Six contenders for Boston District 8 City Council participated in a standing-room-only forum moderated by President Emerita of Lesley University, Margaret McKenna, on May 21. Candidates Kenzie Bok, Montez Haywood, Landon Lemoine, Kristen Mobilia, Jennifer Nassour, and Helene Vincent shared their thoughts on various issues ranging from education to the opiate crisis to traffic. Though the position of city councilor is non-partisan, all candidates are Democrats except for Jennifer Nassour, who is a Republican.
The first round consisted of questions asked at random to certain candidates. One was related to the $60 million in unpaid Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program in the city and what should be done about it.
“It’s an embarrassment honestly that these institutions are not pulling their weight,” Mobilia said. She said she believes that making sure assessments are done properly will help raise the amount of payments for institutions like schools and hospitals that have not been pulling their weight. Haywood said that tax exempt status should be removed from any institution that is not paying their fair share.
When asked about what can be done about public school deserts in the district, Vincent said that parents want “local schools for their kids that are in the local community,” and a lot of people want to stay in the city so figuring out how to create schools in neighborhoods like the Back Bay needs to be a “priority.”
“A downtown school is critical,” Bok said. She said that looking for buildings that can be used as schools should be a priority for the mayor, as well as seeing if some early education seats could be expanded downtown. With a lot of parents opting out of the public school system altogether, “for us to make this a reality, it has to be in the context for the whole school system,” she said.
The candidates were asked how to close the opportunity gap—Nassour, Vincent, and Bok said universal Pre-K, while Lemoiune thinks free lunches would help, Haywood said building schools in neighborhoods, and Mobilia said that additional support services would contribute to closing the gap.
Traffic is a huge issue in the district, and the candidates seemed to agree that it was one of the top, if not the top, issue they hear from residents. Vincent thinks the current transportation system “sets you up to fail.” She thinks that a comprehensive plan is needed with physical barriers for bike lanes, as well as enforcing traffic rules for bikers. Lemoine said that moving meters off of the street curbs would keep bike lanes available for bikes, and proper signage needs to be in place. All six candidates are in favor of designated bike lanes, but Vincent believes that designated bus lanes across the city would also be beneficial.
Nassour said she does not believe the MBTA should be a fare-free system. “If you’re a user, you should be paying for the services,” she said. The MBTA is slowly rolling out a cashless system, and Nassour believes this will be an issue and cause inequities.
Bok, on the other hand, thinks of the MBTA as a public good, as using it lowers emissions and reduces the number of cars on the road. She thinks the T should be fare-free, but does agree that the cashless system is going to be a “real issue.”
Uber and Lyft has also caused major issues in the district, with pickup/dropoff clogging up streets. The candidates were asked if they think there should be a cap on the number of rideshare vehicles on the road in the city. Haywood said he would not support a gap, as “that is people’s income.” He would, however, advocate for different pickup/droppoff zones that gets them off of the main roads. Mobilia said she would like to figure out how to regulate GPS so these vehicles are not cutting through neighborhoods and destroying parts of them.
Affordable housing is another hot button issue in District 8, as there is development everywhere but not enough housing that moderate to low income families can afford. Bok, who works for the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), said “the scary part” is that much of Boston’s affordable housing was built in the 1930s and 1940s. With 40,000 people on the BHA waitlist, Boston needs to preserve the existing units. Other ways to free up units is to look at affordable home ownership in the city—“we’ve got to look for more ways to do that,” she said.
Lemoine believes that the way the Area Median Income (AMI) is calculated needs to be rethought, as it currently includes students and international investors who are “parking their money here,” which skews the data towards a higher AMI. He also believes that builders need to be incentivized to build units that are affordable.
Environmental issues were another large topic, and McKenna asked the candidates what could be done to protect Boston as a coastal city.
Nassour said she believes there is a lot that the city can do better, and she wants to learn more from environmentalists. She also believes that having more electric cat stations throughout the city would be beneficial for people who would like to own an electric car. Vincent said increasing the urban tree canopy would be somewhere to start, Haywood said he would advocate for electric buses throughout the city, Bok believes that making changes to the energy infrastructure would be helpful, and Lamoine said that reinforcing the sea wall is where to start.
Candidates were also asked individual questions based on their personal experiences. McKenna said that the last time a Republican was on the Boston City Council was 1981, and asked Nassour what it would be like to be the sole Republican on the Council should she be elected.
“We need a diversity of opinions,” Nassour said. “I’m a public school kid, my mom said go to school, get your education, and work hard…It’s not about politics, it’s about streets, traffic, sidewalks, and quality of life. That’s why it’s a nonpartisan position.” She believes her experience raising three young girls has given her a “vast view of the world.”
Mobilia ran against Josh Zakim in the 2017 City Council race, so McKenna asked what she learned from her first race and if there is anything different this time around. “This is a completely different race,” Mobilia said, with the incumbent councilor not in the race. “We got a third of the votes [in the last election],” Mobilia said, adding that she feels it’s important to hit the doors, get out there, talk, and have conversations with the community.
McKenna asked Bok if it would be a challenge for her to give constructive advice to the Boston Housing Authority, as she works for them. She said she started on housing from outside of City Hall and realized that more funds were needed for affordable housing. “I do a lot of lobbying,” she said, so she would “think about what would be the best thing to do.”
“You’re a big data guy,” McKenna said to Landon Lemoine, who works for a healthcare startup. She asked what “data-driven decisions” he thought could help the city.
“The whole point of using data is to articulate the data,” he said, adding that he believes it’s up to the individual person to make an informed decision based on the data. It would work similarly in the City Council, he said—the councilor’s job is to look at the data and decide what the best decision would be.
A large part of Helene Vincent’s platform has been diversity and inclusion, but McKenna said that Boston has one of the largest wealth gaps, so she asked Vincent how the city should provide access to resources for those who historically have not been the recipients. Vincent said that it is important to think about providing support throughout the whole city so that everyone is included regardless of age, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic status, etc.
Haywood is a prosecutor, and when asked if he agrees with District Attorney Rachael Rollins’ policy of not prosecuting everyone who commits a crime. “I don’t agree with not prosecuting everyone,” he said, adding that every crime needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis by looking at things such as an individual’s crime history.
The conversation was co-hosted by the Boston Ward 4 Democratic Committee, the Boston Ward 5 Democratic Committee, the Fenway CDC, the Fenway Civic Association, Greater Boston Young Dems, MassVOTE, and Berklee College of Music. All candidates encourage District 8 residents to vote in the preliminary election on Sept. 24, as well as in the general election on Nov. 5.