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Council to take on tough issues in 2018 hearings

Edwards calls for review of Hub housing speculation

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Council to take on tough issues in 2018 hearings
City Councilor Lydia Edwards (Photo: Banner photo)

Newly-elected City Councilor Lydia Edwards last week called for a hearing to investigate ways the city can tame its speculative housing market, delivering a blistering critique of the city’s free-market approach to solving its housing crisis.

“We are often told that we need to build more. Market forces and the age-old rule of supply and demand will be able to house our poor, working class and middle class,” Edwards said in her first speech from the floor of the council’s Iannella Chamber. “Let me be clear, I do not believe we can build our way out of this housing crisis and I am a skeptic of trickle-down housing policies.”

Edwards’ hearing order, along with other moves by her fellow councilors, promise to bring a remarkable range of debate on city policy in the coming months. Among the more controversial: a hearing order from At-Large Councilor Annissa Essaibi George to explore a return to an elected school committee; a hearing order from At-Large Councilor Ayanna Pressley and Essaibi George to take legal action against pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid crisis; and an order from Council President Andrea Campbell to review the preliminary findings of the Boston Police Department’s body-worn camera study.

The flurry of hearing orders — aimed at some of the weightier issues facing the city and Mayor Martin Walsh — gives some indication that the six women on the 13-member City Council will not shy away from controversy.

“This is actually a disruptive moment in the best possible way,” said Pressley after the meeting. “I’m very excited about the direction of the council.”

Pressley, who has served four terms on the council, also has re-filed with Councilor Josh Zakim a hearing order to review the sexual harassment policy of the Boston City Council.

Flexing Council muscle

Under Boston’s strong-mayor system of government, the councilors’ power lies mainly in their ability to create new laws for the city and approve or reject the city budget. The mayor has veto power, and mayors in past years have wielded considerable power over the council. Former Mayor Thomas Menino often required councilors to support his pick for council president and approve his budget in exchange for his support in their election campaigns.

While Walsh does not have the same reputation for exerting control over the council, he has lent the support of his political machine and fundraising apparatus to some council candidates.

But his intervention backfired in Edwards’ District 1, which includes parts of the North End and all of Charlestown and East Boston. There, Walsh threw his support behind Edwards’ opponent Stephen Passacantilli, allowing the former city worker to use the mayor’s image with the words “I’m with Stephen,” on campaign literature and making robo-calls on his behalf.

Edwards’ political independence was readily apparent in her reference to “trickle-down housing policies” — a not-so-subtle refutation of the Walsh administration’s contention that it can fight the crisis of housing unaffordability and displacement through production of more residential units. Instead, Edwards argued, developers have built luxury units that attract higher-income buyers and speculators but do little to satisfy the needs of middle-income and working-class families.

“We need a direct and equally aggressive mindset for creating housing for our families,” she argued in her council speech. “We need real numbers and measurements that reflect the average income of Bostonians and are not based on the current area median income. We need targeted, frank discussions with developers. We need to set an investment standard in Boston. We need to play defense and protect our housing stock like it is one of the most precious resources we have.”

School governance

Essaibi George’s push for a discussion on an elected school committee represents another challenge to mayoral hegemony, which extends to Walsh’s control over school policy. Mayors have appointed school committee members since the elected body was abolished in 1991 by home rule petition. But interest in returning to an elected board spiked in December, after parents butted heads with BPS officials and the mayor over an abruptly-announced proposal to shift school start times, with some elementary schools facing new start times as early as 7:15 a.m.

Essaibi George says she would like the public to consider options including an all-elected board or a hybrid elected-appointed board.

“This is really a question about how families can best engage with the people who set policy that impacts their children’s education,” she said, speaking during the council meeting. “I want to give parents, families, students, education professionals, BPS and the administration the opportunity to engage in a productive dialogue with each other.”

Essaibi George also issued a hearing order on the school department’s ongoing efforts to change grade configurations in the BPS system.

Campbell and Essaibi George issued an order for a hearing on the city’s plans to reopen the Long Island Bridge, which Walsh closed in 2014, forcing the relocation of the bulk of the city’s homeless shelters and drug treatment facilities.

Other matters

Other new hearing orders covered more pedestrian city matters, including an order from Councilor Frank Baker on the regulation of the taxi industry, transportation network companies and self-driving vehicles, an order from at-large Councilor Michael Flaherty and Councilor Zakim on health care provider parking permits in the city of Boston and an order from Councilor Wu to look at the possibility of adding a fee to resident permit parking stickers. Wu’s resident permit parking idea generated some buzz in the local media, including an article and opinion piece in the Boston Herald and segments on local broadcast media and radio, as has Essaibi-George’s order on the School Committee. The media so far has been largely silent on Edwards’ order on housing speculation, but with her laser-focus on issues of displacement and inequality in Boston, the first-term councilor is challenging the narrative of the Walsh administration on its efforts to satisfy the growing demand for housing in Boston.

Pressley says the woman councilors have both an obligation and the means to shake up the status quo in Boston.

“There’s a unique opportunity and responsibility for us to lead,” she said. “We’re being innovative.”