Paul F. Toner
My name is Paul Toner, candidate for Cambridge City Council. I am a lifelong resident of Cambridge and live with my wife Susan Connelly (35 years working in affordable housing) and our children Grace and Jack in the home that my great grandfather bought in 1905. I am running because I believe in public service and our capacity to improve people's lives. As a teacher, lawyer, union, and nonprofit leader, I have the skills and experience needed to engage diverse views, build consensus, and navigate the political process. to make change. I hope you’ll support my candidacy with your endorsement.
How have your experiences, prior to or outside of seeking elected office, shaped your views on housing and land use in Cambridge?
My perspective on housing and land use is informed by my experience as a lifelong resident, former renter, homeowner, educator, and union leader. It has also been informed by my wife Susan Connelly, who is a current member of the Cambridge Housing Authority, former member of the Zoning Board, and has a 30-year career in developing, managing, and advocating for affordable housing across Massachusetts. Having lived and grown up in Cambridge over the last 50 years I have been witness to the enormous changes in our city resulting from the extension of the Redline, elimination of rent control and the development of East Cambridge, Kendall Square and North Cambridge. The demographics of the city have changed, especially in terms of its socioeconomic composition, which has had an impact on the character of the city as well. As a teacher and state and national union leader, I have also observed its impact on my own students and their families who lived in public and/or affordable housing and on students across the state. Housing instability and the stress that goes along with it negatively impacts students in their academic progress and ability to engage in the opportunities provided through city services due to transiency. These experiences have given me an appreciation for the importance of maximizing our limited land in building more housing stock for residents of all income levels to provide greater housing stability but also the need to seek a balance with providing quality open space for residents to be able to access. Finally, based on my wife's work, I realize that there are many communities who are not carrying their weight when it comes to provideing more housng opportunites for families across the state and we should be leading but also cajoling our neighboring communities to live up to their housing obligations.
In your own work, what have you done to advance the goals for the City of Cambridge that you care about?
As stated above, I believe in giving back to my community and engaging in civic life. Most of my activity has been in teaching and advocacy in public education and advancing workers’ rights through the union. I have been Cambridge Public School teacher, Cambridge Teachers Union President, and the Vice President and President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. I am also a member of the Ward 11 Democratic and Cambridge City Democratic Committee, and have been involved in local, state and national electoral campaigns over the past 40 years beginning with sign holding for Mike Dukakis when I was 12 years old. I have also been a past member of the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee, Cambridge Youth Soccer and Hockey volunteer, member of the Friends of CRLS and participated in various neighborhood activities over the years.
What is a stand or action you have taken that has displeased some Cambridge voters?
These examples are not related to city issues, however, as president of the CTA and MTA there are more than a thousand members who are also Cambridge residents and voters. During my career at the local level and state level I have taken many positions that displeased a substantial number of CTA or MTA members. At the local level, some CTA members were upset regarding some contract provisions, the merger and closure of schools and my support of and my willingness to work with school administrators. As president of the MTA, many members were angered by my support of the Achievement Gap Bill of 2010, the state’s application for Race to the Top grants, a new teacher evaluation system adopted statewide and my support of pension and healthcare bargaining reform. However, in each of these cases, I was able to engage members, listen to their concerns and win the support of most members for the positions I took. Of course, both at the local and state level, as a leader, I often had to say no to my members on many occasions. Some of thee de isons have negatively impacte dme professionally and politcally.
What are models and/or strategies Cambridge should use to create more income-restricted affordable housing?
Cambridge is well-situated to lead and do more in housing with substantial resources, forward thinking policies, staff capacity, strong public infrastructure, and employment opportunities. We can use our inclusionary zoning and AHO ordinance to support the development of more local affordable housing, especially along major transit areas and around transit hubs. We can also invest more in our affordable housing trust and incentivize more public private partnerships to develop abandoned or underutilized properties. For instance, I support projects such as the one proposed for 2072 Massachusetts Avenue. Instead of having a shuttered business near a public transit station, I believe that a seven- or eight-story building with 48-55 units of affordable housing is a smart way to develop this lot.
We must, however, recognize that this is a regional problem. Many of the 20,0000 families on the Cambridge Housing Association waitlist are also on the Boston and other local housing authority waitlists. 20,000 people are seeking public housing in our region, meaning they earn less than 60% of area median income. Many of them will be passed over for housing because public housing authorities are allowed to give “local preference.” Our housing policy must address the range of housing needs if we want to maintain a vibrant community. Advocating on the state and federal level for more resources to support people earning less than 100% AMI is part of the solution. Advocating for more equitable land use policies in the surrounding communities is also needed, especially from our state elected officials, because Cambridge cannot do it alone.
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 agree that Cambridge should be a regional leader regarding land use and affordability, as well as the infrastructure upgrades needed to support a dense urban community. How we go about this needs more specificity. Most of the other communities involved in MAPC’s Metro Mayors Coalition have a traditional mayor system, but we can still engage MAPC on this issue. I support proposing zoning that would allow for developing more multiunit housing options in areas traditionally zoned for single family housing.
How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement? (Please focus your answer on strategies within municipal authority.)
To help prevent displacement, I believe the City should support and expand upon the recommendations in the mayor’s report. Education of tenants, streamlining and coordinating tenant services, increased funding for vouchers and providing access to legal counsel and mediation programs to tenants are all essential. In addition, we must ensure there are adequate rent subsidies, especially during crisis situations like the pandemic.
Do you believe we have a climate obligation to pursue greater density and allow more people to live here?
Yes. I agree that increasing urban density is an important tool to combat climate change on the city level.
Do you support the affordable housing proposal at 2072 Mass Ave?
Yes. I support the 2072 Mass Ave proposal; however, I do think there should be some limited number of parking spots offered onsite along with a plan to incentivize future tenants to go car free such as reduced rents, access to bike and car sharing services on site, etc. I think it would go a long way to reducing neighborhood opposition on this and similar proposals. Asserting that future tenants will not own cars without some guarantees to assure they won’t only damages the credibility of developers with neighbors. In addition, some number of tenants will need parking to get to their jobs that may not be easily accessible by public transportation.
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 believe the city council should discuss making changes to zoning rules to allow for the development of multiunit housing in areas that have been traditionally zoned as single-family housing only. I think we have some great examples of thoughtfully done denser housing on formerly single-family lots, and we should highlight these as models throughout the city.
Do you believe Cambridge should stop requiring new off-street parking for all residential development?
Generally Not. I think that new developments should provide some parking. Asserting that new tenants will not have cars without any guarantees or a plan for mitigating parking issues leaves developers open to criticism and distrust of the neighbors. The reality is for the near future, people are going to drive cars. In addition, where low-income Cambridge residents work and how they get there must be considered. Highly educated people have more options to live and work in a way that supports less reliance on cars. A few years ago in a public meeting about the Frost Terrace Apartments, the use of Leslie’s parking in Porter Square was raised. The developer recognized that in his experience a certain percentage of low-income households needed cars. We should study how reduced and no on-site parking has impacted the surrounding neighborhoods for different property types (rental, ownership, market, affordable). We should also partner with housing developers to create incentives for tenants of new apartments to forgo car ownership – rent discounts, subsidies for zip car, e-bikes/blue bikes, T Passes, etc. I think everything should be on the table, including prohibiting access to parking permits when we are supporting increased density near transit hubs if it meets legal scrutiny.
Do you believe Neighborhood Conservation District rules need reform?
Generally. I'm open to reviewing and reforming NCD rules, especially about assuring diversity of membership and perspective. I would, however, seek to sit down with various community stakeholders to better understand which rules should be changed and which should remain in place, as well as ensure that the new rules do not result in unintended consequences and will work to protect the original objectives of balancing the character of the neighborhood with the need for revitalization and new development.
Do you support a municipally funded right to counsel for every Cambridge tenant facing eviction?
Yes. No explanation necessary - I support guaranteed legal representation.
How far, if at all, should the City Council go in encouraging transit-oriented development? How should the City Council go about doing it?
I think the city should do all it can do to encourage transit-oriented development by removing zoning obstacles where necessary, incentivizing development projects around transit hubs, setting goals for the city manager and his staff for producing/promoting more transit oriented development. I also think the City Manger and the Mayor should play a more direct role in regional conversations about transit and housing. Our Plan E form of government does not need to be an obstacle to the city having a seat at the table on regional decisions, in fact we should demand two seats.
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?
This is an area that I will need to learn more about and research but I believe Cambridge has been a leader on the issue of sustainability. The city has advanced policies and programs to address the threat and impact of climate change by developing a resiliency plan focused on Closer Neighborhoods, Better Buildings, Stronger Infrastructure, and a Greener City. ABC’s priorities of developing denser, transit situated housing are at the center of these plans, along with bicycle infrastructure and alternative transportation to reduce our city’s carbon emissions. Any policies we put forward need to be consistent, clear, and predictable. When people are planning, they need to understand what is expected of them and start from the beginning knowing the cost impacts and can plan accordingly.
What can the next City Manager do to promote your housing priorities?
The next City Manager can promote our housing priorities by engaging members of the council, the various neighborhoods, our city staff and regional and state partners to address our specific challenge of leading on affordable housing as a city while also encouraging and demanding more regional progress. The future manager; should be reviewing all of the studies and work that has already been done in Cambridge while looking at national and international trends and solutions and bringing forward innovative ideas for long term planning. They must support an approach that integrates the different aspects of community development with land use policies. We need to move away from siloed thinking. For example, if the goal is to increase multi-family housing, how do we prepare for increased school populations? Is part of our reduction in emissions approach to revisit public school bus patterns? When do policymaking boards at the local and regional level get together and discuss issues that cross planning, zoning, education, job growth, and city resources? By thinking more broadly and engaging more of our residents we can build the support we need to advance the development of more public and affordable housing in Cambridge and regionally.
What should the city do to increase walking, biking, and transit usage in Cambridge?
I do not have much more to add to the discussion other than creating more affordable and market rate housing along and near transit hubs. Also, building out planned bike infrastructure, priority bus lanes and provide for other modes of alternative transportation. In some cases, it would be as simple as repaving the streets to eliminate potholes and other hazards to cyclists. Finally, as to walking, it would be nice if all of our sidewalks were reviewed and repaved where necessary. Many of our sidewalks are impassible due to uneven surfaces and tree roots popping up through the surface and are not handicap accessible.
Do you have anything else you'd like to highlight or add regarding housing or land use in Cambridge?
I think affordable housing should be seen as a key part of something greater. Other U.S. cities are combining public building projects, such as libraries, with housing. I would like Cambridge to explore the integration of public buildings, including schools, with housing as a way to further leverage public land. I also want us to discuss, plan and fund more housing production with reducing carbon emissions, connecting to schools and multi-modal transportation plans and funding. We should be looking at neighborhood schools and eliminating school bussing throughout the city.
Aside from housing and land use issues, what are some major priorities you hope to push for on the City Council?
One of the things I’d like the city to focus on is building pathways to prosperity for all of our students and young people. This would be a cradle to career, birth to post-secondary approach to make sure all of our residents are given access to the global knowledge-based economy that we are living in. I would begin with expanding access to affordable pre-K education with some of the funds provided by the American Rescue Plan. In middle and high school students I would develop individual learning plans and focus on career exploration through school and out of school programming.