Dan Totten

Dan is a democratic socialist and a queer renter from Central Square running to continue Councillor Zondervan’s legacy of progress after six years of public service as his council aide. At city hall, he played a major role in researching, drafting, and advancing legislation (such as eliminating parking minimums and legalizing mid-rise affordable housing) while also helping hundreds of residents navigate homelessness and housing instability. Let’s build a Cambridge that works for all of us - not just the wealthy and well-connected!

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’m a renter in Central Square. My bedroom is about 80 square feet and I live with three roommates. Any one of these years, I could face displacement from the city. Renting alone or even just with fewer roommates in Cambridge is an impossible dream. Yet the city is my home, a place where I feel welcome. I never want to leave. This is a reality I share with many people who live in our city, and indeed renters make up 66% of the population. Yet our voices are grossly underrepresented at city hall and in decision making spaces. I’m running to change that.

A central component of my work for Councillor Zondervan was managing a caseload of constituents looking for help with housing, including many unhoused people. Six years of working directly with some of our city’s most vulnerable residents has prepared me to represent them at city hall. I understand the realities of their world and the specific ways in which our safety net needs to be improved with investment to better meet their needs.

As City Councillor, what would be your top priorities to address our housing crisis?

I’m glad ABC agrees that the housing crisis is in part caused by the massive amount of commercial development over the decades. Restricting new purpose-built biotech in our squares is a bonafide pro-housing policy because that is what drives the cost of land insanely through the roof, impeding housing production of all kinds. I have nothing against science and innovation, but new development that doesn’t contain any residential dwelling units of any kind should absolutely be restricted. I’m not saying that this is the only thing we need to do, but I think it would be a lot easier to find common ground if ABC as an org would accept the economic and “housing impediment” arguments for this being part of the solution.

A lot of the other housing affordability stuff I want to focus on is covered in other sections, so I’m going to use this space to highlight some specific improvements that need to be made to our shelter system.

Conditions at YMCA Central House need to be addressed by the city. Residents at this facility need more direct support and case management. They also deserve a dedicated kitchen space and some common dining areas - right now each resident just has a microwave and a fridge in their room, and there is only one sink in the entire building where they are allowed to wash dishes. It has been several months since residents submitted their petition demanding better conditions, and there has been nothing but silence from the city.

Similarly, 240 Albany Street needs to be renovated and upgraded. Residents of the wet shelter face deplorable conditions and many on our streets refuse to go there because of how bad it is. There are often incidents of harassment and discrimination. One of the goals of including Albany Street in the amendments to the AHO (it was my idea) was to legalize an as-of-right pathway for 240 to be redeveloped with, for instance, several stories of permanent supportive housing on top of the shelter.

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. In fact we already did reform the zoning code to allow, at minimum, four-story multi-family housing by right in all Cambridge neighborhoods – through the Affordable Housing Overlay. Doing the exact same thing for market rate would neutralize the advantage that AHO is intended to confer. However, it doesn’t actually seem like AHO will generate much land acquisition inside the neighborhoods…so I’m open to the idea that we need another strategy. I support a conditional upzoning approach to see if we can find a way to generate affordability as part of every development. I also think we should develop a social housing model based off Rep Connolly’s bill H.3873 and then allow that as of right. Both of these strategies would necessarily increase density and height, but the difference is who benefits.

Rather than undoing a century of racist and classist status quo, upzoning for market housing only in a neighborhood like The Port would end up being the next chapter in that injustice. Many groups and individuals pointed this out the last time this was proposed, resulting in that petition losing the council majority it needed to advance. If we truly want to end the racist and classist status quo, we need to spend our time developing strategies that will specifically benefit the working class. Developers would be under no obligation to build additional units just because you told them they could. I have no issue with the concept that additional height and density are part of the solution – even in an already dense city like Cambridge – but I do not buy the trickle-down theory of economics that is being used to justify the upzoning of a multicultural neighborhood for market rate housing as somehow advancing racial and economic justice. A full ⅓ of the units in our neighborhood are subsidized including many Section 8 Voucher holders placed in market rate units. We have to be treated with more sensitivity. I say that as one of the only candidates who actually lives in The Port.

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?

Generally Not. As a democratic socialist, I don’t think that capitalism and market-based reforms will make Cambridge an affordable city. I certainly don’t accept the trickle-down theory of economics that is laid out in this question, and you’ve vastly oversimplified the problem. You can link to as many blog posts from Matthew Yglesias as you want, but there is plenty of research that paints a complicated picture. As Yonah Freemark said, “it pays to be deliberate about how we work to increase housing”. He points out that SB50 in California does not allow the demolition of existing rental housing and it also gives extra time to communities directly facing the threat of gentrification. He posits that these provisions, included to “confront affordability head-on”, will “likely moderate the potential negative, speculative impacts of upzoning” – and I agree with him.

The claim that market rate housing lowers rents for nearby residents who can’t afford to live there is outlandish. Look at my street, Bishop Allen Drive, where Market Central did not make things more affordable. In fact, the owner of the 11-unit rental building located in between Market Central and my building has filed for a special permit to demolish and build a bunch of expensive condos. But we still haven’t gotten to the narnia where the new housing lowers the rents for people who can’t afford to live there. And sure you can argue that the largest housing development in the square wasn’t enough units to achieve the effect that those studies argue is possible, but that’s kind of exactly the point…there will never be enough supply to satisfy the endless demand that exists to live in Cambridge, especially when we decline to restrict new commercial development, and messing with the zoning in an attempt to get there puts working class renters in the crossfire unless we are very intentional and creative about where and how we proceed.

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?

Generally Yes. Yes, and we already got started through the new amendments to the overlay. Like I’ve said previously, I have no issues with additional height and density but I just want to be very intentional about how we move forward when it comes to market rate housing specifically - by restricting new non-residential development, protecting existing rental housing, and being more sensitive to neighborhoods with substantial communities of color and a higher percentage of low income renters, such as The Port. I would, for example, support consideration of what it would take to get more housing in Harvard Square.

I would also support a Student Housing Overlay that would function similarly to the AHO to legalize additional height and density for the universities so that they can build student housing. It would be important to explore how we could require this housing to be affordable to the students as a condition of the upzoning. MIT owns a large number of parking lots and underutilized one-story buildings in Cambridgeport (for example along Sidney Street) and they should be put to use, in part to affordably house additional students.

Do you support the proposed Alewife overlay district?

Generally Yes

Do you support also rezoning the Fresh Pond shopping center?

Generally Yes. The initial overlay district is going to be decided well before the new council is sworn in. I hope that the current council looks at projected outcomes of the proposed zoning and seriously considers whether the proposal on the table will learn from mistakes made in Kendall to generate a neighborhood that is more balanced between commercial development and housing. We also need to think about how this will impact the AHO, I know that affordable providers have taken an extensive look at properties along that stretch of Concord Ave.

Just to be clear, the 40% housing requirement only kicks in if they take advantage of the density bonuses…there is no actual requirement that 40% of the total GFA of the project will be housing, and in fact that outcome seems very unlikely. The irony here is that ABC seems poised to rubber stamp a process and proposal that prioritizes perceived neighborhood impact instead of really figuring out what it would have taken to generate a world class mixed-use neighborhood. And by the way, the city should have just paid for that bridge across the tracks a long time ago.

I agree that the “East Quad” conversation will be an opportunity to have this conversation again. I think it makes sense to restrict biotech development entirely in the “East Quad”. I’m not opposed to height of 18-20 stories in principle but I would want to see a substantial affordability component above and beyond the 20% inclusionary on the books. Let’s make housing the only use and require additional affordable units, then that height starts to make sense. I think it would also be important to secure substantial open space on that site in light of that height, particularly to benefit the residents of the Rindge Towers as well as the new residents. Also this is a small thing but ideally we would figure out a way to keep a movie theater and the outdoor beer garden concept that has been undertaken over there in recent years.

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’m so excited that this is about to pass as someone who played a major role in researching and drafting the proposal during the summer of 2022. It was great in particular to work on this effort with Councillors Azeem and McGovern, ABC, and the affordable housing providers themselves. Building technology is advancing fast and mass timber construction will very soon be legal at these heights in Massachusetts. I have already heard about a parcel in Central Square that could become viable for affordable housing as soon as these amendments pass (in addition to Vail Court, of course).

Some have said that this proposal will “destroy the neighborhood character” by redefining our streetscapes with too many taller buildings, but we already have buildings of this height in every neighborhood! Either way, I feel that the character of our city is really defined by having a population that is diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and income – and not necessarily by the size of the buildings or some vague feeling of nostalgia derived from the squares not changing at all architecturally.

Some have said that this proposal will result in housing that won’t be nice for people to live in, but the truth is that taller buildings are a great living option for many people. Life at a greater height can come with many hidden benefits including less intrusion of street-level noise, an inspiring view, and/or a close-knit community. There are tens of thousands of low income people who want to live in Cambridge, and nobody will be forced to move into any particular buildings that they don’t want to live in. In my experience, however, most applicants are not concerned with the height of the buildings and really just want an affordable place to live in Cambridge. We already have numerous examples of affordable housing being successful at taller heights in Cambridge. Our goal is to create more options for folks who are waiting!

Do you support further increasing city funding for affordable housing to 10% of the City budget?

Yes. Of course I support this, but the way you’ve worded this question is misleading. You make it seem like we secured $20 million in additional funding for the AHT this year over what had previously been spent, but in fact the city manager moved that money from the capital expenses and gave AHT only a modest increase over previous years, and only further increased funds by 1.6 million after the council whined about it. Though the calls were for a true $20 million increase, the manager came back and punted that discussion until Fall 2023 and said that doing so would affect other priorities like universal preschool and municipal broadband. I disagree with the manager and don’t see a reason why we have to choose between a larger increase to the AHT and those other important priorities. Low income people who would live in the affordable housing that money eventually produces would benefit immensely from the preschool and broadband initiatives. We have to do both. I would also want to see part of that substantial increase to AHT funds to go towards funding a municipal voucher program.

Finally, I want to point out that it was actually Councillors Zondervan and Carlone that convinced the former city manager to end the precedent of not spending any non-cpa local revenue on affordable housing, and the initial capital expenditures on affordable housing happened in large part because of them.

Here’s the link to the manager’s agenda item in case anyone wants to read more: https://cambridgema.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_LegiFile.aspx?ID=19692&highlightTerms=Affordable%20housing%20trust

How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement?

Municipal vouchers - we need to establish a program like Boston and Somerville. Boston is spending $10 million on theirs! Increasing the supply of vouchers is very important because the truth is that state law comes down very strongly on the side of the landlords, making it very hard to actually prevent displacement. In that regulatory environment, the best thing we can do is have a really robust safety net to catch people in this situation.

Condo conversion - there is a lot we can do without having to ask the state for permission. Everybody has talked about this for a while and I hope we can get it done early next term if there isn’t progress by the end of this term. Condo conversion has been decimating the city’s rental housing stock for several decades and much of the damage is done, but these changes would still make a difference especially in neighborhoods like The Port and Cambridgeport.

Legal counsel - let’s provide it for any tenant in the city who receives a notice to quit. Right now you need to be extremely low income to qualify for free legal counsel. But as someone who has actually supported tenants by accompanying them into eviction court, I have witnessed firsthand the difference that legal support can make. This is a money issue - we don’t need permission from the state.

Wraparound case management for anyone who scores in the middle range or higher on their C-CAN assessment.

Implement the recommendations of the Ad-Hoc Commitee on Homelessness.

Ultimately what we really need to do is blocked at the state level, as you point out, and so this is a really challenging part of the conversation where the state is preventing us from stopping what is happening, and all we can really do on our own right at this moment is strengthen the safety net to catch and support people who are impacted.

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’m glad that Boston advanced something and got the conversation going, but I would want to go even farther to make sure a home rule petition from Cambridge actually speaks to the pain of people who rent. Speaking personally as a market renter, I am typically faced with at most a 3% increase each year. I would all but certainly have to move away if my landlord ever raised rent by the 10% allowable under Mayor Wu’s proposal. So the threshold needs to be much lower. I think in a city like Cambridge the other area to really push on is vacancy decontrol. The apartment shouldn’t automatically become market rate when the tenant moves out, that is a major grift!

Something that often gets lost in this discussion is the degree to which implementing rent control would benefit tenants who have a Section 8. The market is so out of control in Cambridge that it is often impossible to find a unit comfortably below the voucher limit within city limits, especially for low income families. For those who do find a unit, any subsequent rent increase could put them over the limit and force them to choose between paying 100% of the difference out of pocket (in addition to the 30% of gross income they already pay) or moving on to somewhere else. Sometimes that means an abrupt move to another city altogether and a difficult school transition for the kids. Cambridge Housing Authority has found clever ways to raise the voucher limit over the years, but that has meant fewer total vouchers available overall because there was no simultaneous increase in the total amount of money available from the federal government. These are major issues that only the passage of rent control would address.

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

Generally Yes. I appreciate that it is easier to live a low-carbon lifestyle in Cambridge, but there is a danger in thinking that lifestyle changes are the most powerful tool we have. Seriously confronting climate change requires confronting capitalism itself, and in Cambridge that looks like holding some of the most powerful corporations in the world accountable for the emissions they spew. I’m proud we got that done with the Green New Deal for Cambridge, which amounts to some of the strongest legislation on climate change anywhere in the country - aimed at holding the biggest polluters accountable and including a justice component to help low income residents get well-paying jobs in the emerging green economy. I’m very proud of the movement I helped lead over a period of years which included many students, renters, and people of all ages who relentlessly demanded climate justice until we won. In doing so, we have set ourselves up to demonstrate to the world that this work can be done on the timeline that is necessary and called for by the science.

Do you favor an at-large system over a ward-based system?

Yes. I support proportional representation and I completely agree that we should not switch to any sort of ward-based system. It is certainly possible to get elected largely on the back of a single neighborhood under PR, but all nine councillors are at least theoretically expected to represent the entire city once they take office. Given the degree of variability between Cambridge’s neighborhoods and even often block-by-block within them, it would be difficult if not impossible to devise a ward-based system that didn’t further entrench the power of property owners and anti-change activists. We have increasingly seen that PR leads to a council that is diverse in both identity and ideology, and as a result this past council term has been the most productive in recent memory. Ward councillors would have been for example a lot less likely to support eliminating minimum parking requirements, legalizing mid and high rise density as-of-right through the affordable housing overlay, and expanding the protected bike lane network – all things we got done. Introducing representatives that are specifically and exclusively focused on a single corner of the city would make it harder to advance racial and economic justice through policymaking, and would have the overall effect of making the council much less representative of the city as a whole. Count me out! If the Charter Review Committee puts forward a proposal that includes switching to ward representation, I will work hard to oppose it at the ballot box in 2025.

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. In terms of reforming the boards, I’m definitely in support after having spent many hours attending these meetings over the years. It will be interesting to see what happens with the manager’s recent shakeups of the BZA and Planning Board, but there is a fundamental issue that all of these appointments are made by a single unelected, unaccountable executive. In practice, the council’s newfound power to vote on appointments has changed very little. Bigger picture we might want to explore a charter change to make some of these bodies democratically elected. Also, the current structure of the committees of the city council doesn’t really lend itself to much general conversation on land use. As a result, the council has gotten a large number of complex citizen zoning petitions that it hasn’t known what to do with. A more serious general conversation is needed, and creating a dedicated land use committee of the council could help make it happen.

With respect to the proposed NCD reforms, I’m excited about where we ended up. I had the privilege of doing quite a bit of work on this at city hall. We brought together people on all sides of this issue and spent a great deal of time arriving at something that everybody could live with, that passed legal muster, and that will likely sail through the council unanimously when it is voted on in September. I represented Councillor Zondervan in these discussions and even proposed some of the language that ended up in the final version. We got to the point where CHC and proponents agreed on almost all of the changes, and so I feel like this discussion really exemplifies how well the current council has worked together to get things done. One undersung component of the amendments establishes a staggered decennial review of each NCD - so the conversation about their effectiveness will continue on into the future.

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 definitely agree that Cambridge’s executive branch isn’t doing enough to address the housing crisis and I also agree that we need to restructure departments. I think DHSP and CDD have both ballooned to the point where they need to be broken up.

As someone who has worked extensively with people facing housing instability and homelessness, I think we should combine the housing functions of DHSP with the Office of the Housing Liaison and CDD’s management of the inclusionary housing program to create a Department of Housing Stability led by Maura Pensak. We need a one-stop-shop for people who are facing these struggles, including wraparound case management. The current system is frustratingly complicated even for those who know it well like myself.

I think CDD is actually the correct home for land use, they just have too many other functions that need to be pared back. For example, the transportation functions and management of the parks should be consolidated into other departments so that there is a more unified vision with respect to each of those. That would also make more space for land use discussions and ultimately more effectively hold the administration accountable to our housing goals and priorities.

Do you have anything else you’d like to highlight about your candidacy?

Even though I won’t be taking ABC’s endorsement this cycle, I look forward to continuing to find common ground and get things done together on the council. As a council aide I was even more effective at advancing our shared priorities than some of the ABC-endorsed councillors were. I have the experience and dedication necessary to find that common ground and lead us to even more victories.

Also, I have quite a few other policy ideas as well, including:

Continue our progress on climate justice, affordable housing construction, protected bike lanes, and HEART as a police alternative.

Achieve universal afterschool through a city ordinance.

Pilot a local, fare-free, on-demand transit option - one possible circuit is between Kendall, Lechmere, and Inman Square.

Advance queer justice by requiring safer options for transgender people living in the shelter system and establishing affordable and intentional LGBTQ+ senior housing.

Raise the minimum wage for city employees to at least $25/hour.

Stand with city unions including the educators, the janitors, the nurses, the coffeeshop workers, the clerical workers, the grad students, and all other workers organizing for better conditions.

Stand with tenants and especially demand better treatment from the Cambridge Housing Authority.

Expand the School Health Program to include positions dedicated to mental health at every school in the district.

Demand justice for Faisal by siding with the movement, reducing the police budget to expand social services, and nurturing HEART as our trusted community alternative.

Fight for Jerry’s Pond and the funding that was promised to move forward with environmental justice and ecological restoration on Rindge Ave.

Make Cambridge even more fun by asking the state for permission to extend nightlife hours past 2 AM in Central and Harvard. Protect the Middle East nightclub and other cultural institutions. Expand and institutionalize outdoor dining.

Create new multipurpose field space. Simplify the process for hosting a special event on public property.

Plant way more trees, especially in the densest neighborhoods. Accelerate implementation of the Urban Forest Master Plan.