Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons Talks to Spare Chance News about housing, homelessness, and linkage fees

SCN: You served your first term as mayor from 2008–2009. What did you learn in your first term and how will this term be different?

DS: You really don’t know until you know. It’s a lot of work: the office of the mayor. For two reasons, one you come with a sense of what you would like to achieve as a mayor, and then there’s the set of responsibilities of the roles of the office of the mayor. There’s so many different things that we’ll host—St. Patrick’s Day, Italian Heritage Day, African-American History Day, Women’s History Day, Pride Day or Pride Month.

So that’s the office of the mayor, and then there are things that I’m interested in doing such as looking at issues around wage equity for women, housing for all and empowering young girls, and you have to balance all of that. You have to do them all because one is expectations and the other is the things that you really want to see happen. Additionally, you’re still responsible for policies on both the school committee and the city council. You know you’re responsible for the policy side of the schools, but it’s not until you’re actually doing it that you realize how much work you really have to do.

 

SCN: What type of development would you like to see implemented in Central Square?

DS: First of all, I want development that’s going to have as much affordable and moderate income housing as possible. I want development that has a diversity in its ground floor retail. I want housing that discourages the use of cars. And we’re moving more and more toward that, reducing the number of parking spaces that are required. I want to see Central Square come back to where it once was, teeming with people. I want to be able to eat, shop, and participate in some level of entertainment in Central Square because I am 10 minutes away from it. I don’t want to have to get in my car.

The C2 plan talks to that, and so we really have to be a little bit more aggressive at implementing, particularly the non-regulatory parts. More active spaces, affordable and moderate income housing. A little bit more density, bringing more people in to the square, and this is where the ground-floor retail comes in. You want the ground floor retail to be such that it speaks to the needs of a wide range of people. If I had my way, on Sundays Central Square you couldn’t even drive it. It’d just be a public plaza, teeming with activities: vendors with pushcarts, and all kinds of activity, trying to breathe life into Central Square.

I grew up in Cambridge. Central Square was the place that I went. Every Thursday, I would meet my mother we would go to a place called Ken’s, which is now Sleepy’s, it was a restaurant. And we would have dinner there, and then we would stop and Kennedy’s and get our eggs and our butter, and if I needed a coat, or sweater, jacket, pair of shoes, I could go to Teddy’s or Irving’s or Goran’s or Cochrane’s or Salinger’s, and to what degree we can, I would love some of that to come back, where people don’t feel compelled to get in their car because they need certain goods and services. Target’s supposed to be coming to Central Square, that’s going to be huge if it does.

It will provide an anchor. I’ve been working, on paper, on trying to bring a museum to Cambridge that celebrates the history and the culture of our city, as a way to bring people in, but also remember what we once were.

 

SCN: What’s your stance on affordable housing in city-owned land?

DS: We’ve had some conversations–using city-owned land as a possibility for affordable housing is a wonderful idea because we don’t have to negotiate, we don’t have to try to purchase something. But it’s not a lot, because when we talk about city-owned land, primarily you’re talking about building on parking lots and what effects that’s going to have on parking. We have to do it in a way that we balance the need for parking, because we want people to come in to Central Square and some people are going to drive as much as we try to discourage them, but also being able to use it to house people at a rate where people can afford. That’s just one way.

The other thing that we’re looking at, I’ll be pushing with the vice-mayor Mark McGovern, and the city council, is increasing the percentage of affordability under what’s called the inclusionary zoning ordinance. So there is land that’s owned by a couple of developers in the Central Square area, and we get that number up, we’ll get a higher number of affordable units. Couple that with, we just increased our linkage fee. The linkage fee is a fee that we assess on developers when they build 30 square feet or higher. The other thing that we haven’t looked at that I would hope to look at this term, is to look at the economy and how does income affect our ability to house people. We want to be able to keep as much, or build as much, or bargain for as much low and moderate income housing, but we also want to bring up the income levels of people that are working in Cambridge that might not live in Cambridge.

The first thing, Cambridge is really good, we have living wage, we’re almost at $15 an hour. We’re really trying to raise that, so people are not living in poverty and having to be so dependent on low-income housing.

 

SCN: Can you explain what’s referred to as the data-driven housing plan?

DS: If I understand it correctly, the data-driven housing plan is the process through which, let’s take linkage, in order to increase the linkage fee, we have to use data that said, you’re going to need this many units of affordable or moderate income housing to meet the need of the workers that come in to this city. You use the data to say how much housing you’re going to need, and at what level and what price. Using a model of that order not only helps you create that housing in terms of giving you a roadmap, but also gives you the justification for it.

 

SC: How does Cambridge’s homeless population play into this plan?

DS: One of the things Cambridge has been very good at is not criminalizing our homeless and trying to find places that they can find respite, and comfort, and we have done that so well, some people argue that our homeless population has grown. One of the things that we’re talking about is, there’s programs like Heading Home and there’s the Carrie program, there’s a number of programs that we have in the city that try to help stabilize our homeless population. Cambridge Housing Authority has now added a component, we’ll call them case workers of a sort, whose purpose is to work with people to help them remain housed. The second thing, I brought this in last term, we’ll see if it gains some momentum, is to have a place where our homeless population can spend the day. Right now, one complaint was that we have these folks in the Square and how horrible it is, and I always got to say to myself,

“Yeah, but there but for the grace of god go I.” So if you keep it in that context, as opposed to sayinghomeless people are deviants, we don’t know what hard times they might have fallen on. You don’t know what set of circumstances has put someone in this position, so let’s not be so quick to judge, but quick to help. So last year we had a town hall, round-table kind of discussion on homelessness, and what kinds of things could we do, particularly with monies being rolled back, particularly whereas the state and the federal government are clearly out of the housing game, where programs are being underfunded or level-funded, what could we do? One of the things was, could we find a place where the homeless population could drop in, they could get services, maybe wash their clothes, take a shower, outside of what exists in the shelter community. So I’m hoping that that conversation will continue in the city council to see if there’s something that we could at least pilot, to see if it works.

 

SC: So you talked about the linkage fees, and those were just increased to $12 per square foot, so what effect will that have on affordable housing in the city?

DS: It’s going to have a huge effect because now we’ll have more money in the affordable housing trust to underwrite low and particularly moderate income housing, because middle income housing is harder to finance. There are programs that finance low-income housing. There’s not the same level of funding or support when it comes to middle and moderate, so we’ll have more dollars to put toward that.

We’ll be able to be a little bit more pro-active in terms of having more units. We’re looking at the ability for the city council, through the city manager, to find ways to take some of that affordable housing trust money and leverage to buy additional units into somebody’s developments, and then those units will be permanently affordable. So that’s something you could use that linkage money for. You could use it, certainly, for affordable housing. Being able to use it more so, or more aggressively, toward moderate income housing, and then further being able to purchase additional units to keep them permanently affordable.

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