Housing and Transportation

Photographs By George J Lok
Vying to Represent a Growing City, Candidates Focus on Urban Development
By M. Hanl Park and Samuel Vasquez, Crimson Staff Writers
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Many of the players have changed, but the game has stayed the same. As the 2015 Cambridge City Council election draws near, the city’s dearth of affordable housing and associated development remains Cambridge’s hottest political issue.

While the specific concerns have evolved over the decades as the city grows, this year’s candidates have claimed that the Council’s actions on housing and development have failed to adequately address the housing shortage.

The concerns and solutions discussed by the Council leading up to this election cycle bore strong resemblance to the campaign statements of the last City Council elections two years ago. In 2013, several decades of marked population growth had prompted concerns of affordability in Cambridge’s thriving real estate market.

In recent years, not only has Cambridge continued to grow, but its rate of growth has significantly increased. A 2014 census estimated Cambridge’s population at 109,694, which means that the rate of population growth has more than doubled since rising from 3.76 percent between 2000 and 2010.

While the housing problem has been a perennial issue for decades, the 2015 election has been marked by the appearance of transportation as a major discussion topic around the city’s development. Hand in hand with an ever worsening housing shortage, the City’s growing population places increasing pressure on transportation infrastructure and congested streets, pushing some candidates to radically rethink the city’s transportation infrastructure.

One candidate believes the housing issue is coming to a head as public need continues to grow and the Council fails to adequately respond.

“This election is something of a referendum on the city’s—the Council’s—action on affordable housing,” Council candidate Jan Devereux said. “They’ve been talking about it as an acute crisis since at least 1999, on the public record, and while they’ve done good things…they haven’t done enough.”

Incumbent Nadeem A. Mazen agrees that too little is being done to address the increasing demand in the community.

“Right now any candidate that’s running will tell you they’re running for affordable housing,” he said, arguing that the Council had not backed effective measures to alleviate the housing shortage. “Unfortunately the voting record on the longest standing incumbents is not good on affordable housing.”

DEVELOPERS: OBSTACLE OR PARTNER?

While many candidates agree that housing is the election’s most pressing issue, they differ on how the city should solve the problem.

At first glance, many of the candidates’ solutions seem similar, as they all seek to increase the amount of available affordable housing. However, the differences in policy lie in the degree of pressure that candidates would like to place on the real estate industry of Cambridge. As it stands, candidate platforms range from calling for aggressive negotiations to cooperative efforts with the area’s real estate developers.

Various candidates argue that the Council’s current policies for supplementing affordable housing stock—such as inclusionary zoning and linkage fees—have not kept pace with recent economic growth in the area. On one end of the spectrum, some candidates see real estate developers, as well as the wealthy investors that back them, as an obstacle to Cambridge’s desires to provide affordable housing on a larger scale.

“I don’t feel any need to meet the concerns of Goldman Sachs, or Blackstone Equity, or any of the other big investors operating in the area,” Devereux said. “We owe it to our residents, the families that are here, that are at risk of being displaced, and the people who would like to live here.”

On the other end of the spectrum, candidates raised concerns that pressuring real estate developers with overly aggressive affordable development goals could hinder sustainable growth.

“How are we going to be able to increase affordable housing in the city?” current Council member Dennis A. Benzan asked. “Well, we’re not going to be able to do it if we can’t develop.”

Then there are candidates whose sentiments lie somewhere in between, arguing that more substantive action on affordable housing can be accomplished while still maintaining a thriving real estate industry.

Mazen said Cambridge’s real estate market has generated high enough rates of return, compared to other markets, for developers to invest in affordable housing in this area while maintaining competitive profit margins. As a result, the Council can work alongside developers to boost affordable housing stock.

While candidates agree that affordable housing may be the most pressing issue of the 2015 City Council election, the rapid growth of Cambridge has pushed candidates to consider a more comprehensive plan for the city, encompassing all of its infrastructure beyond housing stock.

“How quickly do we want to get to 120,000?” Devereux asked. “What, aside from just plunking down buildings, what else do we need?”

REIMAGINING THE PUBLIC WAY

As Cambridge struggles with the perennial problem of limited housing in the face of a swelling resident population, the city’s streets have grown increasingly congested, and the development of transportation infrastructure has struggled to keep pace.

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Many of the candidates’ platforms call for increased bicycle infrastructure to combat congestion and reduce the number of drivers on Cambridge roads. Others argue that bicycle lanes alone cannot solve the traffic problem.

Candidate Romaine Waite raised concerns that extending the reach of Cambridge’s bicycle lanes could increase congestion by constricting the portion of the streets devoted to cars.

Several candidates considered the difficult balancing act the city faces fitting bicycle infrastructure into existing vehicle-oriented roads. Incumbent Marc C. McGovern drew attention to safety issues that could discourage Cantabrigian commuters from forgoing their cars. And Benzan called for an overall transportation mobility plan that draws together the city’s modes of transportation.

“We\'ve got to be careful not to assume that bike infrastructure is a panacea to our traffic issues in our city,” Benzan said.

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While some non-incumbent candidates agree that bicycle lanes are not enough, they envision a more radical solution to revamp the city’s transportation infrastructure.

Former candidate John A. Sanzone called for an integrative standard that moves away from car prioritization towards a shared road, equally divided between cyclist, pedestrian, and car traffic. Though Sanzone is no longer running for a spot on the Cuoncil in the wake of revelations that he had posted homophobic and racist comments on a white supremacy website years ago, he made his platform statements before the scandal broke. Sanzone was running on a shared platform with three other City Council candidates as part of the Slate for Cambridge.

Mariko M. Davidson, another first-time candidate on the Slate for Cambridge, also called for new and redesigned infrastructure rather than a continuation of existing policies.

“Pedestrians are freaked out because they’re worried about getting hit by a cyclist, and cyclists are freaked out because they’re worried about getting hit by cars,” Davidson said. “And everyone is right. But what we really need is clear rules and separate infrastructure.”

While McGovern noted that “obviously cars aren’t going away tomorrow,” Sanzone said policy could nudge Cantabrigians toward a more progressive use of the city’s roads.

“It has to be a balance but also a design that prescribes what we want people to do from a policy perspective,” Sanzone said. “It’s fundamentally about...a paradigm of the streets and the public way and our transportation network.”

DEVELOPING COMMUNITY

Overall, candidates recognize that future decisions regarding transportation and housing development will play a significant role in defining the identity of Cambridge as a city.

For his part, Sanzone recalled a time in which city streets constituted an important segment of municipal public space.

“Streets were people’s living rooms and play areas for children as much as they were routes for travel,” Sanzone said.

This emphasis on liveability is an equally important part of the housing debate. Candidate Plineo DeGoes drew attention to the risk that future real estate development could pose to the city’s character, despite playing a role in mitigating the shortage of housing stock.

“[Candidates] believe that the right way to get out of the current affordable housing crisis is to build a lot more,” DeGoes said. “It’s a legitimate approach…but the reality is that by doing that you would get rid of all open space, all green space, all sentiment of community.”

Mazen agreed, saying that future development in Cambridge must not “impinge on the character of the neighborhood.”

But according to candidates who view the housing shortage as a crisis, without an influx of affordable housing Cambridge cannot remain the diverse city it is today.

“The social fabric of the city is at risk of tearing apart, if we let ourselves get that much more divided,” Devereux said.

—Aditya Agrawal, Sara A. Atske, Brandon J. Dixon, Raghu Dhara, Brittany N. Ellis, Joshua J. Florence, Laszlo B. Herwitz, Nathaniel J. Hiatt, Jesper W. Ke, Siqi Liu, William W. Maddock, Sruthi L. Muluk, Maria H. Park, Ignacio Sabate, Luca F. Schroeder, Daniel P. Wood, and Sharon Yang contributed reporting to this story.

—Staff writer Samuel Vasquez can be reached at samuel.vasquez@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @svasquez14.

—Staff writer M. Hanl Park can be reached at hanl.park@thecrimson.com.

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