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At-large candidates discuss housing issues at Right to the City forum

Alexa Gagosz
At-large candidates discuss housing issues at Right to the City forum
At-large Councilor Annissa Essaibi George addresses the audience at a Right to the City council forum. PHOTO: ALEXA GAGOSZ

Alma Chisholm sat alone in the middle of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center’s hall during the last 15 minutes of bustle before the “grassroots solidarity” at-large city council candidate forum began on Wednesday night.

With less than four weeks left before Election Day, eight at-large candidates look to be residents’ top picks to either remain in their positions on the City Council or take over as  new members. Chisholm, a Dorchester native and registered Democrat, said she was still undecided on who even her top pick was going to be on Nov. 5.

“I didn’t vote in the preliminary election this year,” said Chisholm, who was looking forward to hearing what the candidates had to say about rent control. “But I never miss the city councilor general election.”

Chisholm faced the threat of displacement in 2012 when her landlord failed to mention that the house she had just started renting was in foreclosure. She was able to stay in her home at an affordable price after the house was purchased by the nonprofit Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure (COHF) and put into a land trust. Now, she said, her vote lies with those who discuss anti-displacement measures and how city jobs will be given to city residents.

“Someone stood up for me and now I feel like I’m paying it forward,” said Chisholm, who now volunteers with City Life/Vida Urbana, a housing justice organization.

Seven of the eight at-large candidates participated in the forum, organized by Right to the City Boston, with incumbent Althea Garrison declining to show, according to moderator Rev. Mariama White-Hammond. Forum participants were seated in the order in which they will appear on the ballot: Councilor Michael Flaherty, Alejandra St. Guillen, Councilor Michelle Wu, Julia Mejia, Erin Murphy, David Halbert and Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George. (Garrison will appear sixth on the ballot.)

Rent control and public land

Of the seven candidates at the forum, two showed no support for rent control. Several voiced support for abolishing or changing the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

“[Rent control] becomes a great talking point but creates a distraction from our work,” said Essaibi-George, and explained that she believes that it creates low vacancy rates, big businesses are able to work around rent control and that it ultimately does not bring down the price of rents. “With rent control, we see a decrease in residential buildings and an increase in commercial buildings.”

Flaherty repeated his sentiments that he’s expressed throughout the campaign trail: “Not at this time.” He said he will not rule out rent control in the future. He also noted that as a mayoral candidate 10 years ago, he introduced a proposal to [break up the then-Boston Redevelopment Authority and] create a separate planning department.

Wu, who was initially against rent control, said she has heard the feedback from residents and now will support it.

“We are past the point of being cautious about displacement,” said Wu, who recently announced her plan to abolish the BPDA. “It’s not about buildings with value. It’s about people with value.”

Most of the challengers shared personal stories about what it’s like to get priced out.

Mejia, who seemingly got more cheers at the grassroots forum compared to previous forums, said she was raised by a single mother who, after moving to the U.S., was forced to move her family throughout the city’s neighborhoods, including Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, before settling in Dorchester. Mejia said it wasn’t until the fifth grade that she had a stable home for a long period of time and noted that she is not the only one to have such stories.

“Today there are over 5,000 students in the city of Boston who are homeless,” said Mejia, who supports rent control and agrees with Wu that the BPDA should be abolished.

Murphy, who has rented in Dorchester for more than 10 years and whose family has been in the neighborhood for generations, said she may be the only candidate who still rents. She said she fears her daughter, a senior in college, will not be able to afford the cost of living if she moves back to Boston after she graduates. She disagreed with Wu on the BPDA, saying the agency should not be abolished, but rather reconstituted with greater neighborhood input.

St. Guillen, who said her campaign knocked on 26,000 doors before the preliminary, said that every resident’s priority is housing and the question of whether they would be able to stay in their home. She is another challenger that agrees with the idea of developing a separate planning department, and looks to the city to buy back more land.

“The city needs to buy from the private market,” said St. Guillen. “The city needs to show some muscle.”

Halbert, who supports rent control, proposed that the city engage with other partners across the state. He said that as Boston is harshly impacted by the cost of housing, nearby communities such as Somerville, Cambridge and Quincy are experiencing it as well. He said he wants to split the BPDA into two separate entities covering planning and economic development and also show residents pathways to home ownership.

After the forum, Chisholm said that while she originally looked for those who had plans for rent control and affordable housing, she appreciated Flaherty’s honesty in saying that he didn’t support it at this time. But she was more impressed with Wu’s passion.

Judith Roderick, of Mattapan, said she needs more clarification on rent control before she can support it. She said she did a workshop with City Life recently and saw how the plan didn’t work for all cities.

Christine Acevedo, 48, of Dorchester said she has gone to many forums and is looking for candidates who will not go onto the Council and agree with the “same old, same old.”

“It’s important for [incumbents] to be scared,” said Acevedo, who is looking for change within the city with challengers such as St. Guillen and Mejia.

The opioid epidemic

For months, Murphy has said that addiction and the opioid epidemic has impacted her personally but did not discuss details during multiple neighborhood forums. She has repeatedly said she does not support safe injection sites, but said mental health and trauma can sometimes be part of the addiction problem.

On Wednesday, the hall went silent as she explained how her eldest son suffered from addiction for years, overdosing several times. She said she got a call in the middle of the night five years ago, about how her son was in a cab and being evacuated from Long Island after going there for detox. She said she didn’t believe it until later on. Her son was on Long Island the night that the bridge closed. She said he went to the Gavin House for treatment and is doing better today.

His recovery was interrupted, like many other people on the Island that night,” said Murphy.

Murphy spoke against the recent “Operation Clean Sweep” that resulted in a number of arrests of people in the area of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard and Southampton Street.

“They’re human. We need to help them,” she said. “We can talk about Long Island, but it’s many years away and it’s not going to solve all of the problems.”

Many candidates agree that the Operation Clean Sweep police action was a mistake, calling it destabilizing and cruel, and that addiction should be “decriminalized.”

St. Guillen called for wrap-around services that would include not just a detox bed, but also assistance in reuniting people with their families and providing a pathway to getting a job. She said there needs to be an increase in beds and services, and she supports safe injection sites. Flaherty called for on-demand service, saying this was not just a Boston problem, but it was an issue throughout the commonwealth.

Halbert continued his sentiments from other forums and said spoke of his fear that his daughters will prick themselves with a sharp when they are playing in a park.

“No parent in the city of Boston should have to live with that fear,” he said. 

Mejia said someone recently overdosed in her campaign office in front of her daughter and that one of her cousins has overdosed. She slammed Operation Clean Sweep and reflected on what occurred in the 1980s and 1990s during the crack epidemic.

“When our people were dealing with drug abuse, they got locked up,” said Mejia. “We need to make sure that our people aren’t left behind in this go-around too.”

The youth view

Some youth activists also attended the forum to advocate for change and a “shakeup” within City Hall.

Tito Garcia, 17, of Dorchester, said many of the issues talked about impact his family, such as rent control. He was raised by a single mother who is a hairdresser.

“It’s hard to pay for childcare and then pay $1,500 in rent,” said Garcia, who explained that there were times when his mother worked two or three jobs to just cover the cost of living. “The base [cost of] living does not match up to the minimum wage.”

In addition, he said he could connect to what Mejia said about the opioid epidemic and how there are more support services now than in the ’80s and ’90s during the crack epidemic.

“I’ve lost so many aunties. They just told us, ‘Don’t get high,’” said Garcia. “But this is an addition, an illness. And there are finally services. But these people in this epidemic are no different than us back then.”

Garcia turns 18 in April, so he won’t qualify to vote in this fall’s election, but said if he could vote now, it would be for Halbert, St. Guillen, Mejia, and Wu. But until then, he said he will continue to show up to forums and inform his peers about issues.

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