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COVID-19, Policing Alternatives, and Housing Top Cambridge City Councillors’ Agendas in the Upcoming Year

Cambridge's city council normally meets in City Hall.
Cambridge's city council normally meets in City Hall. By Steve S. Li
By Jing-Jing Shen, Crimson Staff Writer

As Cambridge moves into the fall and winter seasons, supporting local businesses, expanding affordable housing, and confronting racism and police violence remain top of mind for city leaders, two members of the Cambridge City Council say.

From the economic fallout due to COVID-19 to housing and policing issues, city councilors say they have adjusted their typical list of top concerns in light of new issues presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The biggest concerns all relate to COVID in some way,” Councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler said in an interview Wednesday.

Beyond the public health emergency, Councillor Quinton Zondervan has also sought to emphasize public safety.

“Of course we’re now working on COVID-19 and the economic impacts and how do we get out of that. Then we’ve been dealing with the racism and police violence issues as well and thinking through all of that. How do we reimagine public safety in Cambridge?” he said in a Tuesday interview.

Preventing the spread of the virus while keeping local businesses afloat has remained a priority for the council.

“We’ve been able to contain the outbreak, for the most part,” Zondervan said. “We’ve come up with some innovative ways for some of the businesses to continue operating – outdoor dining for restaurants and things like that. We’re extending those now into the winter.”

In addition, the city has provided funding to assist small businesses and nonprofits. It also supported the development of Starlight Square, according to Zondervan. The Central Square Business Improvement District created the space as a “placekeeping initiative” that temporarily converted a municipal parking lot into an outdoor community center, dining courtyard, and amphitheater.

City officials have also debated reopening schools in recent months. Cambridge public schools started the school year remotely, but in-person learning for eligible students will begin in mid-October.

“There’s been a bunch of discussion about school reopenings both with the council and especially with the School Committee. Plans are safe at this point. We’ll watch and see how it goes,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said.

Beyond questions of reopening and remote learning, Zondervan added that the city has grappled with how to help schools connect students of color to minority teachers.

“We have an extended day program in the elementary school that my kids attended that was very helpful for their education, as students of color, to have access to teachers and mentors,” Zondervan said. “That program is not part of the school department — it’s part of the city budget.”

Fundraising is critical for such programs, according to Zondervan. The overall program received a budget of $1 million dollars when $4 million was requested, he noted.

Zondervan said he believes the amount of money allocated annually to police departments should go to programs like this one instead.

“Why are we spending millions of dollars on policing, when we could and should be spending money on educating our students and mentoring them and supporting them, helping them be successful?” Zondervan asked.

Back in July, the City Council passed a policy order, sponsored by Sobrinho-Wheeler and Zondervan, that asked the City Manager to look into the creation of a non-police emergency response personnel. These unarmed employees, instead of the police, would manage traffic enforcement.

Sobrinho-Wheeler said the city will also begin examining different models for a “non-police emergency response.”

Ensuring affordable housing has remained a priority for councilors. The Affordable Housing Overlay proposal from the last council term was reintroduced in February, with the goal of lowering the cost of constructing affordable housing developments throughout the city.

Still, Zondervan said thousands of people are on the waiting list for affordable housing due to the limited number of units built in Cambridge every year. In order to close this gap, he suggested increasing investments into reasonably priced housing.

“What it would ultimately come down to is funding. We have to invest more money to make 100 percent affordable housing because the market is not going to solve this problem,” Zondervan said.

The statewide eviction moratorium, set to continue until mid-October, has also helped with housing worries during the pandemic.

“I think all of us want to make sure that folks who have lost jobs or lost income can continue to afford to pay rent, both because housing stability is incredibly important, and because without housing it’s hard to socially distance to stop the spread of the virus,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said.

While the councilors’ priorities have shifted due to COVID-19, Sobrinho-Wheeler and Zondervan said their desire to serve constituents has remained constant.

“It’s sort of a different context with coronavirus than I think any of us expected the term to be like, but the same issues are there, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to serve,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said.

The seven other members of the City Council did not respond to The Crimson’s interview requests.

—Staff Writer Jing-Jing Shen can be reached at jing-jing.shen@thecrimson.com.

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