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Less than two months after graduating from Harvard College, Ayah Al-Zubi ’23 has launched a campaign for Cambridge City Council.
The 21-year-old is the youngest of two dozen candidates who have thrown their hats into the ring for one of the Council’s nine at-large seats up for election in November.
Al-Zubi immigrated to the U.S. from Jordan at five years old and lived in Ohio before coming to Cambridge for college, where she concentrated in Sociology and Psychology and was a member of Leverett House.
“I haven’t had the privilege to live in Cambridge and be raised in Cambridge or let alone be raised in one particular area for a long time,” she said in an interview with The Crimson.
“I want to help build a future where people don’t have to move, where people can call Cambridge their home indefinitely,” she added.
Al-Zubi’s introduction to Cambridge came through running youth sports programming in public schools. She coached a basketball program at Baldwin Elementary School through Harvard’s Phillips Brooks House Association.
“I’m really excited about her candidacy,” Zondervan wrote in a press release. “She’s an amazing learner and hard worker, and she’d be an excellent City Councillor.”
Al-Zubi said living off campus in Central Square during her senior year made her realize Cambridge has a “massive” affordable housing crisis, which she said she believes is the city’s “biggest issue.”
Some of Al-Zubi’s housing proposals include establishing rent stabilization, creating an emergency rental assistance program, and strengthening the Affordable Housing Overlay, an ordinance that makes it easier for developers to build 100-percent affordable units by streamlining the permitting process.
Al-Zubi — an avid biker — has signed Cambridge Bicycle Safety’s pledge to rapidly implement a citywide network of protected bicycle lanes and proposed providing stipends to make biking more accessible to low-income residents. She also supports resuming Saturday closures of Memorial Drive to vehicles and making the Route 1 bus between Harvard and Nubian Square free.
The Harvard graduate also hopes to bridge the City Council and Cambridge School Committee through “integrated meetings” and a new Cambridge Youth Commission focused on school equity. The seven-member School Committee is chaired by the mayor and consists of six additional members elected at-large.
As a councilor, Al-Zubi said she would hold her alma mater and MIT to a higher standard in their Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreements with Cambridge and Boston. For more than a decade, Harvard has consistently fallen short of its requested voluntary contributions to the City of Boston.
In fiscal year 2022, Harvard paid Cambridge roughly $4.4 million, as per its PILOT agreement with the city, and paid Boston just over $3.9 million. In addition to these sums, the University was credited for the value of community benefits in Boston — though Harvard still fell nearly $2.9 million short of Boston’s total request.
“We have two world class institutions that we need to push towards making a greater impact or a greater positive impact in the city,” she said.
Though mandating PILOT payments would require state legislation, Al-Zubi said she would potentially support terminating Harvard’s agreement when it comes up for renewal in 2024.
But Harvard’s PILOT agreement is unilaterally negotiated by Cambridge’s City Manager. The unelected position is currently under scrutiny as Cambridge undergoes a charter review process. Al-Zubi is currently undecided over whether she supports the current city manager system or a potential “strong mayor” system.
“At the end of the day, if I had to put a position on it right now, which I’m not honestly too enthused with, I’d probably stick with our current charter form,” she said.
Three other Harvard affiliates are running for City Council this year: Patricia M. Nolan ’80 — who is seeking reelection — Harvard Medical School instructor Peter Hsu, and Harvard Summer School and Extension School instructor Robert Winters.
Harvard undergraduates have run for Cambridge City Council before, including Logan E. Leslie ’16 and Nadya Okamoto ’20. Justin Tseng ’22 — a lifelong Medford resident — was elected to the Medford City Council in 2021, during his senior year of college.
Al-Zubi acknowledged that she doesn’t have the decades of experience of her opponents, but she said she is committed to learning from Cantabrigians.
“At the end of the day, I don’t know what’s the absolute best for the community,” Al-Zubi said. “But you know that I’m going to put our community members first — I’m going to put their voices first.”
Correction: September 10, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that only three Harvard affiliates are running for Cambridge City Council. In fact, Harvard Summer School and Extension School instructor Robert Winters is also seeking a Council seat.
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