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Cambridge Leaders Look to Biden Administration for Renewed Local Support in Growing Crises

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UPDATED: Jan. 20, 2021 at 5:40 p.m.

During a tumultuous four years under the administration of Donald Trump, local leaders have dealt with the fallout of how its policies trickled down into the lives of Cambridge residents. While Covid-19 and economic fallout raged nationally, the city’s top issues — small business erosion, food insecurity, and homelessness — have all been exacerbated.

Now, as President-elect Joe Biden is set to take office, he has proposed lengthy plans to tackle the nation’s crises. Looking ahead, Cambridge leaders said they have both hopes and demands for renewed local support under a Biden administration.

Under Trump, the Cambridge Community Foundation, a public charity that funds nonprofits around the city, transitioned to devoting its funding to combat the effects of the administration’s “regressive policies,” according to its president, Geeta K. Pradhan.

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She described an “environment of fear” over federal policies. While the local government recoiled, the CCF broadened funding streams to reach more residents hurt by Trump policies.

“Immigrants were too afraid to go to government for basic necessities and public benefits,” Pradhan said. “We should be actually lifting people up and pushing them up the economic ladder, [but] what we were doing was fighting to just keep them housed, fed, and safe.”

Harvard Kennedy School Professor David C. King, who chairs a teaching program for local government officials, dubbed the past four years an “anti-government atmosphere.”

King said distrust in government has gone so far as to inhibit its basic local functions. Without a change in administration, he added, the long-term damage to cities would have been “deeply problematic.”

King added that local leaders have deemphasized federal influence, and instead focused on “pragmatic,” on-the-ground measures as local budgets decayed without federal backing.

Cambridge Vice Mayor Alanna M. Mallon said in an interview that she ran for office “as a direct response” to Trump’s election. Her goal since, she said, has been to battle his platform and use the city's coffers to cover growing federal funding gaps, including programs for low-income residents and food-insecure families.

Now, as Biden is inaugurated Wednesday, Mallon said she hopes to “start playing offense again.”

‘Everybody just needs money’

With federal aid to local governments restricted by Trump administration policies, the city has had to stretch its budget to cover gaps in key areas, such as education and Covid-19 assistance.

Denise A. Jillson, director of the Harvard Square Business Association, said local businesses are deeply in debt despite some federal aid, and more than one in three Cambridge businesses have closed since March. She likened federal guidance to stumbling around in the dark.

“We need to figure out where the hell we are,” Jillson said. “What does the budget really look like?”

Cambridge was able to shift funding around to soften the blow of some of the federal funding cuts. The Cambridge Public School district allotted local dollars for student lunch programs altered by Education Secretary Betsy D. Devos, according to City Councilor Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80.

Nolan, who previously served on the Cambridge school board, described it as a “constant struggle,” with a “palpable sense of depression and despair.”

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Jeffrey B. Liebman, who chairs Harvard’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, said the Biden administration can step in, as the federal government can run deficits while local governments cannot.

The Senate, however, has blocked fiscal relief for cities, he said. Without a federal crutch, localities risk layoffs “at exactly the time when one needs to be ramping up unprecedented public health measures,” Liebman said.

City Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan put it more bluntly: “Money,” he said. “Everybody just needs money.”

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Many Cambridge public officials are imploring the incoming Biden administration for relief funding. As Biden’s Covid-19 recovery plan includes a commitment to funding shortfalls in municipalities and a “comeback package for Main Street,” cities could get the assistance they need.

Theodora M. “Theo” Skeadas ’12, who directs Cambridge Local First, a network of hundreds of small businesses, said relief loans handed down from the federal government have helped many, she said, but still excluded many business owners in need.

“It’s not just that people lost their jobs, it’s that a piece of Cambridge was lost,” Skeadas said. “The lights blink out. It’s like a little star winking out of existence.”

Cambridge received a record number of applications for small business relief grants, according to Skeadas. She said she hopes Biden will be able to support “existing networks” that “need more resources.”

Jillson added that federal money can save businesses but argued for caution. She specifically referenced stimulus checks recently doled out under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

“They can’t just start printing money and handing it out without understanding the consequences,” Jillson said.

In recent national unemployment figures, women were affected the most. Women accounted for 100 percent of all 140,000 net jobs lost in December. Cambridge Women’s Commission Director Kimberly P. Sansoucy said she hopes Biden can revitalize a national women’s commission, a short-lived advisory council under President John F. Kennedy ’40.

Sansoucy said the Biden administration must retrain women following this “catastrophic” job loss, as well as bolster commitments to childcare.

“Childcare is as deep and as important infrastructure in our country as our bridges and roads,” she said.

‘A Solvable Problem’

Beyond local funding, many Cambridge leaders demanded strong and speedy federal guidance on the ongoing Covid-19 vaccine rollout. The U.S. missed the Centers for Disease Control’s goal of 20 million shots by the end of 2020 by nearly half. As of mid-January, only about 0.5 percent of Americans have received the two shots required for a full immunization.

Zondervan criticized the lack of federal guidance for vaccine distribution in cities and said that the responsibility should not lie with local governments.

“The one thing we can’t do is magically have vaccine doses appear in our city,” he said. “We are dependent on the federal government to take care of that.”

City Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler said a “unified national voice” on vaccine rollout can help coordinate Cambridge’s local public health response. Meanwhile, his colleague Councilor Marc C. McGovern said he wants to see vaccination locations at Cambridge Common and “every single big public park.”

Jillson added that she sees the vaccine as the primary means of restoring consumer confidence and revitalizing Harvard Square.

According to Mallon, the city is currently vaccinating about 1,000 first responders and will then move to vaccinate at-risk groups and essential workers. The population of Cambridge is nearly 120,000.

Biden has committed to a $25 billion vaccine rollout once he takes office, though local leaders are still concerned. Without strong federal assistance, Nolan said she worries about the vaccination effort in the city.

“I don’t think we’re up to the task as much if we don't have some pretty clear direction and help from the federal government,” she said.

Cambridge Public Schools plan to offer some in-person learning for the more than 6,000 students in the spring semester. Superintendent Kenneth N. Salim said he is “very excited” for Massachusetts’ vaccine rollout, which prioritizes school staff, who are included in the essential workers tier of vaccine recipients.

Salim said the federal government has not been “particularly supportive” of public schools. Despite some CARES Act grants, the CPS budget relies mainly on the Cambridge city budget. He said he looks forward to a Department of Education under Biden’s nominee Miguel A. Cardona, who, unlike DeVos, has worked in public schools his entire career.

Salim added that with pandemic concerns and students learning mostly virtually, standardized tests — those often proctored en masse — should be put on hold.

More than 40 percent of CPS students are in the free or reduced-price lunch program. Mallon said that she would like Biden to appoint a “food insecurity czar,” though she is doubtful.

“Fourteen percent of Cambridge residents don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Mallon said. “It’s a solvable problem. We just do not have the political will.”

The Need for A ‘National Strategy’

The Covid-19 pandemic has also amplified the severity of the housing crisis in the U.S., and Cambridge is no exception. A shortage of affordable housing supply, outdated living conditions, and unequal access to existing units leaves a sober outlook for many on the state of local and federal housing policies.

Allan E. Sadun, the co-chair of volunteer housing advocacy group A Better Cambridge, said the federal funds allocated to affordable, low-income public housing are dwindling. In the past, a combination of low-income housing tax credits and vouchers were the main avenues through which the federal government has supported housing, but the funding has “dried up over time,” he said.

In addition, the Department of Housing and Urban Development discontinued public housing programs due to the Faircloth Amendment, leaving cities and states to fund affordable housing on their own, according to Sadun.

“The federal government has set the stage for the crisis that [A Better Cambridge] is working in,” he said.

Biden has already promised a $640 billion investment in housing over the next decade, which includes a $100 billion Affordable Housing Fund, according to his campaign website. Deron Lovaas, co-director of Energy Efficiency for All — a National Resources Defense Council initiative — called this plan “ambitious,” “visionary,” and “badly needed.”

Christopher E. Herbert, director for the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, said though Biden’s plans for a universal voucher program may be costly and difficult to pass in Congress, it would have a “substantial and significant difference.” Herbert also said universal voucher programs could incur an “enormous” increase in demand for housing, which could lead to greater inflation and rents in markets where housing supply is tight. He added, however, that the Biden plan also includes financial assistance for affordable housing tenants, which could help spur supply.

In Cambridge, the housing crisis has remained unchanged over the last few years. In 2019, Cambridge Continuum of Care tallied 555 people experiencing homelessness in the city, a level consistent in the years since at least 2014. But building more affordable housing to reduce these numbers has proven difficult, Sadun said.

“In Cambridge, it is very expensive to find sites that are suitable to buy land on,” he said, noting that a lengthy permitting process has also been a obstacle, but this has been partially resolved by the Affordable Housing Overlay passed in October.

McGovern also emphasized the need for more affordable housing units and vouchers, calling for a “national strategy” to address these issues.

“We have to stop looking at this as Cambridge’s homelessness problem because homelessness is a national problem, and just even more locally, it’s a regional problem,” he said. “Cambridge is not going to solve homelessness.”

James R. Stewart, director of the First Church Homeless Shelter, said he hopes that the housing crisis will be addressed by the Biden administration “on a priority basis” instead of being “traded off.”

“There’s really been no significant initiative that would help homeless people off the street or out of shelters into stable situations since the end of the Carter administration,” Stewart said. “We are not able to respond to all the need out there.”

Many local leaders also argued the housing crisis is interconnected with issues of infrastructure, social justice, climate change, and inequality, which they said requires a multi-pronged approach in Biden’s plan.

Herbert, Lovaas, and Sadun all said they want to see the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule reinstated. The provision mandates federal agencies and federal funding recipients to ameliorate historical inequities of “segregation, discrimination, and disinvestment” in housing policy, according to the National Housing Law Project’s website. Herbert added that he believes Biden’s approach to housing reflects this goal.

“The Biden housing plan has a number of aspects of it that would be intended to make the policies race-conscious,” Herbert said. “One of them would be to step up Fair Housing enforcement to address any explicit or implicit discriminatory practice in the housing market.”

Lovaas also mentioned how “legislative opportunities” can incorporate anti-discrimination practices, transportation improvement, infrastructure investments, and climate legislation such as weatherization and green retrofits in housing. He added that federal agencies have been “mismanaged and misled” during the Trump administration and hopes to see the new administration “resurrect interagency initiatives” that address these opportunities.

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Many city officials said they hope Biden will tackle the climate crisis, which went largely unaddressed in Trump’s term. Cambridge recently produced a 120-page Climate Protection Plan focused on minimizing greenhouse gas emissions across multiple city departments.

Meanwhile, the state legislature passed a comprehensive 2020 climate bill in the same vein. State Senator Sal N. DiDomenico said Massachusetts had to “pick up the slack” in the absence of a federal climate program.

Nolan said she is “thrilled” to move forward with local climate plans and have the federal government “take the lead.” Zondervan, however, said he thinks Cambridge is much more reliant on Beacon Hill than Capitol Hill in terms of climate action.

Though the past four years have tested Cambridge and its institutions, local leaders are hopeful for the next four. With an incoming Democratic administration and majority in Congress, Sobrinho-Wheeler said the new term is a “realm of possibility,” but added that local leaders need to remain vigilant.

“There’s still lots of work to be done,” he said.

CORRECTION: Jan. 20, 2021

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Geeta K. Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, described an “environment of fear” over local budget cuts mandated by the federal government. In fact, the "environment of fear" was over the federal policies themselves.

—Staff writer Carrie Hsu can be reached at carrie.hsu@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at simon.levien@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.

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