E. Denise Simmons
Denise Simmons is a lifelong resident of Cambridge, currently serving her 11th term on the Cambridge City Council. Denise has spent the past three decades working to better her community – first as the Executive Director of the Cambridge Civic Unity Committee in the 1980s, then as a member of the Cambridge School Committee in the 1990s, and since 2002, as a member of the Cambridge City Council. Denise has twice served as Mayor of Cambridge, and she hopes to continue working to make City Hall more accessible and more accountable to a greater number and scope of people.
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 am a renter in Cambridge and I recognize the importance of having a multitude of housing options in our city - market rate, subsidized, studio units, family-sized units, and everything in between. We are in a regional housing crisis that has been growing in scope ever since the loss of rent control. I, members of my family, my friends, co-workers, have all been directly impacted by this to one degree or another.
As City Councillor, what would be your top priorities to address our housing crisis?
I will continue supporting the kind of legislation I have long championed - looking at adjusting our Inclusionary ordinance, adjusting our linkage fees, passing amendments to the Affordable Housing Overlay District, and exploring other ideas that, when combined, can help us try to get this issue under a semblance of control. I have served as Chair of the Housing Committee the past several terms, and I will continue to vet these ideas and policies in my role as chair.
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 will keep my answer brief and just state that my record shows I support efforts to increase our ability to build and create more housing. The ideas you have suggested above would speak to developing more homes, across a wider swath of the city, and that is exactly what we need. My hope is that we shall have a City Council that stands united in pushing for these policies in 2024.
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. I firmly believe that some of our issues boil down to a matter of supply and demand; if we have several thousand new jobs in the city and only several hundred new homes, then this crisis will remain in place. If we have a greater sense of parity between the number of jobs in the area and the number of units available, it will ease the crunch.
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. This is part of what has been called for in the Affordable Housing Overlay, and it is what I and others must continually push for as new developments near our transit hubs are considered. I will certainly continue to speak out loud and forcefully in favor of this.
Do you support the proposed Alewife overlay district?
Do you support also rezoning the Fresh Pond shopping center?
Generally Yes. Fresh Pond and the Alewife area are undergoing great change, and have been for the past few years. The time has come to look at the entire area with fresh eyes and an understanding that this whole area needs to be looked at holistically, and we need to be willing to re-zone the area in accordance with what we think the area will support and what the needs of people who will be living there will be. I believe this is an issue whose time has come.
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 am one of the councilors currently pushing for this, and I believe this will offer greater flexibility to affordable housing developers who are seeking to create viable new projects. The ability to develop such buildings in our major squares will add life and vitality to the squares, and provide much-needed housing - homes - to so many who are currently struggling to remain a part of our community.
Do you support further increasing city funding for affordable housing to 10% of the City budget?
Yes. I would be comfortable going even higher than 10 percent of the City’s budget (though I don’t know what the magic number I would land on would be). The bottom line is that we all say that affordable housing is one of our top priorities, and if that is truly the case, then we need to put our money where our mouth is. We cannot create more land on which to build, but by infusing a significant amount of money into our Affordable Housing Trust, we shall at least have more options with which to pursue various housing projects. That is going to require a sustained, significant financial investment from the City.
How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement?
I think we took an important step in creating the Housing Liaison to the City Manager position a couple of years back, and by providing some support staff for that position in subsequent years. I think we should explore expanding the staff support for that position and providing further stabilization case workers. Furthermore, we need to further fund community partners like Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services to assure that those who are at risk of being evicted have access to low-cost or free legal representation. We do commit funding to this organization, but I do think we need to be more proactive in investing significantly more funding to ensure that the number of attorneys on hand are able to handle the caseloads.
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 that, yes.
Do you believe we have a climate obligation to pursue greater density city-wide and allow more people to live here?
Yes. In short, the more people we can have living close enough to their jobs so that they can walk, bike, or take mass transit to work - and therefore be less dependent upon their cars - the better. Creating affordable housing that will enable people to have these transit options is the right thing to do on so many levels, and certainly the positive impact on our planet is one of them.
Do you favor an at-large system over a ward-based system?
Yes. I am in favor of city councilors being accountable to, and trying to speak to the needs of, the whole of the city, and not just one section of it. While we each may develop our areas of interest and expertise, and while we may each have our pockets of strength and supporters, we are still all moved to speak to the entirety of the community as at-large councilors, and I believe the city is better governed as a result.
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 Not. I believe that we need fresh blood on these boards, and that we need greater diversity upon them. I do not believe that we need to change their overall mission or how they operate. Once we have newer members, from a greater variety of backgrounds and viewpoints, I believe they shall function in a healthier fashion.
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 agree that the City Manager’s office does not appear to be taking strong enough action on this matter. I do not necessarily agree that it is due to the housing functions being scattered across different departments, though, and I believe that if we had a city manager who truly had a strong grasp of this housing crisis, and who made it a point of making this a central focus of his or her administration, then it would be dealt with by the City accordingly. My sense is that the City Council does need to be more unified in making housing a top priority, the Council needs to practice restraint in terms of all the various competing policy orders that are sent to the City Manager and the CDD for their attention - and there needs to be greater coordination with groups like ABC to continually keep the heat on the City Manager over this issue. Currently, I feel like so many of us - City Councilors, advocacy groups, individuals - are pulling the City Manager in a number of different directions at any given time, continually shifting the message of where the focus ought to be. I would rather find ways to have us all work together to compel the administration to keep a sharp focus on affordable housing. My hope is that we will be able to achieve this in the months ahead, and particularly heading into the new year.
Do you have anything else you’d like to highlight about your candidacy?
I have long been honored to work with A Better Cambridge, I believe our values and goals are in alignment, and I look forward to continuing to work with you in the months and years to come.