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Large Field Debating Development, Housing Issues

By Frank Dabek

Take a heaping cupful of progressive democrats, a pinch of Libertarians and a dash of Republicans; add a pint of affordable housing crisis and development concerns, stir in strained town-gown relations to taste and garnish with a rent control initiative. Knead the mixture into one of America’s most liberal towns -- the so-called “People’s Republic of Cambridge.” The result? The 1999 Cambridge City Council elections.

Two openings created by retiring councilors have motivated a large number of challengers to run (a total of 24 candidates are on the ballot) making for an interesting and diverse field. Erik C. Snowberg ’99, a current MIT student, adds a bit of additional drama for students by attempting to tap into the potentially powerful but traditionally apathetic student vote.

This year’s race has been dominated by the related issues of affordable housing and development in Cambridge. Students may not be interested in a long-term plan for Cambridge development but several candidates have discussed issues likely to be popular with students -- proposals have been made to extend the operating hours of the MBTA, move last call at bars later, and improve bike safety on Cambridge streets. The relationship between MIT and Cambridge is also an issue for debate in this campaign.

Rent control an area of debate

High occupancy rates and rapidly rising rents in the wake of the elimination of rent-control in 1995 have led many candidates to address the problem of providing housing for the working-class citizens of Cambridge.

A number of candidates have called for the return of rent control. One this issue’s loudest voices is David A. Hoicka ’77 who helped organize the Cambridge Citizens for Rent Equity to push a ballot initiative calling for the return of rent control. The initiative failed to make it on the ballot after a controversial ruling by the election commission that it did not receive enough signatures.

Perhaps an even larger group of candidates have placed the issue of rent control out of consideration as a political impracticality -- even if CCURE’s petition had been certified for the ballot, state law currently prohibits rent control. Many of these candidates have pressed for increased city spending on affordable housing and regulations encouraging the construction of additional affordable housing units.

Candidates also acknowledge that MIT has a role to play in the housing debate. Many citizens feel that MIT has added to the pressures of the housing market by failing to house students on campus -- students who cannot find Institute housing are forced into the Cambridge market and are often able to pay higher rents than residents. These students not only contribute to the crowding of the residence system but also to high rents.

Development in Cambridge

The other hot issue in this race is development in Cambridge. The city, and East Cambridge especially, has become increasingly commercialized in recent years. The movement of national chains into Cambridge often at the expense of local merchants is another point of concern for many residents.

On one side of the issue stand candidates such as James Williamson who has worked to halt development in both Harvard and Central Squares. Williamson was involved in the “Save Central Square” campaign which is battling the opening of a Gap at Mass. Ave and Prospect streets.

Most other candidates favor slowing or regulating the pace of development to maintain Cambridge’s residential, low-rise personality.

The issues of development and housing are, in many ways, related. The housing crisis and development fears are both by-products of Cambridge’s economic success in recent years. Limiting the development that brings new residents into an already crowded housing system is complicated by possibly jeopardizing this economic prosperity.

Town-gown relations

Of special interest to students is the relationship between MIT and the city of Cambridge. Many candidates see the wealthy but tax-exempt universities located in Cambridge as potential sources of income. MIT currently makes an in lieu of tax payment to Cambridge -- a new city council will have a chance to renegotiate that amount and several candidates have called for an increase in MIT’s payments.

Most candidates agreed that the students of MIT and Harvard were a resource to the city and that efforts should be made to integrate university communities with the surrounding city.

Other issues

A variety of issues other than rent control and housing have arisen in this year’s campaign: late night transportation, education, crime, quality of life issues, public works, and activism have all been addressed by candidates.

Several candidates have proposed a late night shuttle service that would likely be popular with college students; Helder Peixoto has suggested the construction of a concert shell at Magazine beach, and Williamson would use a council seat to fight for the freedom of former MIT student Lori Berenson. Late night transport and improved bike access are both part of Snowberg’s platform.

Regardless of Snowberg’s fate, student voter turnout may prove to be one of the most lasting legacies of this race. If traditionally apathetic students turn out in blocs, they have the power to reshape Cambridge politics.