me.” I have served on the City Council for 20 years, and I think my record of service speaks volumes more than what I could type into a questionnaire.
Aside from housing and land use issues, what are some major priorities you hope to push for on the City Council?
I do wish to continue pressing for the Public Safety recommendations that I worked on with Councilor McGovern and the City Manager’s task force to become policy. I want to keep our community safe, while also recognizing that not every 911 call to the City needs to be met with armed officers at the scene.
I want to continue finding ways to allow the people of this community to engage in CIVIL debates, even in the discussions that most raise people’s passions. There have been a couple of discussions just this year that were particularly toxic, that pitted neighbor against neighbor, and that left a bad pall hanging over the entire city. We need to be able to find a way to have those discussions in a more holistic way.
I want to continue finding ways to plug our seniors, and those with mobility impairments and technology impediments, into our civic discussions. Too often, our seniors are seeing their direct voices left out of the discussions shaping our community because they cannot make it out to meetings, or because they aren’t comfortable using Zoom or they don’t have the proper technological support – yet they have just as much a right to share their voices as everyone else in this community, and we need to figure out how to better incorporate them.
I want to continue helping our City navigate through the Covid crisis, and particularly I want us to pay more attention to our minority communities who historically have had greater difficulty accessing quality healthcare. I want to ensure that our local businesses – particularly our women and minority owned businesses – are able to make it out of this period and are able to thrive going forward.
In short: I still have so much important work to do, and I hope to be able to continue on the City Council to ensure the work gets done.