Ayesha M. Wilson is a social worker and a Senior Teacher-Counselor with the Cambridge Housing Authority’s Work Force program. In her two terms on the Cambridge School Committee, she has worked on the City’s new universal pre-K program, advocated for the Office of Equity Inclusion and Belonging, and successfully secured funding for eleven new school social workers.
What is your personal experience of housing in Cambridge and how has that affected your decision to run for city council? Do you rent or own? Have you ever lived in public or subsidized housing?
I grew up in public housing in Cambridge. I have rented in Cambridge, and I currently pay my rent by providing live-in support at a home for disabled adults. After I graduated from the Work Force program (a career development program for CHA residents), I chose to devote my life to serving Cambridge youth, and that path led me to become a social worker working at the Cambridge Housing Authority and to the School Committee. I’m running for City Council because I know first-hand how hard it is to afford to stay in Cambridge—even with a good middle-class union job, and even with multiple jobs—and I know that when people have the safe, stable, and affordable housing that I had growing up, they can contribute to our communities like I have.
As City Councillor, what would be your top priorities to address our housing crisis?
My top priority is making Cambridge more affordable. To do so, I support zoning tools like the AHO that expand the supply of permanently affordable housing, as well as additional city investment in the Affordable Housing Trust. I also support changing our zoning to make it easier to build more multi-family homes, which are generally more affordable than single-family homes. We need to strengthen public housing and other affordable housing because many people will never be able to afford market rents in Cambridge, and we also need to make those market rents more affordable because only about one in five Cambridge residents have the opportunity to live in subsidized housing. I also strongly prioritize stability, and will work with our legislative delegation to secure a local option for rent stabilization. I’m open to many policy tools that meet my broader goals of making Cambridge more affordable and helping Cambridge residents stay in their homes.
As Councillor, will you champion efforts to end exclusionary zoning in Cambridge by reforming the zoning code to allow, at minimum, four-story multi-family housing by right in all Cambridge neighborhoods?
Yes. Every neighborhood in Cambridge is a great place to live with access to exceptional public schools, parks, and transit, and we have a responsibility to make all of our neighborhoods accessible to more people.
In conjunction with direct support for affordable housing and inclusionary zoning requirements, do you believe that new market-rate housing development is a key pillar in making Cambridge an affordable city?
Yes. More than 80% of Cambridge residents live in market-rate homes, including many market-rate renters. That means that lowering (or at least stabilizing) market-rate rents is the most important housing goal for many residents, and I support using every tool in our toolbox to make that happen, including both market-rate development and rent stabilization.
Do you believe Cambridge should go further to promote transit-oriented housing development, such as allowing greater height and density within walking distance of MBTA stations?
Yes. Yes, and we also need to work with the T to strengthen service and make transit a viable option for more people. It’s not acceptable for a Red Line trip from Alewife to Boston to take an hour on some days. Transit-oriented development requires both good housing and good transit in order to meet its goals, and the past two years have been discouraging on the transit side.
Do you support the proposed Alewife overlay district?
Do you support also rezoning the Fresh Pond shopping center?
Generally Yes. I generally support the proposed overlay. I want a stronger guarantee that the bridge across the tracks will be built, but other than that, I agree with the goal of building more homes in Alewife.
I also generally support rezoning the shopping center. I want to make sure there is still a strong retail base there in any rezoning, but I am open to additional housing over retail, which would provide more customers.
Do you support the proposal to expand the Affordable Housing Overlay to allow more height for 100% affordable housing development in major squares (15 stories) and corridors (12 stories)?
Yes. The recent AHO annual report showed that it has been successful so far, but there are also too many projects like 2072 Mass Ave that are not covered. These amendments are reasonable and necessary to build more affordable housing.
Do you support further increasing city funding for affordable housing to 10% of the City budget?
Generally Yes. In principle, yes. In practice, I know from my experience in municipal budgeting on the School Committee that even a financially sound city like Cambridge needs to pick between competing priorities sometimes, and I’d want to understand more about if any cuts would be needed to facilitate a 10% commitment. Cambridge also consistently allocates the maximum of our Community Preservation Act funding to housing. I also recognize that the funding only matters if we can use it, and support tools like the AHO to facilitate development.
How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement?
I support implementing the four key recommendation areas of the Task Force report (improving tenant education, passing a condo conversion ordinance, increasing funding, and improving data collection), and appreciate the work of the task force, Mayor Siddiqui, and her team in developing them. Data collection (both quantitative data and hearing stories in community) is especially important so we can understand what is driving displacement and adjust our policies to respond.
ABC has repeatedly supported state legislation enabling cities to better protect tenants. Do you support such legislation?
If something like it passed, what kind of city tenant protections would you favor? Would you support any kind of rent stabilization, such as the petition from Mayor Wu, which would cap rent increases at a maximum of 10% while exempting new construction, along with requiring just cause for eviction?
I would favor an approach to rent stabilization where buildings built before a cutoff year have rent increases limited to the inflation rate plus a small percentage.
Do you believe we have a climate obligation to pursue greater density city-wide and allow more people to live here?
Yes. Cambridge is one of the greenest places in the country to live based on per-person carbon emissions, and one of the most important things we can do is make sure that more people who want to live the low-carbon lifestyle that is available here can do so.
Do you favor an at-large system over a ward-based system?
Yes. I strongly favor preserving our current election system. Geography is an important part of political representation, and candidates still have the option of running and winning with neighborhood-focused campaigns if they choose to. But as a School Committee member, I’ve found that our city works best when elected officials can earn support from any voter. As just one example, in my 2021 campaign, I was able to earn disproportionate support from public housing residents. In a ward-based system, it’s harder for an important but geographically diverse constituency to make their voice heard.
The City Council is currently considering NCD reforms which would increase diversity on boards and commissions, amplify the voices of renters, exempt affordable housing, and enforce term limits. Do you believe these bodies need reform generally?
Do you support the proposed NCD reforms specifically?
Generally Yes. I strongly support the proposed changes to exempt affordable housing and amplify the voices of renters. I’m not convinced that term limits are always productive toward those goals. On the School Committee, I have learned a lot from my long-tenured colleague Fred Fantini who is celebrating his retirement this year, and I think there is value to institutional memory on some City bodies.
Would you support combining the City’s housing functions in a new Housing Department headed by a new Assistant City Manager, or is there an alternative approach to organization / staffing you would support? How specifically would you hold the City Manager and city staff accountable for meeting housing goals?
I haven’t had the conversations with City staff that I would need to have to understand the implications of this move. Sometimes creating a new office focused on an issue can be productive—I spearheaded a successful push on the School Committee to create an Office of Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging—but I don’t believe in proposing staffing changes without deeper conversations with the people involved. I also know that housing touches everything and can be hard to separate into one department—in my professional role with the Work Force program, I know that we benefit from having a youth development program built into the Cambridge Housing Authority. In short, I support the goal of making the housing crisis a major strategic focus, but I’m not yet entirely sure what changes would support that goal.
Do you have anything else you’d like to highlight about your candidacy?
In addition to the professional experiences that will inform my work as a Councillor, I will also bring my lived experiences to the table. I am a proud member of Teamsters Local 122 and would be the only current union member on the Council, and I was also proud to earn the endorsement of the Greater Boston Labor Council. I would also be only the third Black woman on the City Council in the history of Cambridge, and will be committed to racial justice and uplifting the most marginalized people in Cambridge in everything that I do.