Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler

I’m serving my 1st term on the City Council. I’m the son of an immigrant and grew up partly in subsidized housing. Before starting on the Council, I worked at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge and was an organizer with Boston DSA & City Life/Vida Urbana helping form tenants’ unions. I’m a renter, like 2/3 of Cambridge residents, but tenants are severely underrepresented on the Council. I’ve worked to bring that perspective and the urgency we need to the housing, transportation, and climate crises.

How have your experiences, prior to or outside of seeking elected office, shaped your views on housing and land use in Cambridge?

After my parents divorced when I was a toddler, I lived in subsidized housing with my mom in Springfield, MA. As an organizer, I’ve worked with tenants who are being priced out of their homes or dealing with mold, flooding, lack of heat and evictions. So I understand the need for better tenant protections like rent control and right to counsel; the need for more housing in areas that have blocked it with exclusionary zoning; a Cambridge Community Land Trust to make housing permanently affordable; and tenants unions to organize for better living conditions, against displacement, and to effect policy. Having worked at a land-policy non-profit also shaped my love for land-use policy issues like housing, climate, transit, zoning, and planning, which is so much of the work that the Council does.

In your own work, what have you done to advance the goals for the City of Cambridge that you care about?

I was a co-sponsor of the Affordable Housing Overlay, which passed this term after I was elected after having failed to do so the previous term because of a lack of votes. It is set to create hundreds of new affordable homes in Cambridge and cities including Somerville, Berkeley, CA, and Boston have all looked to Cambridge’s legislation as a model to pass their own AHOs or are considering them. I've also helped begin the organizing work to create a Community Land Trust in Cambridge, which will hopefully one day soon provide permanently affordable homes for Cambridge residents to rent and buy. And along with Mayor Siddiqui, who is the lead sponsor, I've helped introduce a Condo Conversion Ordinance that, if passed, would be one of the strongest tenant protections that Cambridge has enacted in years.

I was also the lead sponsor on Cambridge’s 2020 Cycling Safety Ordinance, which will create 20+ new miles of protected bike lanes in the next six years. We have some of the worst traffic in the country in Cambridge and have seen cyclist deaths almost every single year. The ordinance will save lives, reduce emissions, and reduce traffic by making it easier to get around the city without a car. I’ve also worked with other electeds in Cambridge and surrounding municipalities to advocate and plan for fare-free buses. We’ve seen cities including Boston announce fare-free routes, and I’m hopeful we’ll have some coming to Cambridge in the near future.

And I’ve fought for a city government that better represents the diversity of Cambridge and the priorities of its residents. That includes pushing for stipends for service on Cambridge's Board and Commissions, which have huge power over city affairs but are currently unpaid and not as representative of the city’s diversity. I’ve also pushed for increasing turnout for local elections with permanent early voting, same-day voter registration, and elections that coincide with state and national ones. And I’ve advocated for an end to the strong-City Manager/weak-City Council form of government to give the Council more power over the budget, approval of appointments, and the ability to contract for its own legal counsel. That also means moving away from an unelected City Manager—who in 80+ years has never been a woman or person of color—to a directly-elected Mayor so that Cambridge’s chief executive, who oversees the implementation of city policy, directs hundreds of staff, and proposes a $700 million+ budget, is accountable to voters.

What is a stand or action you have taken that has displeased some Cambridge voters?

My support for the Affordable Housing Overlay, the Cycling Safety Ordinance, and prioritizing funding for affordable housing and social workers over policing have all displeased some people. However, creating more affordable homes, saving lives of Cambridge residents and workers on our streets, and addressing underlying public safety more effectively and holistically are goals I was elected to pursue.

What are models and/or strategies Cambridge should use to create more income-restricted affordable housing?

To create more affordable housing in the city, Cambridge should expand the Affordable Housing Overlay, increase the commercial linkage fee, and utilize our prop 2 ½ levy capacity to put millions more dollars toward affordable housing each year. Cambridge should expand the Affordable Housing Overlay to allow for more units and diverse types of affordable and public housing throughout the city, especially on major corridors and near transit. Raising the commercial linkage fee from its current amount of $20/square foot to at least $33/square foot would generate millions of desperately needed additional dollars for affordable housing. And unlike many other municipalities in Massachusetts, Cambridge is more than $150 million away from our annual Prop 2 ½ levy limit. Even a modest increase would generate millions more dollars of revenue in the annual budget, a large portion of which would come from levies on corporate landholders and asset management companies. Ensuring that whoever the Council hires next as City Manager is willing to prioritize affordable housing over fiscal conservatism and keeping rates low for corporate landholders and well-off property owners will allow us to generate millions more dollars for affordable housing that we can put to use.

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?

Generally. Cambridge has long been a city defined by its racial and economic diversity, and we risk losing that if most housing that’s available is out of reach to working-class residents and wait-lists for affordable housing have more than 20,000 people on them. Only broad affordability will maintain Cambridge as a community for everyone—as a renter and a socialist, my issue is with the phrasing in that sentence from the Envision report that suggests the market alone will ever get us there. Cambridge must end exclusionary zoning, which dates back to the era of red-lining and racial covenants designed to keep diversity out of certain areas. And we need to invest massively more in affordable housing, which Cambridge has the capacity to do as a community that’s significantly below its Prop 2 ½ levy limit. While broad affordability and creating much more housing that all residents and workers can afford is definitely the goal to strive for, the market alone won't solve Cambridge’s housing crisis in the same way the market hasn’t been enough for necessities like education or healthcare – we need to combine ending exclusionary zoning with a robust public response in terms of funding, tenant protections like rent control, tenant opportunity to purchase, and right to counsel, and community responses like CDCs and Community Land Trusts.

How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement? (Please focus your answer on strategies within municipal authority.)

Cambridge should create an Office of Housing Stability as a one-stop shop to help tenants with legal and housing search issues in all of Cambridge’s most spoken languages, help lead policy work at the local and state levels, and collect data on housing in Cambridge including construction, cost, eviction, and displacement data to help guide policy-making. While some of this work currently exists, Cambridge should follow the lead of Boston and Somerville in creating a single-office to guide all the different aspects and provide a clear, initial point of access for residents.

I’ve worked with the lead sponsor, Mayor Siddiqui, on a Condo Conversion Ordinance, which would be among the most important new tenant protections passed by Cambridge in years. It would provide eviction protections, a right to purchase, and relocation assistance of $10-15k to tenants who can not purchase in buildings that are being converted from rental apartments to condos, which would be a huge assist to tenants to find a home in Cambridge.

Additionally, given how much Massachusetts limits the authority of individual municipalities on tenant protections, we must work with cities and towns across the state to pass them statewide. Anti-displacement measures including rent control, just cause eviction, and tenant opportunity to purchase (TOPA) are tools that Cambridge desperately needs, and we should work together with advocates in municipalities across Massachusetts to pass them here.

Do you believe we have a climate obligation to pursue greater density and allow more people to live here?

Yes. Creating more affordable housing in Cambridge is a climate issues and also an economic and racial equity issue and a labor issue. Right now, many working-class people spend hours each week commuting to and from their jobs in Cambridge because they can not afford to live here. And thousands of Cambridge residents have been priced out of their homes and displaced to other communities even as they continue to commute here for work. That means greater emissions produced by people to get to Cambridge, and it also means workers have extra hours stuck in traffic and less time with their families or to get to a doctor’s appointment. Ending exclusionary zoning and taxing big corporations to create new public and affordable housing both reduces emissions and allows workers who are getting priced out of Cambridge – custodians, social workers, teachers, and others – to live here, to have access to Cambridge’s parks, schools, and libraries, and to spend hours less commuting each week.

Municipal Green New Deal policies like improving public transit and transportation are also key to addressing climate change. Making it easier to get around by bus, subway, bike or foot both reduces emissions and makes it easier for residents who can not afford a car to get around the city. We can do this by adding bus and bike lanes, eliminating fares that add burdens for low-income residents and delay travel time (especially for bus travel where fares are collected as riders board) and investing in municipal sidewalk snow removal.

Do you support the affordable housing proposal at 2072 Mass Ave?

Yes. I was a co-sponsor of the 100% Affordable Housing Overlay, which was designed to be a “floor” for affordable housing in Cambridge, and I support the 2072 Massachusetts Ave proposal. The proposed affordable housing, which is a five-minute walk from the Porter Square T stop and on the already dense and walkable corridor of Mass Ave, is a great place for more transit-oriented affordable housing. I’ve been disappointed to see the BZA suggest that the Affordable Housing Overlay should instead be a “ceiling” over which it may not approve affordable housing proposals. I support expanding the Affordable Housing Overlay to encompass more proposals like this and passing charter reforms to provide City Council oversight of appointments to Boards and Commissions, which are currently unilaterally appointed by the unelected City Manager—unlike how appointments are made in many other municipalities.

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. The triple-decker I live in, which was built several decades ago, is currently illegal to build in much of the city. In multiple zoning districts, the zoning currently prohibits anything except a single-family home or duplex, which bans any new triple-deckers or apartment buildings. And even in my neighborhood, which on paper allows multi-family housing under the current zoning, my apartment likely couldn’t be built today because the set-back and minimum lot-size requirements prohibit it. The median cost of a single-family home in Cambridge is more than $1.7 million according to the City’s data, which is out of the range of the vast majority of people in Cambridge. Yet the City’s zoning encourages existing housing—including more affordable triple-deckers and apartments—to be torn down and replaced with large and expensive single-unit houses. We need to instead encourage more affordable types of housing, including six-plexes and beyond, in areas where it is currently possible to build mostly expensive single-unit housing.

Do you believe Cambridge should stop requiring new off-street parking for all residential development?

Yes. A recent study by the Boston area’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council shows that the average parking spot for new housing costs more than $15,000 to create and 30% of those spaces go unused. Every dollar and square foot that the City requires go to parking is money and space that is not going to affordable housing, green space, or community space. Adding new parking also encourages new residents and workers to contribute to traffic in Cambridge, which is already among the worst in the country. Cambridge should end mandatory parking minimums for all new housing and commercial development. Cambridge should also institute parking maximums for new development—especially near public transit—to avoid proposals like the new development above South Station in Boston, which will add hundreds of new parking spaces above the biggest public-transit hub in all of New England.

Do you believe Neighborhood Conservation District rules need reform?

Yes. Too often, neighborhood and historical preservation—not just in Cambridge but nationally—has unfortunately been used as a tool by appointed bodies that are less representative than the community as a whole in terms of racial and economic diversity to block housing, including in areas near public transit like we’ve seen recently in Harvard Square. While there is important work for historical bodies educating and passing on the unique legacy of Cambridge, that goal can be achieved without preserving in amber areas of the city that are currently among the most expensive and exclusive. For hundreds of years, Cambridge has evolved and changed to meet the needs of residents. A pressing need now is for housing that people can actually afford, and we need to ensure that enabling legislation for preservation doesn’t block that goal.

Do you support a municipally funded right to counsel for every Cambridge tenant facing eviction?

Yes. Cambridge has both the resources and expertise to fund a full right to counsel for tenants in Cambridge. The corporations pursuing evictions almost always have legal representation and ensuring that tenants have an equal right to a lawyer is the least that the City can do. Along with tenant organizing, legal representation is one of the strongest tools available to renters to resist displacement and assert their human right to housing in neighborhoods that they have helped maintain and make vibrant, even if they don’t own the physical property in which they have made their homes. Residents could be notified of their right to lawyer as part of the housing rights notification ordinance that the City Council passed this term. And the right to counsel program could be managed by a newly created Office of Housing Stability.

How far, if at all, should the City Council go in encouraging transit-oriented development? How should the City Council go about doing it?

Nearly all of Cambridge is within a short walk of a public transit stop—either a bus stop or the Red or Green Line. It does not make sense that triple-deckers and other apartments are banned in much of the city through our zoning—either explicitly, by allowing only single and two-family housing or implicitly, through minimum lot size requirements and other zoning measures.

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 was the lead sponsor on Cambridge’s 2020 Cycling Safety Ordinance updates that passed with strong support on the Council and will create more than 20 miles of protected bike lanes in the next few years. These improvements to our streets will save lives and help reduce both traffic and emissions.

I disagree with the lack of comprehensive updates to the city’s zoning to prioritize housing, end parking minimums, and create a more sustainable built environment. In part because it is widely understood that the city’s current zoning is out of date, the Council has spent countless hours in the Ordinance Committee discussing petitions for very specific changes, mostly in Alewife and Kendall Square. There are currently little to no requirements for housing in these areas, and the Council has too often been left to haggle over specific office- and lab-centered proposals and community benefits instead of laying out a comprehensive vision for a more affordable, walkable, sustainable, transit-oriented, and community-centered city through our zoning and planning processes.

What can the next City Manager do to promote your housing priorities?

According to the biannual community survey and previous iterations, “access to affordable housing” is by far the number one priority for Cambridge residents. It is the only category where 50% of residents ranked the city as “Poor” and where more than 80+ percent of residents said Cambridge was performing neither “Good” nor “Excellent.” The next City Manager is responsible for proposing a $700+ million budget and directing hundreds of city staff members and should have housing affordability as their number one priority. This should include working with the Council to require more housing in zoning, pushing to take advantage of Cambridge’s significant excess levy capacity in the annual budget to create more affordable housing, working to create a Cambridge Community Land Trust, municipally funded social housing, and an Office of Housing Stability, and collaborating with the Council to lead on policy change in the region and at the State House on tenant protections, transit, zoning, and creating progressive revenue rather than accepting the status quo as a given.

What should the city do to increase walking, biking, and transit usage in Cambridge?

Cambridge should fund fare-free buses and bus-priority lanes to help speed up bus travel, ensure it is consistently on time, and reduce the cost. Improving bus service and reducing fares is a way to improve racial and economic equity and reduce emissions. Studies have demonstrated that bus riders are disproportionately likely to be low-income and people of color compared to the general population. Because bus fares are collected as passengers board, fare-free buses help speed up bus service in addition to improving equity and boosting ridership. Boston’s fare-free bus pilot for the #28, as well Lawrence’s fare-free service, provide examples that Cambridge can adapt here.

Bus lanes also help boost ridership by reducing commute times, especially on streets like Mt Auburn Street, where studies have shown that more than 50% of commuters traveled by bus but more than 90% of the traffic is cars. Bus-priority lanes would make a huge difference for routes like the #1 bus, which has both among the highest ridership and highest delays in the whole MBTA system.

Cambridge’s updated Cycling Safety Ordinance, which I introduced, will make it easier and safer to bike in Cambridge, which more than 80% of surveyed residents, and a majority in every age category, say they want. It has already served as a model for other cities, including Washington, DC.

Cambridge should expand its sidewalk snow removal as one way to make it easier to walk in the city, especially for residents with disabilities or who are pushing strollers. While the City currently clears areas around parks and schools, it leaves most other sidewalks to private property owners, creating a sometimes patchwork and uneven system for snow removal. I chaired a Transportation Committee meeting about this in January of this year. Cambridge could follow the lead of cities such as Rochester and Burlington in clearing key sidewalk routes, like those between the Squares on Mass Ave, Hampshire and Prospect.

Do you have anything else you'd like to highlight or add regarding housing or land use in Cambridge?

The City Council should review underlying grants of authority that give unelected Boards and Commissions appointed by the City Manager the power to block apartments and affordable housing, especially near transit. We also need a better system for appointments to multi-member bodies. Currently, all appointments are made by the unelected City Manager and do not have to be approved by the City Council.

Aside from housing and land use issues, what are some major priorities you hope to push for on the City Council?

I’m a strong supporter of municipal broadband in Cambridge to end the virtual Comcast monopoly on broadband internet in the city. Nearly 50% of low-income households do not have access to broadband and all of us are stuck with too few options for internet, with inadequate service and high costs. The City Manager has been the main obstacle to municipal broadband in Cambridge, which was one of the reasons I voted not to extend his contract. With the hiring process for a new City Manager beginning, we must make sure they have a clear plan and commitment to implementing municipal broadband.

Along with Mayor Siddiqui and Councillor Nolan, I’ve been an advocate for charter change in Cambridge. The charter is the City’s constitution and while many cities do regular charter reviews every 5 or 10 years, Cambridge has not done a review since our charter was adopted more than 80 years ago. The City’s strong City Manager-Weak Council form of government, which takes most of the power over the budget, planning, and day to day city operations away from elected officials to an unelected City Manager, has not brought the urgency the city needs on housing, traffic, or climate change. The Council must take more action under our current form of government—and I’ve repeatedly pushed for that urgency on housing, transportation, municipal broadband and more. But we also need to give voters and the people they elect more direct power to address the urgency that our housing, transportation, and climate problems demand—rather than the current system, which too often favors fiscal conservatism, the well-connected, and a go-slow approach to Cambridge’s most pressing issues.