Joe is a father of two wonderful grown children, and lives with his patient and loving wife, along with his dear pal, Harry the cat. He was born in Cambridge and grew up in the nearby suburbs. He moved back to Cambridge as a young adult and has rented in and around the city for thirty years. He has worked in the local restaurant scene for over three decades as a bartender. In his career, he has won many accolades locally and has appeared on national public radio and in local and national magazines. During his long and successful years in the food industry, Joe has advocated for locally owned small restaurants and their workers. In 2022, Joe and a few colleagues used the pop-up McGuirk’s Folly to highlight struggles of restaurant workers in cities with rising housing costs and stagnating wages, with a focus on sustainability. He is an avid reader and gamer.
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 was a teenaged parent, and moved back to Cambridge in my mid twenties after I separated from my first wife. I was already working here, and I rented an apartment to be closer to my jobs. Being a young single parent, working at lower income jobs, housing was my biggest source of stress. I think I moved 12 times in the first decade after my divorce. The desperation and anxiety caused by my housing instability was pretty rough. I had to make choices to solve short-term issues at the cost of creating longer-term issues. Like buying food instead of paying bills on time. A trip to Davis Square to pay my cable bill to restore the internet was a common outing. I once even “borrowed” electricity from my landlord as I waited for payday so I could pay my utility bill. I was unaware of the term at the time, but I was rent burdened for most of my adult life. In retrospect, there were actions I could have taken. I could have applied for subsidized housing, or done more advocacy for people like myself, but I also recognize that economic pressures, along with the stigma in my community associated with asking for help, made it difficult for me to take those actions. I just didn’t have the bandwidth, and I was ashamed of my inability to lead a stable life. (My children did, eventually, live in subsidized housing, with their mom.)
Once my kids were grown, and I could finally look beyond our immediate needs,I realized that my plight was not unique, and that many lower and middle income families were having similar struggles. Over the last 30 years, housing costs in our region have soared, while wages for lower and middle income earners have stagnated. It has led to a housing crisis. This issue, more than any other, is why I seek a seat on the council. Low and middle income residents, as well as renters, make up a significant portion of the population in Cambridge, and we are essential to the city’s well-being. Displacement of these people is harming our city and its residents. And yet, we are often underrepresented (or not represented at all) on the council. I think those folks need representatives with similar lived experiences at the table.
As City Councillor, what would be your top priorities to address our housing crisis?
Solving the housing crisis is a major challenge for Cambridge, as well as our nation. There is no single solution to this, so we must attack the problem from many angles. Creating more housing density is one, which has the added benefit of helping us address our carbon footprint. In Cambridge, that means building upwards as we do not have many options for going wider. We must invest more in the realm of affordable housing, which is the purpose of the AHO. AHO 2.0 gives tools that will allow our affordable housing builders opportunities to create more units.
To further support the creation of new affordable housing the City should capitalize a loan fund for affordable housing developers. Developers would be able to borrow money from the City at below market interest rates in order to acquire property on which they plan to build 100% affordable housing. This would allow developers to move quickly to purchase property and significantly decrease the carrying costs for affordable housing. This fund would complement the Affordable Housing Overlay, making our City one of the simplest and most supportive communities in which to build 100% affordable housing.
To create new affordable housing, the City should make additional funding available for developers, especially non-profit developers, for affordable housing. The City should pursue a real estate transfer tax on commercial and residential sales over a certain amount. It is key that we are able to capitalize on the enormous wealth generated in our City to support the construction of affordable housing.
I would propose a pilot program for moveable municipal vouchers.This would be targeted at renters not already receiving government support for their housing who are earning less than 60% of the Area Median Income. These renters would pay 30% of their income on rent every month, and the City would pay the difference between the renter’s share and the fair market rent (established annually by HUD) for their apartment based on the apartment size and location (based on zip code).
My family’s story is full of ways that government policy, particularly housing policy, lifted us into the working class and middle class. In that history, though, are some of the clearest examples of how our government excluded People of Color, particularly Black people, from that uplift. It has been clearly documented how Black people were systematically left out of the housing market in the 20th century. Racism in housing has evolved since then and continues to be ever present in the housing market today. It is our obligation to address and redress these past and persistent inequities within our housing system.
We should take a look at the ZBA. Many affordable housing proposals languish as they wait for the opportunity to present (or re-present) their plans. These delays slow the process and can lead to proposals being withdrawn. We should consider a paid ZBA staff that will be able to meet more regularly, as well as be more amenable to addressing outdated and restrictive zoning practices.
I would advocate for an income tax credit for landlords who charge below market rates. In Cambridge, these small landlords are integral to keeping market rates from rising even higher. We should advocate at the state level, to encourage this continued behavior.
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. While housing for lower and middle income residents is my key concern, I appreciate the need for more market rate housing. I support comprehensive zoning reform. I fully support allowing as-of-right multifamily housing on every residential lot in Cambridge. I believe that at least four-plexes should be allowed by right. There is a clear correlation, shown by the in-depth analysis done by political scientists at BU, that communities that allow by-right multifamily housing have a higher share of multifamily housing permitted than communities that do not. Reducing the barriers to creating this kind of housing will have a significant impact on the total number of new units created in Cambridge in the long run, and particularly missing middle housing that our City desperately needs.
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. See the answer to the previous question.
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. We can certainly do more than what the state has mandated as a minimum requirement. There are ample reasons to create more density around our public transit hubs, with no compelling reason not to, hence my support for AHO 2.0. We are resolved to reduce our carbon footprint, but this cannot translate into denying housing for our lower and middle income residents who are facing displacement due to the costs of housing. Increasing density is proven to lower housing costs as well as improving energy efficiency. Doing so around public transportation is obviously necessary.
Do you support the proposed Alewife overlay district?
Do you support also rezoning the Fresh Pond shopping center?
Yes. In general, I support the Overlay, which will create new and needed housing alongside commercial properties. For the commercial properties, we should encourage light industry that will create entry level jobs, which is more needed than developing lab space. The council and city manager should ensure that this is the result. The Fresh Pond Shopping Center should have been part of the initial overlay, and needs rezoning as well. This area would provide many needed units to answer the high demand. It seems to me that when we made the choice to create more jobs in our city, we also created an obligation to create more housing, for those folks who would be working at these new jobs, but also for the folks who have been impacted by the growing demand for housing and the subsequent rise in costs of our limited housing stock.
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. Folks are naturally afraid of change. When people hear about bold policies, they are understandably anxious over how their neighborhoods might be affected. But as someone who has struggled to remain a resident here, I can tell you that change has already come. Housing costs have become so overwhelming, many of our neighbors have already been forced out, only to be replaced by wealthier folks, in both home ownership and rentals. Displacement of lower- and middle-income residents is a much bigger threat to Cambridge than changes to our skyline.
This is why I support the amendment to the AHO. This will allow us to build more affordable housing along our major corridors and squares. I have spoken to the folks who develop and administer Cambridge’s affordable housing units and they overwhelmingly support both the AHO and the new amendment. It will absolutely lead to change but change we need. This change will not happen rapidly. The amendment simply makes it more likely that we can build affordable housing. Residents will still be able to give input on what that will look like, but no longer will we be able to stonewall good projects. And down the line, our neighborhoods will return to places where people from various income levels live in proximity to each other, rather than the enclaves of wealth they have become. The change that has happened over the last twenty years is not due to increased housing density. It is due to the influx of wealth at the cost of displacing those unable to afford the rising housing costs.
It is easy to be dismissive of imperfect solutions to our housing crisis when you don’t have to worry about where you are going to live in the next few months. But for those of us who do not own our homes, even imperfect solutions are better than the status quo. Lower and middle-income residents are essential to the well-being of our city but are being displaced. Without meaningful action, Cambridge will continue its current path and become a city of wealth and poverty, with few in the space between. This will lead to a very different Cambridge than the vision we commonly hold about our city. We are proud of our city’s ideals, those of equity, inclusivity, and diversity. We cannot claim that we represent these ideals if we continue to displace lower and middle-income residents.
Do you support further increasing city funding for affordable housing to 10% of the City budget?
Generally Yes. In principle, I agree with this idea. As is evident in my other responses, I feel that the displacement of lower and middle income residents is the single biggest problem facing Cambridge, and we should have a robust plan to counter that. However, I am not so well versed in our budget to claim that we can double our financial commitment without curtailing other services our city needs. I plan that by the time I am called to vote on this, I will be better informed to make the right choice for our most vulnerable residents.
How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement?
please see answer below in which I cover policies our city can mandate
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?
Rent stabilization better happen soon. I have spoken to many renters who have seen huge increases in their rents since Mayor Wu publicized her petition. I believe that this is a reaction to the proposal. We need action fast, to ensure this rent gouging does not continue.
Our City is made up overwhelmingly of renters. Over 60% of Cambridge households rent, nearly double the national average. We are long overdue for a sufficiently staffed one-stop-shop City run office to provide support for renters. I would work to augment and transform the existing Office of the Housing Liaison into an Office of Tenants’ Rights. This office would manage several initiatives aimed at evening the playing field between renters and their landlords. This would include the following concepts.
Coordinate the staffing for legal support for tenants fighting displacement and eviction The federal and state governments have been lagging in the establishment and implementation of guaranteed legal counsel in housing court. Less than 10% of MA tenants in housing court have legal counsel and over 90% of landlords arrive at court with legal counsel. Until the state and federal governments make representation guaranteed in housing court, we must step in and ensure that all tenants have a right to counsel.
Create and manage a landlord licensing program Boston and many other major cities maintain a rental licensing program which ensures that all landlords in the City are meeting minimum standards annually. There is no reason that our bars and restaurants should be more regulated than our rental housing; a licensing program would allow the City to keep up-to-date data on the details of the rental housing supply and provide the City the power to enforce existing rules governing the minimum standards of rental housing in our City.
Do you believe we have a climate obligation to pursue greater density city-wide and allow more people to live here?
Yes. As Cambridge seeks to create a resilient and sustainable city in the face of an increasingly hostile climate, we must ensure that we do not displace lower and middle income residents who are essential to our city’s well-being. Climate justice must accompany climate policy, and that makes housing a climate issue. Our city is fortunate in its resources. By allowing displacement to continue, we are not serving our displaced residents, and doing so we create burdens for other communities.Infill is apparent in my part of the city, and I believe in many cases adds to the charm of our neighborhoods. While I recognize that other communities in our region must do more to alleviate the housing crisis, I believe that some areas of our city must do their part as well. I live in the part of the city that has historically taken the bulk of the burden of creating more density, and we will continue to do so. With that said, I think we need to create density along our corridors and in our squares, even if it means changing the skyline of those neighborhoods that have been less densely populated. In this way, our city will be a leader in attempting to solve the interconnected issues of climate change and housing needs.
Do you favor an at-large system over a ward-based system?
Yes. I believe in the Plan E government. I just think the council must use the tools in their toolbox to ensure it works. There have been concerns that the city manager holds too much power in our city, but that is power granted by the council. The council must have the will to use the tools at hand if they feel the manager is not doing their job well. Plan E also allows for true representation of all residents as a ward based council or a shared ward and at-large council will end up placing the concerns over neighborhoods above concerns for the city in general. In a city where more than 60% of residents rent, at-large elections allow for those renters to choose council members based on the shared values rather than a shared zip code or polling location. Landowners already have outsized impacts on our city policies. Changing our charter might lead to even more power to this minority.
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. As I said in 2021, I support comprehensive zoning reform and believe that we must change the way our zoning board is selected.
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?
In general I support this idea, although I have not researched it well to this point. I believe that our council must use whatever options necessary to ensure our city manager complies with the wishes of the residents, including the possibility of replacing the city manager with one more willing to accede to council wishes. The manager should have the will to ensure that staff also performs their tasks.
Do you have anything else you’d like to highlight about your candidacy?
I believe the biggest issue our city faces is displacement of lower and middle income residents, many of whom are renters like myself. I believe we are essential to the well-being of our city, as we perform necessary jobs and add to our diversity. I believe that those of us who are struggling to remain here need voices on the council with that lived experience. This is why I am running. We lower and middle income residents, we long time renters, are often underrepresented on our city council, and we need council members from our ranks.