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Patty Nolan ’80 Charts the Middle Course in Run for Third Term on Cambridge Council

Patricia M. "Patty" Nolan '80, pictured at a celebration for candidates endorsed by the Cambridge Citizens Coalition, is running for a third term on the Cambridge City Council.
Patricia M. "Patty" Nolan '80, pictured at a celebration for candidates endorsed by the Cambridge Citizens Coalition, is running for a third term on the Cambridge City Council. By Julian J. Giordano
By Samuel P. Goldston, Crimson Staff Writer

In her campaign for a third term on the Cambridge City Council, Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80 is framing herself as a pragmatist who is unafraid to disagree on controversial policy problems.

“I have been definitely a candidate who is very, very effective on the many issues facing us,” she said. “Yet I feel that what distinguishes me is that I bring nuance and a really thoughtful balance to these issues.”

Nolan served 14 years on the Cambridge School Committee and worked previously in nonprofits and consulting, including at McKinsey & Company and as CEO of Clivus Multrum, a manufacturer of environmental toilets.

Housing has been an important issue for Nolan throughout the race, as a set of amendments to the 100%-Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay crawled through the Council over her objections.

The amendments, which raised height restrictions and removed setback requirements for affordable developments in several new areas of the city, passed on Oct. 18. Nolan argued that the changes opened up too many areas to taller buildings without appropriate justification, and has proposed a housing vision more focused on home ownership and middle-class developments.

“If we don’t provide a much higher percentage of our affordable housing dollars going to home ownership, we’re not helping people to build equity,” she said. “We’re not helping people to get out of and break that kind of cycle of poverty.”

“Teachers and firefighters in our city are making really good salaries compared to the rest of the country,” she added. “They’re in that middle class that can’t afford to stay here and we know we’re losing.”

Nolan also said the city should pay more attention to the cost of each new affordable housing unit currently under construction and look for ways to standardize building design and decrease labor spending.

“When you’re knocking on the door of someone who scraped it together to buy a $600,000 condo in Cambridge and is hoping to stay here as a middle-class person, and they know that an affordable housing project is costing $900,000, they think government is nuts,” she said.

Nolan clarified that such efforts should not come at the expense of the union workers who build new housing.

“I do not believe in undercutting and I believe in good wages,” she said. “Is there a way, if we use union labor on these jobs, that we can save some money? I think that’s a conversation that I would be surprised if the labor union wasn’t at least open to.”

On climate, Nolan criticized Harvard and other well-resourced Cambridge institutions for not doing enough to help Cambridge meet its emissions reduction goals on the grounds that the city is “a drop in the ocean.”

“Yes, we’re a drop,” she said. “We are a really important one that people pay attention to. And if we, the richest city in the richest state in the richest country can’t do this really soon and really well to reduce our emission pollution, the world might as well give up hope.”

“Because we’re in that position, we have a moral responsibility to show the way, to be a role model,” she added.

Nolan, an alumna of the College, stressed Harvard’s impact on Cambridge more generally.

“I think it’s important for people to know that your institution has a huge impact on us,” she said. “We will stall if there’s any kind of pushback from the major institutions. I’m sure they don’t want to hear that, but I’m going to say it because it’s important and I believe it.”

Nolan also sought to distinguish herself from fellow councilors in terms of transparency.

“When I take a vote, I let people in my newsletter know, if people ask me, I don’t try to hide or obfuscate,” she said. “There’s people out there claiming to be climate champions, and they voted against several climate things we put forth.”

“It’s really important to get the receipts,” she added.

Nolan cast her role on the Council as adding much-needed nuance to civic discussion.

“We are in this either-or, very simplistic, polarized debate,” Nolan said of Cambridge’s housing debate, noting that she has faced attacks from both advocates and opponents of affordable housing. “I am in the middle, and I’m neither of those.”

—Staff writer Samuel P. Goldston can be reached at samuel.goldston@thecrimson.com.

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