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Cambridge City Councilor Burhan Azeem is confident that his first term has earned him another two years in City Hall.
“I think a lot of people were skeptical because I was the youngest city councilor ever elected,” Azeem said in an interview. “I think that I’ve proven myself. I don’t think I’ve lost a single vote this term. I think I’m very persuasive.”
Azeem graduated from MIT in 2019 with a bachelor’s in material science and engineering. He has worked as an EMT and runs a nonprofit focused on affordable housing.
Azeem has prioritized housing affordability and livability in his first term on the Council — issues on which he draws from his experience as a first-generation immigrant from Pakistan who grew up in a low-income household.
A self-described “policy person,” Azeem said he focuses on these issues because he believes they affect Cantabrigians most.
“Every candidate talks about housing,” he said. “But I write the bills that everyone else is fighting over.”
Azeem co-sponsored last week’s amendments to the 100%-Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay, which raised height limits and removed setback requirements for affordable housing developments in zones across Cambridge.
In Azeem’s first month on the job, he moved to revive a policy order ending all minimum parking requirements for housing developments — ultimately leading to its passage in October 2022. Now, housing developments are no longer mandated to include a certain number of parking spaces, which Azeem says paved the way for more housing and decreased rents.
Azeem, who is the chair of the Council’s Transportation and Public Utilities committee, said Cambridge’s struggles with housing and transportation are interrelated.
“Boston has some of the worst traffic in America. The Red Line isn’t going great,” he said. “Letting people live closer reduces overall driving trips in a global sense.”
Denser housing, in turn, gives Azeem hope for the future of public transit.
“Allowing more housing near corridors and squares near the T will actually improve service,” he said. “The more people we let live near the T, the more money they’ll have, and the better the service will be. And transit has that really positive feedback loop that I think can be easy to ignore.”
On transportation as such, Azeem said he looks forward to continuing his cooperation with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
“I think people are actually a little bit too negative on the role of City Council,” he said. “Most councilors are less interested in transit, so it’s very easy to say that we just don’t have any power, but that’s not been my experience.”
Azeem and colleagues on the Council have negotiated with the MBTA for more bus service in areas around Harvard, Central, and East Cambridge. Azeem also chaired the Fare-Free Working Group, which successfully pushed to eliminate fares on the Route One bus as part of a one- to two-year pilot program.
The MBTA has come under fire in recent months for numerous debacles on its infamous Red Line, but Azeem said he hesitates to condemn the Authority.
“Around the Red Line in particular, it’s a harder conversation, but not because the MBTA doesn’t listen,” he said. “It’s just because it’s a big construction project, and the general manager is new and trying to figure out what exactly is going wrong.”
“I’m not going to get on the tracks and start fixing them, right, but we’re keeping an eye on it,” Azeem added. “And I think that if they start slacking or not doing a good job, we’ll definitely spring into action.”
Besides action on housing and transportation, voters can expect Azeem to continue to focus on childcare, which he called “the second-biggest expense for most people.”
Azeem co-sponsored last spring’s policy order expanding Cambridge’s afterschool program by 170 students and hopes to extend that legislation to eventually provide universal afterschool until 5 p.m. for Cambridge students.
He is also committed, he said, to ensuring next year’s implementation of the universal pre-K legislation passed in February.
Azeem said he seeks to govern and make policy in a way that allows everyday Cantabrigians not to worry about government or policy.
“At least of my voters, none of them really want to spend their time going through endless committee hearings and stuff like that,” he said. “That’s kind of my job to go and do, and then they’ll tell me what they want in the city.”
—Staff writer Samuel P. Goldston can be reached at email@example.com.
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