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City Council Candidates Discuss Affordable Housing Ahead of Upcoming Election

Nine candidates vying for a seat on the Cambridge City Council debated affordable housing at a forum on Sunday.
Nine candidates vying for a seat on the Cambridge City Council debated affordable housing at a forum on Sunday. By Santiago A. Saldivar
By Jennifer L. Powley, Crimson Staff Writer

Nine candidates for Cambridge City Council addressed how they would tackle affordable housing — a likely high-profile campaign issue ahead of this November’s election — at a candidate forum Sunday.

The candidates gathered in the Cambridge Community Center for a discussion organized and moderated by Project Right to Housing — an activist group that formed to push local elected officials to pass guaranteed housing legislation.

Several candidates said much of the challenge comes from the city experiencing rising rent prices and decreased affordable housing opinions — a trend shared by surrounding cities.

Burhan Azeem — a recent MIT graduate and second-time candidate — shared his personal struggles with housing affordability. After immigrating to the United States from Pakistan, Azeem said he and his family could not afford a house of their own.

“We had another family that was kind enough to let us live with them for a year,” Azeem said, but his family faced housing instability and was forced to move annually.

The event’s moderator asked the candidates if they thought housing should be guaranteed to all residents regardless of “income, substance use, mental health, legal history, or other factors” that might limit access to housing.

The candidates unanimously agreed that housing is a human right, and pledged to increase affordable housing units in the city if elected. Councilor E. Denise Simmons touted her work during her last nine terms on the council.

“I have worked to make sure that everyone and anyone who wants to decide to live in Cambridge can do that,” Simmons said.

Affordable housing also dominated the council elections in 2019, when the issue became a flashpoint for candidates, especially over the affordable housing overlay. In the end, a supermajority of candidates supporting that measure were elected to the council in November 2019. Eventually, the council passed the AHO the following year.

Much of Sunday’s discussion focused on each candidate’s plan to make housing more affordable. Though they agreed on the necessity of housing, the candidates put forward differing policy ideas.

Candidates Tonia D. Hicks, Nicola A. Williams, and Robert Eckstut argued public lands should be converted to affordable housing units.

“Cambridge has an excess, so public funds should be used and public land should be used to build housing for everyone,” Hicks said.

Williams noted other places such as parking lots and open lands could also be utilized for additional housing units.

Other candidates said they are focused on reforming the private market, including passing rent control, mandating affordable housing developments, and coordinating with surrounding cities to reform the housing market.

The candidates also debated about how to support unhoused residents. One member of the audience, who identified as queer, asked the candidates what they would do to help Cambridge’s unhoused BGLTQ population and said they were frustrated by limited shelter services.

— Staff writer Jennifer L. Powley can be reached at jennifer.powley@thecrimson.com.

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