I’m an experienced organizer, community activist, and immigrant running for my third term on the council. I’m originally from Suriname and came to the US as a teenager. I came to Cambridge in 1992 to study at MIT. I worked professionally in software and biotech and have been involved in the community and local nonprofits for years. I’m committed to guaranteeing a home as a human right, reducing the police budget, and a Cambridge Green New Deal to create green jobs and cut GHG emissions.
How have your experiences, prior to or outside of seeking elected office, shaped your views on housing and land use in Cambridge?
As a teenage immigrant in St. Petersburg, Florida, I noticed that my family was the only Black family on the street when we moved in. A few years later most of the white families had left and I realized later that we had experienced “white flight” in our neighborhood. As soon as Black people started moving in, the white people started moving out. This experience really helped me understand the horrible racism that still plagues America and our housing market.
As a graduate student at MIT I was a renter and got to experience the challenges of being subject to the whims of landlords raising the rent on a regular basis. It was hard enough for us to deal with that as students, but for someone who is truly poor it quickly becomes untenable and they are forced out. This dynamic underlies the gentrification and displacement I'm fighting against in Cambridge.
I have been a lifelong climate activist and before taking office I spent a decade building the foundation of Cambridge’s climate change policy, which is largely land use policy since 80% of our emissions are from buildings, and another 17% from transportation. I served for 9 years on the Climate Protection Action Committee, 3 years as chair, advising the city government on climate change policy. I was one of the lead sponsors of the original Net Zero zoning petition in 2013 and served as the Board Chair of Green Cambridge from 2011 to 2017.
In your own work, what have you done to advance the goals for the City of Cambridge that you care about?
As chair of the Public Safety Committee, I’ve led discussions on eliminating military weapons from the police, I’ve supported and scaffolded the development of the HEART proposal for shifting towards a community-based public safety response. I’m also exploring ways we can reduce the role of the police in routine traffic enforcement, strengthening accountability around the use of force policy, and scrutinizing police surveillance technology. I have led the effort to reallocate money from the massive police budget towards racial justice initiatives in other departments, in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives call to defund the police.
As chair of the Health & Environment Committee, I led the charge on getting to net zero emissions, reducing building energy use, and strengthening the Tree Protection Ordinance
Working with colleagues, I successfully advocated for reducing the speed limit to 20 MPH on most residential streets in Cambridge.
I helped pass and then further strengthen the Cycling Safety Ordinance; now we can expect a full buildout of the protected bike lane network within five years.
I’m a strong advocate for municipal broadband and joined colleagues in voting against part of the budget, which caused the City Manager to finally authorize a broadband feasibility study. In my first term, I was instrumental in advocating for the digital equity study which was recently completed.
During the COVID-19 pandemic my office provided strong constituent services and I’ve been a relentless advocate for equitable and widespread testing, data transparency,, and more outdoor spaces to safely recreate. I pushed back against efforts by the City Manager to prematurely reopen the city when it was not safe to do so. I was a vocal proponent of state-level action on tenant protections and small business relief and stood with Harvard’s janitorial workers against contracted employee layoffs.
What is a stand or action you have taken that has displeased some Cambridge voters?
Almost every stand or action displeases some Cambridge voters. I’ve led on many controversial issues including: supporting affordable housing construction, demilitarizing the police, protected bicycle lanes, protecting trees on private property, justice for Palestine, recognizing polyamorous relationships, cannabis equity through a preference period for economic empowerment applicants, and many more.
I’ve also personally experienced racism from Cambridge voters, particularly during times when I’ve fought for immigrant rights and moving away from our Police Department. At one point, somebody told me to go back to where I came from (with profanity added). As an elected official, hearing criticism is a daily part of the job. But absolutely no one should have to be the recipient of racist remarks and you think I wouldn’t have to say that in Cambridge Massachusetts. Unfortunately, the veiled racism from white moderates that is considered “in bounds” is often a runway for the more overt racism which is lurking in the shadows, and it is elected officials of color who always bear the brunt of that hate when it comes out to bite.
What are models and/or strategies Cambridge should use to create more income-restricted affordable housing?
Simply put we need to spend more money in order to get more income-restricted affordable housing- and we certainly have the ability to do so. It is easy to forget that Cambridge did not spend any property tax revenues on affordable housing construction prior to 2018, when I helped convince the city manager to start doing so. But it is not nearly enough, and our current manager’s fiscally conservative approach has not prioritized the construction of income-restricted affordable housing to the extent that is possible or necessary in our city. As just one example, the City Manager spent $9 million from Free Cash in order to pay down residential taxes by a negligible amount per household in FY21, but just $5 million from Free Cash on affordable housing construction.
In addition to more aggressive spending from tax revenue, we need to capitalize on our impressive bond rating by issuing a municipal bond to build affordable housing. I introduced a proposal to make an unprecedented investment of $500 million over the next ten years to construct at least 1000 new income-restricted affordable housing opportunities.
So one of the most important things the next council can do to create more income-restricted affordable housing is to hire a City Manager who is committed to far more aggressive spending on this goal
Coming from a democratic socialist perspective, I believe that access to dignified housing, like healthcare, should be a human right, not a privilege for the wealthy. It’s critical that we implement strategies that remove the profit-motive from the construction of new housing, since developer profit and community need rarely align. I’ve partnered with Councilor Sobrinho-Wheeler and members of the Black Response to start a conversation about creating a Community Land Trust and exploring other ways to decommodify our housing market.
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 Not. ABC and I have long disagreed that it is possible to “maintain Cambridge as a community for everyone” through adding market rate housing supply. We build millions of square feet of commercial development every year, driving up housing demand, and the housing market cannot possibly keep up. However, I do agree that we need to drastically increase our supply of housing accessible to no, low, and middle income people through a combination of increased municipal spending and zoning reforms. I also of course agree that housing is a regional issue. Redlining’s regional legacy is a plethora of rich suburbs surrounding Cambridge and Boston with hardly any Black and Brown people living in them. These communities typically feature one acre parcels each zoned for a single unit of housing. There are dozens of these communities within biking distance of Cambridge, although many are literally walled off by large highways. We need these ultra-exclusive communities to open up their doors to low income people and Black families through the creation of more deeply affordable housing.
We also need to recognize that building market-rate or luxury housing in lower-income neighborhoods displaces working families if there is not enough affordable housing available, further exacerbating the racial injustices of the past.
How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement? (Please focus your answer on strategies within municipal authority.)
The obvious problem is that in 1994, Cambridge landlords took to the ballot box to successfully ban local regulation of the landlord-tenant relationship. This has been disastrous for Cambridge, where rent control was popular among the electorate and had previously survived many local ballot referendums. The resulting one-size-fits-all approach has been disastrous for majority renter cities like Cambridge because there is now virtually no ability to address the issue without permission from the legislature.
I am of course very supportive of the effort to increase condo conversion protections, which we can do under existing state law. I would like to see us go as far as we can to prevent the pattern of predatory condo conversions taking place in our neighborhoods. This failed to pass the council when it was previously introduced two decades ago, and I hope there will be a different outcome this time.
I have also been strongly supportive of the local eviction moratorium and recently passed a policy order urging the City Manager to extend it like Somerville did. At the time of this writing, we have not heard back from the City Manager even as eviction cases continue to rise.
We also have the ability to use some of the $65 million in American Rescue money recently obtained from the Federal Government to provide direct aid to renters in Cambridge.
Despite all this, the tenant protections we need most crucially do currently require permission from the legislature. We desperately need to eliminate chapter 40P (The Rent Control Prohibition Act) as quickly as possible. I’ve testified at the Statehouse alongside a regional coalition of tenants and elected officials who are committed to doing just that. We need coordinated home rule petitions across cities to better demonstrate to the statehouse that these reforms are needed. Somerville and Boston have both passed important petitions that Cambridge has yet to advance.
Do you believe we have a climate obligation to pursue greater density and allow more people to live here?
Generally. Urban infill can be an effective tool to reduce carbon emissions but suggesting that it is the most powerful tool at our disposal doesn’t square with the reality of the climate crisis. Slightly increasing urban density to marginally improve the efficiency of people’s lifestyles is helpful, but what we really need to do is mandate that our buildings, vehicles and industrial activities do not continue to add excess carbon to the atmosphere. The vast majority of our emissions are not generated based on where we live, but are generated at power plants, airplanes, transportation of goods, industrial activities and agriculture, none of which are directly mitigated by how densely people live in Cambridge or anywhere. Cambridge can and should lead by example so that other communities can more quickly decarbonize as well.
We also have to recognize the injustice of how we got here and factor it into our climate policy, always. Zoning has long been a tool of oppression and racism, but it is misguided to think that we can undo those long entrenched patterns by deregulating the zoning code to boost market rate housing production. That’s why I’ve proposed legalizing the construction of triple deckers citywide provided one of the units is set aside as affordable. Climate policy must be rooted in justice and building homes exclusively for wealthy people who work in Kendall Square is not justice, no matter how useful of a tool urban infill may be.
We need to add more affordable housing, especially along transit corridors, as an obvious strategy to improve our livability and make the city more sustainable. The urgency of the climate crisis demands an aggressive, all-of-the above approach and both density and regulatory action are important tools in mitigating its worst impacts.
Do you support the affordable housing proposal at 2072 Mass Ave?
Yes. I do support the project at 2072 Mass Ave. In fact, I was the first city councillor to publicly support it and I have also sent a letter to the BZA urging them to support it. The proposed design is a very low carbon building that exceeds the density allowed under the AHO.
I voted for the affordable housing overlay and secured two key amendments: a preference for recently evicted Cambridge residents, and the elimination of minimum parking requirements.
If we want more proposals like 2072 Mass Ave to succeed we should update our zoning to allow denser 100% affordable housing projects along transit corridors like Mass. Ave. as of right. In fact I argued for that as part of the original AHO discussions but those suggestions were rejected.
I also support the charter reform ballot question to give the council approval over board appointments like the BZA.
Do you support changing neighborhood zoning, including dimensional standards, to allow small-scale multi-family housing like triple-deckers, four-plexes, and six-plexes?
Generally. I’m actively working to reform our zoning code to end single family zoning in the few places where it still exists in our city, and my proposal goes even further to effectively eliminate new single family housing construction citywide by requiring that the single unit constructed be affordable. I also support legalizing the construction of triple deckers citywide provided one of the units is set aside as affordable, similar to what Somerville did. Making them affordable homeownership units would address the city’s concerns about their capacity to manage the units, since we already have a homeownership resale pool and would also allow the city to make up for anti-Black housing discrimination that has prevented generations of Black residents from owning their own homes. My proposal even includes a pathway to building 4, 5, 6, or more units provided the necessary amount of affordable units are provided. You can read more about it here.
However, I do not support upzoning for market rate housing only, without an inclusionary component, because we need to make sure whatever we do does not further increase gentrification and displacement. The Missing Middle petition took a hammer to the zoning code with sweeping disregard for the most vulnerable neighborhoods in our city. As Black Response Cambridge pointed out in a recent op ed,“history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes”. Upzoning an already dense, expensive housing market full of vulnerable renters is a dangerous game, especially without any legitimate tenant protections or stronger condo conversion restrictions. Without an inclusionary component the proposal would only drive up land values and housing costs in this already overheated market, and that is unacceptable because it will cause harm. It was very disappointing that no substantive proposals were made to address the legitimate racial and economic justice concerns that came up after the Missing Middle petition was introduced.
Do you believe Cambridge should stop requiring new off-street parking for all residential development?
Yes. Yes and in fact I was the one who proposed that we eliminate minimum parking requirements in projects that fall under the affordable housing overlay. I am also the only councillor who consistently votes against new curb cuts that would lead to new off-street parking in our neighborhoods. ABC and I strongly agree on the need to stop requiring more parking in our city.
While residential is a great place to start, we really need to go even further to eliminate new off-street parking requirements in ALL development, especially for commercial and lab buildings. For instance in PB-375, the Ragon Institute had to apply for a special permit in order to be allowed to reduce the required amount of parking at their new lab building— and even after successfully obtaining that permit, their building will still create more than 100 new parking spots even though it is located just steps away from Central Square. This is unacceptable and it must change.
Do you believe Neighborhood Conservation District rules need reform?
Generally Not. There may be ways to streamline the current process but since it ultimately culminates in a direct up/down vote by the city council, I think the process already has appropriate safeguards in place to make sure Neighborhood Conservation Districts are not established lightly or used as an effective tool to prevent adding more housing to Cambridge. I do not think, for instance, that increasing the signature requirement will make a meaningful difference. While there are plenty of factors to consider around this decision, I do not agree with the assertion that establishing such a district in East Cambridge would have a discernible impact on home values. Home values in East Cambridge are uniquely impacted by the millions and millions of square feet of commercial development we add each year in Kendall Square and, more recently, in East Cambridge itself. Massive new commercial development at the Sullivan Courthouse, the Galleria, at the Blue Garage, at the Met Pipe site, and much more means that neighborhood home prices will continue to rise regardless of whether a NCD is established or not. And we should be prioritizing affordable housing construction anyway, which is governed by the AHO and therefore not impacted by NCDs.
Do you support a municipally funded right to counsel for every Cambridge tenant facing eviction?
Yes. Of course we need to do this. It again goes back to the City Manager’s unwillingness to spend our large cash reserves in ways that do justice for our most vulnerable residents. This is yet another item that the city could fund anytime it wanted to, including with the $65 million in American Rescue money we just received.
How far, if at all, should the City Council go in encouraging transit-oriented development? How should the City Council go about doing it?
All development in Cambridge is transit-oriented to at least some degree and we need to encourage projects that meet the needs of working class people, not just the wealthy. Some things we could do include improving local transit through free shuttle services, allowing for denser affordable housing construction along transit corridors like Mass. Ave., eliminating all parking minimums and decreasing maximums ultimately to zero.
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?
Large commercial buildings are the biggest contributors to emissions in our city! They make up more than half of our emissions profile, while residential buildings account for just 8%. That's why new housing is completely exempt from the GND Zoning Petition I’ve proposed. As climate activists, we must recognize these twin crises as interrelated: despite our adoption of lofty climate goals like "net zero by 2050", city emissions have only increased over time. And the commercial growth driving that increase has left behind our most vulnerable residents.
This zoning petition proposes that we collect a fee based on the emissions a new commercial building will produce over its lifetime, using the money to do energy efficiency projects and fund green jobs training programs with direct benefit to low income and minority communities. We have an opportunity to socialize our zoning code by redistributing wealth in order to green our city and create economic opportunity for those closest to the pain. And in doing so, we will truly begin to break from our zoning code’s historical and perpetual use as a tool of oppression.
In the negative column, I will say that the City Manager has taken too long to implement sustainable building standards. For example, something as basic as the adoption of LEED gold as the floor, which was initially proposed as part of the net zero zoning petition back in 2013, but was delayed for 6 years after that. By the time we passed it, LEED gold had become the de-facto minimum for most large commercial buildings already.
As a major proponent of net zero I think we absolutely need to pursue that strategy and accelerate it. What I disagree with is the slow-walk to net zero. There is NO reason to allow ANY new fossil-fuel dependent construction in Cambridge. Technology and economics fully support net-zero construction TODAY and it’s high time we fully implement that standard.
What can the next City Manager do to promote your housing priorities?
Issue the $500 million bond I proposed to build more than 1000 units of affordable homeownership over the next decade with a focus on first generation, first time home buyers who grew up in Cambridge so as to maximize the potential for redressing past racial discrimination.
Spend more Free Cash and additional tax revenue on affordable housing. Use American Rescue money to provide direct cash payments to people facing eviction and other vulnerable residents.
Expand our city’s investment in our unhoused community including more non-congregate housing options and supportive services. Here are a few ideas: - Extend funding of the Green Street shelter and make the Spaulding facility a permanent institution. - Work with MIT to renovate 240 Albany Street so it better meets the needs of the community including additional height for more support services and low threshold housing. - Develop some city-owned parking lots into low threshold non-congregate housing options for unhoused people. Knock down the Green Street Garage and build dense affordable housing which includes units specifically set aside for people who have recently experienced homelessness. - Piloting a safe consumption site in Central Square.
What should the city do to increase walking, biking, and transit usage in Cambridge?
Improve safety through traffic calming road design and lots of crosswalks. Redesigns should be people oriented instead of car oriented. If traffic patterns adjust well to a street closure that is intended to be temporary, we simply shouldn’t reopen it back up to cars. Walking and biking activity would truly increase if we got bolder about taking back our roads for the people.
Complete the Grand Junction Path; our conservative approach of waiting for developers along the right-of-way to fund it piece by piece has resulted in frustrating and extensive delays. Let’s just get it done already.
Bring back a modified version of Shared Streets on different types of streets, like Bristol Street, the one-way I live on. The previous version of the program could be improved upon and though it was considered at one point, we never actually tried it on a smaller side street like Bristol. It is a shame that the City Manager shut this down completely instead of continuing to refine it even after the council passed a policy order asking to do just that.
Expand municipal MBTA pass subsidies as much as possible. Push the MBTA to make all their transit free to riders.
Work with DCR to further expand closure of Memorial Drive. I’d like to see the portion that is closed on weekends expand all the way to East Cambridge and weekday closures of one lane in each direction. As part of the more comprehensive redesign I would like to see the elimination of at least one lane in each direction.
The council should in no way delay or otherwise stall the implementation of the protected bicycle network as laid out by the Cycling Safety Ordinance we recently passed. In fact, we should be moving even faster than we currently are. The community engagement processes have been more than sufficient. There are always going to be people who don’t support moving ahead, but this is an important matter of safety and we can’t afford further delay.
Do you have anything else you'd like to highlight or add regarding housing or land use in Cambridge?
I think it’s important that we move towards a consensus on housing and that involves bringing people into our movement, not driving them out. In reality, the vast majority of Cambridge residents view affordable housing as a top priority, we just differ somewhat on the strategies to get us there. The reality is more nuanced than NIMBYism vs YIMBYism. There is legitimate and academically grounded opposition to market urbanism and its impacts on gentrification, many of it from within the black community and organizations like CLVU, it’s imperative that we include these voices—even if they’re not the loudest—rather than trying to steamroll them as ABC routinely does.
Aside from housing and land use issues, what are some major priorities you hope to push for on the City Council?
Here are some things I haven’t already covered in this document related to dismantling the racist systems in our city that continue to oppress Black residents:
We need to expand our education and youth support systems through Universal Pre-K, expanding our after school and youth programs, expanding RSTA, and expanding post secondary education support. Despite years of conversation and committee hearings, the city has yet to commit to a full universal Pre-K program for every child in Cambridge. We are constantly told that classroom space is a limiting factor, but there are vacant storefronts all over the city that could be rented out at any point.
We need to create an alternative crisis response. I could not be more enthusiastic about the HEART program, which stands for Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team. This program proposes a community based response to mental health, domestic violence, substance abuse and other crises as an alternative to the current option of calling 911 and summoning the police. Police are not the right people to handle the vast majority of these situations, and their very presence can lead to violence, incarceration, and trauma. It has been a privilege to be a witness to the birth of this very promising alternative approach to public safety that seeks to provide compassionate care to those in need of support in the most difficult moments of their lives.
We need to invest in mental health support. The Cambridge Health Alliance has been divesting from mental health service delivery for years. Here is a direct quote from the CHA website: “Therapy: The Outpatient Addictions Service (OAS) does offer therapy for some patients, but our capacity is very limited. Most of the care provided is group psychotherapy”. It is time to provide free mental health services to anyone who needs them, for any reason, through a direct contract between the city and the CHA. Group therapy does not meet everybody’s needs, and more options are needed.