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Council Candidate Campaigns on Affordable Housing

By Frank Dabek

James Williamson is running for Cambridge City Council on a progressive platform dedicated to affordable housing and maintaining the character of Cambridge, especially the Central Square area.

Williamson has a number of connections to the MIT community. He stressed his involvement in efforts to aid Lori Berenson, a former MIT student who is currently serving a life sentence in Peru. Berenson was convicted of terrorism charges by a military tribunal but has always maintained her innocence.

Williamson worked with Martin Diskin, a professor of Anthropolgy at MIT who passed away in 1997 and who taught Berenson, and Professor of Political Science Joshua Cohen to organize visits of Berenson’s parents to the Institute and to form a base of support at MIT for Berenson.

As a councilor he could more effectively “lead and organize a national effort to finally get Lori out of prison in Peru” and hopes to invite MIT President Charles M. Vest to be part of a contingent to visit Peru on behalf of Berenson.

Improving City/Institute relations

Williamson also acknowledged the “tremendous impacts” that MIT and Harvard University have on Cambridge. He pointed out that Harvard’s in lieu of tax agreement expires soon and called for a “major honest, fair, sensible debate about what the responsibilities of the universities to Cambridge ought to be.” The approximately $1.4 million paid by the property tax exempt MIT and Harvard to the city is “chump change,” he said.

While Williamson applauded MIT’s commitment to provide more housing for students he called on the Institute to “make some commitment to [housing] staff” and faculty to further reduce pressures on Cambridge’s housing market. MIT should “mitigate its effect on the community they are an extremely important part of.”

Of the planned Stata Center, Williamson said, “If MIT can afford zillions of dollars to build a building by the world’s most prestigious architect” they can “do better in providing housing for staff.”

Williamson is an advocate of rent control but focuses his attention on extending the group of people eligible for public assistance with housing. The city should “address low-moderate to moderate income people” who are currently ineligible for assistance and consequently not able to live in Cambridge.

Other issues important to students

Williamson has been a part of the “save Central Square” movement which is fighting new development in the area. The group has delayed the construction of a Gap store through court action, he said.

If students want a “fun, interesting, affordable place to be part of in Central Square” with clubs, arts, dance, and theater, they “want to support someone like me,” he said. The fight for the area is at a “crucial moment.”

Williamson’s safety proposals include improving pedestrian safety on Memorial Drive in addition to safety for students throughout Cambridge. There is a balance to be found between the safety concerns of students and those of other residents, he said -- “some people rob you with a six-shooter, some with a fountain pen.”

Williamson also acknowledged the need for late night transport. He proposed a system of “dollar cabs” which would run along Mass. Ave. from the river to Harvard Square for the flat rate of a dollar per rider after hours.