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District 1 candidates face off in East Boston forum

Development, affordable housing, crime, traffic among issues discussed

Karen Morales
District 1 candidates face off in East Boston forum
(left-right) Lydia Edwards, Margaret Farmer and Stephen Passacantilli are facing off in the Sept. 26 preliminary.

Candidates for the District 1 Boston City Council seat participated in a public forum in East Boston last week to answer constituents’ questions about where they stand on local issues. Currently running for the seat are Margaret Farmer, Lydia Edwards and Stephen Passacantilli.

The candidates discussed a wide range of topics, including climate change preparation, police body cameras, bicycling, affordable housing, gang violence and public education. The event was moderated by Marcela Garcia of the Boston Globe.

Stephen Passacantilli makes a point during the East Boston forum.

Cimate preparedness

In light of Hurricane Harvey and the extreme flooding that occurred in Texas, local residents asked each candidate how they would protect East Boston, a neighborhood abutting the Boston Harbor, from experiencing the same fate. All three candidates agreed that climate change could increase dangerous weather situations in East Boston. Passacantilli said that the city is already moving in the right direction with its current Climate Action Plan.

Farmer and Edwards said that there needs to be more pressure on developers and architects to include design measures that would protect buildings from possible flooding.

“The situation in Houston is a warning sign for us. It is a very real possibility,” said Edwards.

Housing

Many of the residents of District 1, which incudes East Boston, Charlestown and the North End, asked the candidates to talk about affordable housing, a growing concern in a rapidly developing area like East Boston. When asked how they would increase affordable housing options and what they think affordable means, Edwards said, “This issue sets the stage on how our platforms differ from one another.”

Edwards said she would make sure Boston continues to have a middle class. To do this, she would have neighborhood associations support residents, reduce taxes to incentivize small property ownership, and increase the minimum percentage of affordable units in new developments.

Farmer emphasized that she would apply more pressure on local developers, and Passacantilli related his own family’s struggle with making ends meet as tenants in the North End, noting that senior citizens are even more threatened by rising housing costs because they survive on a fixed income.

On a related topic, constituents asked how the candidates would deal with the growing number of Airbnb hosts in the area. Farmer said that Airbnb units are one of the reasons why rental properties are high in Boston, and that they should be regulated and taxed.

“They are basically hotels. The city wants to use them to attract more luxury development,” she said.

“I wish Airbnb would go away,” said Passacantilli. The director of operations for the Boston Transportation Department said he sees Airbnb units in the North End all the time, and doesn’t like that he doesn’t know who comes and goes in his neighborhood, especially as a father of young children.

“Airbnb dictates the market but also makes the neighborhood less of a community,” he said.

Edwards had a more balanced view on the issue, although not entirely forgiving of Airbnb. She said she believes the online platform for short-term lease and rental is connected to the absentee landlord issue in the city, with new units being built but not occupied. Landlords simply own them, like housing stock.

“It’s become the new Wall Street, the new speculative market, which also includes Airbnb units,” she said. “It’s gotten to the point where the most valuable thing to own in Boston is an empty building.”

However, Edwards said she does think it’s acceptable if people already occupying their apartment or house use Airbnb as side income.

“A lot of people need the extra income to support themselves,” said Edwards. “We need a balanced approach. I don’t want to attack Airbnb or we’ll miss the bigger picture.”

Parking and traffic

The city council hopefuls also addressed Massport’s proposed plan to add 5,000 more parking spaces on top of existing parking garages at Logan Airport. Farmer said she is against it and believes the city should exhaust all other options first, like water transportation or Silver Line bus expansion to the airport. She added that the airport’s environmental impact and local air quality should be independently studied.

“I would like to see Massport as an environmental leader,” she said.

Edwards said she has concerns about the idea, and that “we should be more creative about its development and location.” Passacantilli voiced similar concerns about the possible location of the new parking spaces, which could increase traffic around East Boston.

All three candidates are in support of more residents bicycling as a way to decrease car traffic and pollution. Investing in more bicycle road tracks and bike safety education are issues all candidates agreed on.

Law enforcement

When asked whether the Boston Police Department should use body cameras, Passacantilli said that he would wait and see the results of the one-year pilot program first, before making any decisions.

Edwards said police officers should wear them but “that shouldn’t be the only goal.” She said she would also invest in community-building and gaining a deeper understanding into race relations.

“We need to diversify the police officers. Do they look like our community?” she said.

Farmer said police officers should wear body cameras because in high-pressure moments, the camera can act as the neutral third party. She also said police officers are retiring and the city is not replacing them fast enough. To combat this, Farmer suggested opening up the police exam more often and having retiring officers mentor new ones.

The discussion turned to race relations and how to combat gang violence. All the candidates believe in community policing and investing in more tools that would help BPD communicate and connect better with the communities they police.

Edwards emphasized free and accessible after-school activities as another important tool to keep kids busy. “Busy kids are safe kids,” she said.

Farmer said she would work to increase more teen jobs. “There were 9,000 applications for summer jobs this year, but only 3,000 teens got them,” she said. “What did the other 6,000 teens do with their summer?”

Schools and colleges

All the candidates promised they would improve Boston Public Schools, with each emphasizing different solutions. Edwards said she would advocate for the city to enforce local college institutions to make payments in lieu of taxes, which are currently optional, to fund BPS. Under its current plan, called the Payment in Lieu of Tax program, the city requests that nonprofits with more than $15 million tax-exempt property give back to Boston in cash and community programming. These nonprofit institutions, especially colleges, don’t always pay the city the total amount requested.

“Especially since college students tend to fill up housing in neighborhoods because their schools can’t house them,” said Edwards.

She also said that it’s not fair that East Boston High School is measured with the same standards as Brookline High, despite Eastie High having a higher percentage of ELL students. In addition to better neighborhood schools, Edwards said she believes in more vocational training in partnership with local trade organizations, because not everyone can afford college and there should be other career options.

Farmer said she would advocate for more city funds to come to East Boston schools, including through the city’s BuildBPS program. New teachers should be mentored by retiring ones, she said.

Passacantilli stated that the current school lottery system is not ideal, and there should be better schools in every neighborhood. He would like to see a different school lunch vendor that would provide healthier lunches and more music and arts programs.

Donation disclosures

Finally, candidates were asked to be transparent on whether they received any donations from building developers in their campaigns. All three stated their campaign finances could be inspected in further detail on the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance website.

http://www.ocpf.us/

Edwards, an attorney, said that her former colleagues at the law firm Holland & Knight have donated to her campaign, but that 70 percent of her individual donors gave $100 or less.

Farmer said she received $100 from Marc Savatsky, a local developer who served on the Jeffries Point Neighborhood Association with her. In addition, she said she received two more donations from lawyers who represent developers in East Boston, but did not disclose the specific amount. Farmer stated that 75 percent of her donations are from people from the district.

Passacantilli said he has accepted donations from developers, but he didn’t have the specific names or amounts with him at the time. He stated that so far, he has raised $265,000 for his campaign.

Three candidates, three platforms

The forum was a chance for voters to hear the City Council candidates address specific issues that will affect their district and compare how their platforms differ from one another.

Edwards, who ran for State Senate last year, is counting on her previous record of advocacy and her willingness to look at an issue from all sides to stand out. Her campaign prioritizes accessible home ownership, improved transit options and combating underfunding of public education.

Passacantilli is hoping his current work in City Hall will instill faith in voters about his reliability and taxpayer accountability. His platform emphasizes strong family values, property tax relief for senior citizens and investment in rehabilitation programs, as someone who recovered from substance abuse himself.

Farmer, who has served as president of the Jeffries Point Neighborhood Association for five years, is a new player on the political scene. She runs on a platform of independence, and diverse issues such as alternative inner harbor ferry transportation, mental health support in public schools and environmental sustainability.

East Boston resident Kannan Thiruvengadam told the Banner he already knew who he wanted to vote for prior to the forum.

“I heard some pretty impressive things from others as well, but the one I was thinking about before I came here, actually gave even more impressive responses to some of the questions I’m concerned about,” he said.

Thiruvengadam said he was glad to hear other neighbors’ concerns that he might not have thought of.

“Bike lanes for example, I wasn’t thinking about that — but it’s important,” he said.

However, he hopes that moving forward, the candidates will speak more boldly and honestly.

“I do get the sense candidates say what they think people want to hear, “ he said.

The preliminary balloting takes place on Sept. 26, at which point the field in the District 1 race will be whittled down to two candidates who will face off in the Nov. 7 general election.