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State Senate candidates speak at Chinatown forum

Affordable housing, immigrant issues take center stage in coalition-run forum

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
State Senate candidates speak at Chinatown forum
First Suffolk and Middlesex District Senate seat candidates Lydia Edwards, Joseph Boncore, Paul Rogers, Diana Hwang, Jay Livingstone and Steven Morabito share the stage at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

A new coalition of Boston Asian-American organizations hosted a forum March 16 to introduce candidates in the First Suffolk and Middlesex State Senate race to a Chinatown audience.

Less than a month remains before the April 12 primary election that will determine which one of seven Democratic hopefuls will advance to the May 8 special election necessitated by the recent resignation of Sen. Anthony Petruccelli. The district covers a diverse set of towns and neighborhoods, including part of Cambridge, East Boston, Revere and Winthrop, the North End, Beacon Hill, Bay Village and Chinatown. Chinatown is new to the district, having moved from the First Suffolk district represented by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz in the state’s 2011 redistricting plan.

Last week’s forum at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School (JQES) was organized by the Asian and Pacific Islanders Civic Action Network, known as APIs CAN! Co-sponsors included Asian American Civic Association, Asian Community Development Corporation, Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC), the Chinatown Resident Association, the Chinese Progressive Association, Chinese Progressive Political Action, MassVOTE and South Cove Community Health Center. Simultaneous translation was offered in Mandarin and Cantonese, and many attendees used it.

Suzanne Lee, former Quincy School principal, two-time city council candidate and longtime Chinatown community leader mingled with residents and organizers outside the auditorium before the forum.

Lee said she’d be listening for how accessible candidates will be to Chinatown constituents.

“If they’re going to represent our voice, I want to know how they’re going to connect with voters,” she said.

Six candidates show

Participating candidates were Joseph Boncore; Lydia Edwards; Diana Hwang; Jay Livingstone; Steven Morabito; and Paul Rogers. A seventh candidate, former Revere Mayor Dan Rizzo, was not present. The moderator was Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass-Boston.

In their self-introductions and in response to a question on addressing language barriers for immigrant residents accessing government services, several candidates brought up their own immigrant ties.

Livingstone, currently a state representative for the 8th Suffolk District covering Beacon Hill, Back Bay, West End and parts of Cambridge, said he is the grandson of immigrants and that he has worked on legislation to increase cultural competence in the health care system. Edwards emphasized her work as a Greater Boston Legal Services attorney representing immigrant workers, many of whom do not speak English and face difficulties in the court system. She said if elected, she would support additional funding for English Language Learner programs in schools.

Boncore, an attorney and chair of Winthrop Housing Authority, said he sees immigrants daily and would seek increased funding for interpretation services and incentives for police and firefighters to take language classes. Morabito, a Revere city councilor, is the son of Italian immigrants and has served constituents who speak Khmer, Vietnamese and Arabic. Rogers, an East Boston small business owner, said he was both the son and husband of non-native English speakers. Hwang spoke of her parents, who emigrated from Taiwan 30 years ago and often felt isolated in the U.S., and of her experience starting a political leadership organization for Asian American women.

“Every issue is an immigrant issue,” said Hwang. “It’s not just about language access, and the daily struggle when we don’t speak the language, but about cultural competency, so when we go get our health care or talk about personal issues like domestic violence, there are people who understand the cultural implications.”

Affordable housing

The rapidly shrinking supply of affordable housing in Chinatown is clearly a pressing issue, and was the topic of a pair of related questions.

Candidates were asked what they would do to keep tenants in their homes in the face of evictions by private landlords and expiring subsidies in some affordable developments such as nearby Quincy Towers.

The second housing question cited “market rents soaring to over $3,000/month and the displacement of long-time residents, many of whom earn less than $20,000 per year,” and asked the candidates what they would do create a larger supply of affordable housing in Chinatown.

Few specific solutions emerged, though all candidates expressed concern for Chinatown’s housing plight. Livingstone, who currently sits on the Joint Committee for Housing, said he has been “standing up to developers” in his three years in the legislature. He supports several housing-related bills, including one that allows condemned properties to be turned over to trade union apprentice programs to renovate into affordable housing. He said he has made sure that required affordable units are built onsite in new residential developments in his district. Edwards would push grassroots control of development plans and “pathways to ownership,” including incentives for landlords to sell units to tenants. Edwards and Hwang both mentioned community land trusts, and Hwang said she supports “just cause” eviction protections to curb displacement of renters.

Edwards and Hwang both mentioned their support for the proposed Fair Share Amendment or “millionaire tax” that would increase taxes on income over $1 million in order to fund education and transportation, with Edwards noting that she worked to collect signatures for the amendment.

Candidate consensus

By and large, the all-Democrat panel seemed to be sympathetic to the community issues and had little room to differentiate themselves, though Livingstone was able to cite work he has done already as a lawmaker, and Hwang delivered some words in Chinese and cited her experience in mentoring Asian American women. The audience expressed no notable positive or negative reactions during the session.

After the forum, Angie Liou, acting executive director of the Asian Community Development Corporation, said she was pleased with the turnout, which she estimated at nearly 200 people. She said the co-sponsoring organizations helped formulate questions to highlight issues of vital importance to Chinatown.

“In Chinatown, housing is a burning issue,” Liou said. “There are certain things the city can do, but the state also has great influence over housing policy. Not only in providing funding for building and preserving affordable housing, but also having control over state-owned excess land that they could put towards helping solve the housing crisis.”

The winner of the April 12 Democratic primary will face Republican Donald Willyard in the final election on May 10.