DSA in Office: Interview with Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler

By Evan Fleischer

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

Evan Fleischer (EF): First things first: how long have you been on the Cambridge City Council, and how long is your term?

Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler (JSW): This is my first term on the Council. I was elected in November 2019 and started in January 2020, shortly before the pandemic started. The term is two years in Cambridge, so I’ll have to run for re-election again this November.

 EF: What are your committee assignments?

JSW: I’m the co-chair of the housing committee and I’m the chair of the transportation and public utilities committee.

 EF: And what have you learned so far in those roles?

JSW: It’s an interesting first year to be on the Council, given that so much of it has been during the pandemic. I think a lot of it is focused on emergency response, making sure people have the resources to stay in their homes, helping workers and local businesses respond to all the ways that life has changed during the pandemic. On top of that, I have been  trying to work on some medium and long-term policy things on housing, which is the number one issue for the vast majority of folks in Cambridge — how incredibly expensive it is to live here. I’ve worked on improving traffic and transit: Cambridge and Boston have among the worst traffic in the country. We see pedestrian and bicyclist deaths every single year. If we take a step back and just imagine someone trying to get around, we can see the challenge: what does it mean when someone is trying to get to work or the doctor and they also have to think about traffic or something happening on the T? I’ve been trying to deal with some of those issues in the middle of everything going on with the pandemic as well.

EF: So how do you break those things down into actionable units? How does that translate into a calendar?

 JSW: There are pieces of these issues  that the city can do on our own and then there are pieces that need action from the state or the federal level. So I think part of it is delineating what we can do ourselves and how fast we can do it, which is why we need to partner with other cities.

The bike lane ordinance, which I introduced this year and passed a couple of months ago, is a good example of what we can do on our own to create 20-plus miles of protected bike lanes over the next six years in Cambridge. One of the things the city has a lot of control over on our own is land use — what our streets look like, how safe they are, how much space we allocate for parking versus people is something we have control over, so that was a priority of mine we were able to get done. 

One of my big goals is fare-free public transit. That’s something the city could creatively do on our own by funding MBTA passes, which is something I’ve advocated for. There are limits to this though also: the MBTA system is controlled by the state government — that’s where the board is appointed — and so to really make public transit free for all, we have to work with other cities and also replace the Governor and get a MBTA board that’s more responsive to public transit riders, which I think is something we can do in the near future.

EF: What questions are you still asking yourself about this position? Not only in terms of what you can and can’t do, but I also suppose in terms of bits of power analysis that surprise you?

JSW: I think the two big ones in Cambridge are state preemption and the city manager system, which Cambridge currently has. State preemption is where the state passes laws that then take things out of the control of cities. A big one is rent control — Cambridge had rent control up until 1994. There were a lot more people who could afford to live here then, until there was a state ballot referendum that banned it. The legislature passed laws that don’t just prohibit rent control, but also a lot of other things that folks would like to do in Cambridge like just cause eviction and tenant opportunity to purchase. So that’s a big piece of it. 

The other piece is things we could do on our own in Cambridge, like municipal broadband. That would be a public alternative to Comcast, which basically has a monopoly right now in Cambridge. The thing holding that back right now is mainly our current system of government, which has an unelected City Manager instead of an elected mayor.

All of the day-to-day power of running government is managed by the City Manager, who’s the chief executive of Cambridge. The Manager appoints all the department heads, city commissions, and the City Council right now doesn’t have to confirm appointments. The Manager also proposes the budget. So the City Council can reduce expenditures but it can’t increase anything in departments and it can’t add a new line item for, say, an office of housing stability, which is something I’ve really been pushing for in Cambridge. The people who like the current city manager system say it’s good because it insulates the Manager from political pressure, but what it actually does is ensure that elections don’t matter in terms of who the Manager is just as long as they have a good relationship with five people on the City Council. Realizing all the ways this system stops and slows things down has been really key to my understanding of government in Cambridge. It’s led me to start thinking about how we can change that with charter reform and charter change. That’s now a real goal of mine.

There are still issues with an elected mayor system, but most people in Somerville or Boston — cities with an elected mayor — know who the mayor is and if they feel like they’re not satisfied with the way the city is heading, they’ll vote that person out at the next election. Or, at least, they have the ability to. They don’t have that option in Cambridge. They don’t have the option to vote out the City Manager. And they don’t even really have the option to make that decision indirectly, because it’s often unclear at election time who supports the City Manager and who doesn’t. That really dilutes the power of people. You can vote for City Council — that person will have power over zoning changes and other things that make City Council offices important — but in terms of who the chief executive is, the office that manages a $700 million budget and a staff with hundreds of people — most residents of Cambridge have no say in that.

This is the  reason why we don’t have municipal broadband, which the vast majority of individuals — councillors, too — say they’re for. They’re just not willing to fire the City Manager over it.

We just had a Cambridge resident survey that’s done bi-annually that asks people what they think the biggest issues are in Cambridge, what they’re satisfied or unsatisfied about, and every time the city does the survey, affordable housing is far and away the biggest issue. This year, in the middle of a pandemic, still twice as many people said affordable housing was a greater concern to them than the pandemic: 83% of people said they weren’t satisfied with how the city was handling affordable housing.

 That makes me think if the people of Cambridge had a say over who was chief executive of their city, then maybe we would have a different chief executive.

Cambridge hasn’t reviewed its charter in 80 years, and so there’s never even been a chance to re-evaluate the system formally. And this whole time, the City Manager has never been a woman, it’s never been a person of color. It’s really striking — given the diversity and progressiveness of Cambridge — that the city doesn’t reflect itself or the way it’s managed on a day-to-day basis.

EF: What would it take on a practical level to change the charter?

JSW: There’s a couple of different ways for cities to change their charter. The easiest way is for a majority of councilors to vote on a change. The City Council would discuss it, and if 5 out of 9 councilors voted for a change, you would then go to a ballot referendum, and the majority of voters in Cambridge would have to approve it.

Boston is doing this right now about a budget amendment — Councilor Lydia Edwards has put forward an amendment that would allow the Council not just to reduce the budget, which is the power that the City Council has right now both in Cambridge and in Boston — but they could actually increase parts of the budget, as long as the overall number didn’t change. So they can, say, reduce parts of the police budget and increase the affordable housing budget, which is something the Council in Cambridge can’t do. We could decrease the housing budget. We could decrease the police department budget, but we can’t increase any department budget or create new line items, and so that change would be huge in Boston. It would be huge in Cambridge. And if there were five councilors here in Cambridge who supported it, it could go to the ballot. Same thing with an elected mayor. We could change the city manager system, have an elected mayor, give the Council more power over having confirmed department heads, commission appointments (which is what a lot of other cities have); give the Council the power to hire the City Solicitor, which is what cities like Malden have — those kinds of changes would give power not just back to the Council, but back to residents as well. These are things the Council could do in a relatively short timeline — maybe 1-2 years. 

 EF: Just to pivot back to housing for a second, I’m wondering — beyond community land trusts or the opportunity to purchase, what is there that can ensure that the overall process of establishing and maintaining affordable housing is strong and rigorous when so many of the different processes by which affordable housing is created are so open to easy capture by moneyed interests?

JSW: There’s a lot of different pieces. And I think that what makes housing challenging as a topic is that I don’t think it’s any one thing. We need to invest a lot more money in public housing. We need community land trusts. We need stronger tenant protections. We need rent control. We need tenants’ right to purchase. We need condo conversion, which is one of the things I’m working on right now, a local ordinance so that if your landlord wants to turn the apartment that you rent into condos which will then sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars each, that you don’t just get evicted automatically; you have rights about how long to stay in there, what your landlord has to pay you if you have to relocate, and you have the option to buy that condo, if you can work together with folks to do it. This is also how a tenant right to purchase would play a huge role: if your landlord is going to sell your building, it would give you and the other tenants an opportunity to buy that building, and if you couldn’t afford to — because a lot of folks just don’t have that kind of money overnight — you could donate that right to a non-profit or an affordable housing organization. You could buy it and permanently de-commodify it. Take it off the market and make it permanently affordable.

There’s a lot of different pieces, and I think the issue that ties back to the corporate capture— it’s why the state government preempts a lot of these things. There was a bill that was going to include a tenant right to purchase that cities could pass ourselves. The legislature had managed to pass it, but the Governor vetoed it. 

There is also the issue of time and money: who are the people who show up to Council meetings, who follow it closely, and who have the money and time to hire a real estate lawyer? They are often the developers and large property owners in the city. They’re the people with the time and the resources to shape these issues. And if you’re a working person in Cambridge or any other city in the Boston area, you’re not able to follow municipal or state government that closely. So it’s a power imbalance in a lot of different aspects.

EF: Let’s take a step back for a moment and give folks who may come to this site in the future an answer to the question of: Why the labor movement? Why the labor movement now? And why is important to someone like yourself, who’s working at the municipal level?

JSW: In the biggest sense, the labor movement is about democracy in the economy. Unless you are in a workplace that has a union and just-cause protections, your employer can often fire you at any time. So many folks work on an at-will basis.

In terms of how your company makes decisions, what rights you and your fellow employees have — so much of that is out of workers’ hands right now. It’s about having that same democratic power over the economy that we expect from our government. And this power shapes of a lot of the issues that we’ve been talking about — in terms of housing, transit, the environment;  if unions have power, if working people have power, then that translates not just in the confines of the workplace but it translates into how we’re making decisions as a society and as an economy, ensuring that workers have an equal voice to corporations and CEOs.

EF: So when someone in the workforce approaches you, they will find someone willing to put these values into action.

JSW: I hope so! I mean — my door’s always open. My phone number and e-mail are on the Council website. I think a key example is contracted workers at Harvard right now, custodial workers who organize with SEIU 32BJ. Harvard, which has a $40 billion plus endowment, is not granting layoff protections to their contracted workers. So a lot of custodians who normally draw salaries from Harvard are at risk of losing their jobs because there’s not as many students on campus. There’s not as many faculty on campus right now. Harvard has $40 billion-plus in its endowment. They could afford to keep their workers on. They are just threatening to choose not to. So when SEIU workers contacted me, I wrote to the university president. I’ve showed up three or four times. Most times I’m the only city councilor from Cambridge there in Harvard Yard standing with folks. It’s a gesture in some cases, but it translates. It helps elevate the struggle. 

Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler can be contacted at jsobrinhowheeler@cambridgema.gov or 617-349-4280 (work.) You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @VoteJivan and visit his website at https://www.votejivan.com/.

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