Councilor Burhan Azeeem is running for his second term on the Cambridge City Council, where he has spearheaded efforts to address the housing crisis. Councilor Azeem is an MIT-graduated engineer who grew up with housing insecurity. Before pursuing elected office, he was on the board of A Better Cambridge, and founded a housing nonprofit called Abundant Housing. An engineer by day and a volunteer EMT at night, he has gotten to know Cambridge from inside an ambulance.
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?
Burhan moved to the US from Pakistan. He and his family were quite poor and lived with another family - sharing a 3 bedroom with 11 people. He grew up on food stamps and medicare. They would move often as children - almost every year. He was lucky to get a full scholarship to MIT and now serve as your city councillor. He’s one of the only renters in city hall.
As City Councillor, what would be your top priorities to address our housing crisis?
Cambridge residents consistently rate the cost of housing as a top priority. Addressing our housing crisis has been my priority on the Council, and if re-elected I’ll build on my progress this first term to make real progress in our housing crisis. To productively address our housing crisis we need to address supply, subsidy, and stability. This means that we need to build more housing, provide more resources to help people afford housing, and strengthen protections for residents. I’ve been proud to lead on all In my first term, I’ve led efforts to expand the Affordable Housing Overlay. The AHO is one of our strongest tools to create more housing. By loosening the restrictions on 100% affordable development, the AHO allows nonprofit affordable housing developers to compete in Cambridge’s tight real estate market and bring many more units online than they otherwise could. I was also a leader in getting citywide parking minimums removed. Parking minimums drive up the cost of building housing, and are particularly unnecessary in Cambridge, where so many people don’t own cars. The AHO increased both supply and stability, and parking minimums help with housing supply. I’ve also worked to increase the financial resources the City can bring in to aid affordable housing development. I’ve voted to increase the linkage fee for developers to raise more money for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. I support a Tenant Right-to-Counsel and boosting resources to the Office of Housing Liaison. I look forward to working on all of these priorities in the coming term and making Cambridge a more affordable place to live.
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. I support four-story multi-family housing zoning by right across the City. Apartment bans have a sordid history, drive up housing costs, and segregate our neighborhoods. I’m particularly enthusiastic about the role that legalizing missing middle housing can play in bringing housing units online within a shorter timeframe. While arranging financing and permitting for large projects is a complicated endeavor, it needn’t be so for the sort of missing-middle housing that characterizes Cambridge’s built environment. This is particularly important in a high-interest-rate environment. Let’s legalize apartments.
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. Market-rate housing development is a characteristic of every city–in the US and abroad–that has any level of affordability. In the US, The Minneapolis-Saint Paul region has seen some of the lowest rent (and cost of living) increases, and this is in no small part because the region has seen significant growth in all kinds of housing stock.
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. I support both by-right boosts to density and height within walking distance of MBTA stations and more conditional zoning focused on value capture in the areas of our City best served by transit. Building more housing near transit cuts down on emissions and promotes road safety (road accidents are, tragically and preventably, a leading cause of death in this country). Additionally, building more near transit is a great way to raise capital money for transit and invest in our transit system.
Do you support the proposed Alewife overlay district?
Do you support also rezoning the Fresh Pond shopping center?
Yes. I support the Alewife Overlay District, and I support rezoning the Fresh Pond shopping center with an eye toward significant residential development. The area is adjacent to transit (Alewife Red Line and a potential future commuter rail station even closer to the area being redeveloped) and has clear potential to be a dense, sustainable residential community. A future rezoning (and eventual redevelopment) of the Fresh Pond shopping center should be grounded in a commitment to residential, mixed-income housing, transit access, and connectivity to the surrounding neighborhoods. I believe that such a redevelopment could not only provide much-needed new housing but substantially improve infrastructure, mobility, and quality of life for the adjacent area. We’ve seen that the the best development takes place when there’s close collaboration between the city, other public-sector partners, and private-sector developers; that’s what I’d like to see in Fresh Pond.
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. I wrote the bill and I wholeheartedly support it.
Do you support further increasing city funding for affordable housing to 10% of the City budget?
Generally Yes. We’re not going to get to housing affordability without substantial public-sector involvement. This includes increased funding for the Affordable Housing Trust and using our excellent bond rating to support mixed-income housing development.
How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement?
I support tenant right-to-counsel, which would ensure that all those facing eviction have legal representation.
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 also support rent stabilization, just cause eviction and measures to prevent condo conversations.
Do you believe we have a climate obligation to pursue greater density city-wide and allow more people to live here?
Yes. I absolutely agree that housing policy is climate policy. Taking climate seriously means being smart on housing policy and doing all that we can to build high-quality decarbonized housing here in Cambridge. Building dense housing in Cambridge means less sprawling, carbon-intensive suburban development, fewer vehicle miles traveled, and more use of transit and active transportation (and, by reducing commute times, increases quality of life). Another, under-appreciated, aspect of this is that this policy gives the City the ability to ensure that even more units of housing are fully electric and decarbonized, again assisting in meeting our climate goals.
Do you favor an at-large system over a ward-based system?
Yes. Proportional representation ensures that different constituencies can make their voices heard while preventing gerrymandering and other forms of electoral manipulation endemic to district-based systems. It especially makes sense for renters who often move across wards.
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?
Yes. There’s a well-documented problem of public meetings and boards being unrepresentative–BU professors Katherine Einstein, Maxwell Palmer, and David Glick have conducted extensive research on this across Massachusetts municipalities.
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?
The city manager’s office has historically not prioritized housing but I believe our new manager will. I will leave the specifics of roles to him but I’ve been working with Yi-An Huang very closely and feel like we will make a lot of progress on meeting our housing goals. We just need a strong city council to stand by them.
Do you have anything else you’d like to highlight about your candidacy?
I wrote the bill ending parking minimums and was very excited about that. We already seen examples of 4 unit proposals turn into 19 units with more open space and higer level of affordability. It also allowed hundreds of unused parking spaces in East Cambridge to be rented out.