Vernon K. Walker
Vernon is an African-Amercian renter who resides in the Kendall Sqaure neighborhood running for Cambridge City Council. Vernon is currently the Program Director of the Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW) organization located in Harvard Sqaure area. CREW is a program that is under the Better Future Project umbrella. Vernon The Better Future Project is a environmental nonprofit. CREW helps prepare communities for extreme weather (i.e. heatwaves, floods, etc.) through education, service and planning. Vernon started with working for CREW in 2019.
Vernon background includes earning a master in theological studies from Boston University in 2016. Currently, Vernon is also a part-time graduate student at Tufts University pursing a master degree in public policy with a focus on environmental justice.
From 2016-2017, Vernon worked in the homeless field as an Outreach Specialist at Pine Street Inn helping the unhoused find resources that would help them experience housing stability in their lives. From 2017-2018, Vernon worked as a case manager at the Boston Rescue Mission working to help my clients build their lives back. I worked with clients to help them apply for Boston Public Housing an fill out other housing applications.
I believe we should build a Cambridge that accommodates all of us and not just the rich!
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 have lived in public housing in Philadelphia as I raised in a public housing development in West Philadelphia and then in my teenage years South Philadelphia.
When I first moved to Cambridge in 2020, I was market rate renter for several years in an apartment in North Cambridge. The landlord provided me notice that he was intending to sell his place so I was forced to move in 2022. With a desire to stay in Cambridge and with the prices of market-rate rent out of reach for my budget, I decided to apply for the Cambridge inclusionary program, which allows me to stay in the city and afford to pay rent in the city without having to have roommates.
My experience as a renter has inspired me to run because currently the city has 66% renters but only two councilors that are renters on the council. Renters need equitable representation on the council and people of color need equitable representation.
I am also inspired to run for Council because extreme weather impacts (i.e. heatwaves, floods, etc.) will become stronger in the coming years and Cambridge would benefit greatly from having a Councilor who has the experience in climate adaptation work to help push policies that help prepare city residents for extreme weather.
As City Councillor, what would be your top priorities to address our housing crisis?
It is well known that Cambridge is suffering from a housing crisis fueled by a lack of affordable housing units. Two thirds of the city population are renters and the path to homeownership is difficult. I advocate expanding rental vouchers and homeownership assistance and I am eager to join the City Council to explore and implement my ideas.
Some of my ideas include supporting the amendments to the Affordable Housing Overlay to ensure that we have more affordable housing development being built. I also support a municipal renter voucher that would subsidized rent for low-income to moderate renters that want to be able rent market rate units.
I would also support the city expanding the Inclusionary Housing requirement for the new market rate developments to reserve 30% floor area for affordable housing units instead of the 20% that it currently has in place.
I agree more using should be built in the city, I question how effective it would be just to build more market rate housing as the market rate housing prices are increasing becoming more higher.
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 a reform to the zoning laws in general that would allow people to build multi-family units in Cambridge neighborhoods with intentions of helping historically marginalized being able to stay in the city. I support looking at all strategies that would look at adding affordable housing units to the city. I do think the strategy could include looking at how the social housing model bill that Rep. Mike Connolly put forward in the State House could help with the housing crisis in Cambridge.
I also think we should take measures to ensure that the rest of Cambridge communities does not turn into Kendall Sqaure in the sense that there are just a lots of commercial buildings in the community with no residential homes. I like living in Kendall Square but I am concerned that if Porter Square or Central Sqaure turns into Kendall Sqaure, lots of renters in those communities would be displaced. Kendall Sqaure is good for the city as the city is able to charge a high
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. I would have to see more deviance to suggest that market rate housing will make Cambridge affordable. I agree there needs to be more housing in Cambridge as “according to the 2017-21 American Community Survey, Cambridge has a population density of 18,274 persons per square mile and 8,124 housing units per square mile. These figures are equivalent to 29 people and 13 housing units per acre. As of 2021, Cambridge is the tenth most densely populated city in the United States.” That information is taken from the Cambridge Community Development Department.
It is clear that we have a housing shortage in our city.
Will more market rate housing development help make Cambridge affordable? I would be open to having more conversation about this strategy and learning more in other cities how market-rate housing has made a city more affordable.
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 having taller buildings that reach 15 stories in the Squares in Cambridge. This is what the AHO 2.0 would allow for developers to do just that if they commit to building 100% affordable housing buildings.
We certainly do have mixed-income developments like the one I live in around Kendall Sqaure. I would be in favor of exploring how we can increase the minimum amount of affordable units from 20% to 30%.
Do you support the proposed Alewife overlay district?
Do you support also rezoning the Fresh Pond shopping center?
Generally Yes. I support the idea of having an overlay to he Alewife area. I would like to see that number increase from 40% to 50% residential.
I do support rezoning Fresh Pond Shopping Center so more housing could be added. I would also support keeping some business in that area so residents can have places close by to do grocery shopping (Trader Joes, Wholefood).
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 support this because there is a housing crisis in our city and having more affordable housing options is one way to ensure that people/families that want to live in Cambridge can live here as their households may not make the city median family income of $204,661.
I support Cambridge being a diverse city and as someone that lives In a tall building, it has it perks. I support expanding of the AHO to allow for more taller buildings to be built that can offer more affordable housing housing.
Do you support further increasing city funding for affordable housing to 10% of the City budget?
Yes. The city has a surplus of millions of dollars in the budget and I support Cambridge having municipal vouchers that would be able help renters in the city. Using the additional surplus to aid renters would be beneficial like to renters like creating a 7-day hotline for renters to call into for help with unresolved tenant-landlord issues. The hotline can also be used for renters to report issues that impact quality of life like mold in the unit, etc.
How can Cambridge better protect tenants against displacement?
Cambridge should have a 24 hour city-wide program that provides a hotline for renters. The 24 hour hotline would be helpful to someone that is getting evicted at 1am in the morning and the landlord changing the locks on the door therefore locking the tenant out of their unit. Having the hotline to call for help would be helpful for that tenant in the moment.
The hotline would allow tenants the opportunity to book an appointment with someone in the Office of Housing Liaison during the day business hours to seek deeper help for their situation. The Hotline would provide educational informational which would equip tenants with information about their legal rights and responsibilities as renters, as well as available resources and supports. The hotline could be under the office of Housing Liaison.
Cambridge could also look at the data where the most evictions are happening across the city and offer free community workshops that focus on providing overall educational resources for the community and list of available advocacy services for tentants.
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?
It is a great thing that Boston is looking at capping the rent increase. I was fortunate not to have my rent go up less then 10% when I lived in Portor Square but if the rent would have gone up by 10% it would have become a cost burden for me. Because of the high cost of living in Cambridge I think the cap on rent should be lower then what Boston has at 10%.
We know the need for housing in the city is greater then the supply of housing available. One way to ensure that market rate housing can stay within range of tenant budget from year to year is have a cap on the rent increase.
Do you believe we have a climate obligation to pursue greater density city-wide and allow more people to live here?
Generally Yes. Higher densities can support community life and can lead to more facilities, efficiencies of scale, and funding systems to pay for services and infrastructures. This can also lead to the need for more green space in the community and fewer cars on the road as people could walk or bike or catch public transit to travel throughout the city.
Do you favor an at-large system over a ward-based system?
Yes. I support proportional representation and agree that we should not switch to any sort of ward-based system. Having all the city councillors represent the whole city so in theory they can be attentive to social issues facing all 13 neighborhoods in the city. I don’t foresee a ward-based system empowering renters and ward-based system could possibly create less diverse council.
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. Diversity is a good thing and diversifying the NCD is needed. We have a city that is 66% renters and renters need to have equitable representation on the NCD. Not diversifying the NCD further marginalizes a segment of the population in Cambridge and keeps renters from having positions on the NCD.
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 support a restricting of city hall and combining different offices into a new Housing Department. I think funding should be set aside to create a new Housing liaison position in the Mayor office to work with new restricted Housing Department to ensure that the Envision Cambridge goal become on track to be met. The liaison would have bi-weekly meetings with a team from the newly created Housing Department so that communication is a clear, consistent and timely between the Mayor team and the Housing Department. The Liaison would report to the Mayor on the updated status of if the new department is helping the city reach it Envision Cambridge housing goals.
Do you have anything else you’d like to highlight about your candidacy?
I believe that housing is a human right and everyone should have a right to housing. I agree with ABC on the need for more affordable housing in the city of Cambridge. We have a crisis in our city where the historically marginalized populations like people of color, immigrants, and lower- income people, as well as middle-income people are increasingly facing displacement because of the rising cost of rent. Some teachers, social workers, nurses, etc. can’t afford to rent at market rate or buy a house in the beloved city.
I am interested in working together to tackle the housing crisis in the city and I have history of bringing together groups of people from diverse backgrounds to work for a common goal. In my role at CREW, I have brought together housing justice advocates, racial justice advocates and climate justice advocates together through intersectionality panels to devise plans in which people with different social justice interest can work together. All those issues are intersectional and it will take a coalition to fight them together to achieve real policy wins. We need a coalition of climate groups, racial justice and housing groups to come together in Cambridge to advance a progressive agenda that ensures that we have more affordable housing available for the unhoused population living in Cambridge as well as the lower-income, middle-income, etc.