Mayoral Hopefuls Turn Out for Downtown Neighborhoods Candidates Forum

Candidates vying to become the city’s next mayor were on hand for a virtual Downtown Neighborhoods Mayoral Candidates Forum on Tuesday, June 22, to discuss how, if elected, they would handle some of the most pressing issues now facing Boston.

John Barros, who served as Chief of Economic Development under former Mayor Martin Walsh; District 4 City Councilor Andrea Campbell; City Councilors at-Large Annissa Essaibi-George and Michelle Wu; and Rep. Jon Santiago Wu took part in the forum, which was sponsored by numerous downtown civic groups, including the Beacon Hill Civic Association, Fenway Civic Association, Neighborhood Association of Back Bay, and West End Civic Association, among other organizations.

Montez Haywood, WECA President, as well as a one-time Boston District 8 City Council candidate, served as the event moderator.

In response to how the candidates would seek to transform the Boston Planning and Development Agency as mayor, Barros said planning should be driving development in the city, and not vice versa, as is the case today, while Councilor Campbell said that development plans and meeting schedule need to be made more transparent and accessible so citizens don’t have to seek them out.

Councilor Campbell also expressed frustration that many projects widely opposed by neighborhood civic groups still get the green light from the city and said she would create a civic engagement officer to help improve communication between the BPDA and the people of Boston.

Councilor Essaibi-George said the BPDA needs to prioritize the “needs and wants” of specific neighborhoods when planning development projects, whereas Rep. Santiago said he would require that developers work with the communities from the “get-go.”

Councilor Wu described the BPDA as an “opaque, complex and broken development system,” and said that fundamental changes need to be made therein so projects are no longer approved on a one-off basis. Instead, she said, “We need to move Boston to a system that’s predictable with clear rules all around”

On the topic of affordable housing, Councilor Campbell, whose first ordinance was co-sponsoring the city’s Community Preservation Act, said she would seek to expand the Inclusionary Development Policy (IDP) and other tools the city has its disposal to get “creative” and build more affordable and senior housing. Councilor Campbell added she also intends to utilize city-owned parcels for affordable housing purposes.

Barros said he’s been committed to the issue of affordable housing for most of his “professional life,” both through his work with the city and as executive director of the Dudley Street Initiative, a community-run nonprofit.

While Barros said he was proud he was able to create hundreds of affordable housing units and increase linkage fees through his work with the Walsh Administration, Boston remains too expensive for families to live in, and he said he would do all he could as mayor to help reverse this trend.

Rep. Santiago said Boston needs to “protect, preserve, and expand affordable housing” and suggested leveraging the city’s AAA Bond rating to incentivize developers to build more affordable housing in the city, as opposed to luxury condos that are out of reach for most Bostonians. He added that he would also aim to provide more “pathways to home ownership” for the residents of the city.

Regarding education and the future of Boston Public Schools, Rep. Santiago mentioned, among other initiatives, creating a fully-elected school committee, as well as offering pre-school to all city residents, which were outlined in the education plan he released last week.

Councilor Essaibi-George predicts the next crisis to face the city would be a “mental health crisis” when students return to school in September following the pandemic, and that schools would need to offer these students support.

Barros said the city needs to address the opportunity gap to ensure that all students get adequate support both inside and outside school, as well as to provide a seamless transition to early education curriculum for youngsters.

Besides improving the condition of sub-standard BPS buildings, Councilor Campbell also said the city’s schools need to build creative pathways where a student can pursue a professional career (e.g. becoming an attorney), as well as to provide access to an excellent education and wrap-around services to all Bostonians.

Regarding how to handle Mass Cass and the city’s ongoing opioid crisis, Councilor Wu said unlike other candidates she wouldn’t focus on rebuilding the bridge to Long Island, which is estimated to be a six-year project. But instead, she would audit all city properties to see if she could find a more immediate solution for a treatment facility, and that she would elevate the opioid issue to the Mayor’s Office in an effort to break down barriers between different city agencies now working on the problem.

Like his fellow candidates, Rep. Santiago pointed to the need to decentralize services, but unlike Councilor Wu, he would like to see Long Island reopened and added that the city should also explore using the 13-acre Shattuck Hospital campus as a treatment facility.

Barros also said he would advocates to bring services to Shattuck Hospital, but believes creating more supportive housing would likely be the most effective way to address the problem. He also said called for “more boots on the streets” in the form or professionals meeting with afflicted individuals 24/7 to help get them treatment.

In addition to the opioid problem itself, Councilor Campbell said the city also needs to address homelessness, as we as domestic violence, which, she said, is the root cause why many women end up living on the streets. She also pointed to the need for more workforce opportunities and said she would create “a chief at the cabinet level” to help coordinate the various city agencies now working on the opioid problem.

On the topic of short-term rentals, Rep. Santiago said this has had a disastrous impact on the city, and that he would use “every tool in the city’s toolbox” to ensure that housing stock is reserved for those who live and work here, as opposed to for private investors.

Councilor Wu, who helped write the city’s short-term rental ordinance, said the city needs to “close the loophole on executive suites,” and that the Inspectional Services Department needs to be aware of all short-term rental listings, as well as be vigilant about collecting fines it has already levied.

Barros, who also helped draft language for the ordinance, agreed that the executive suites loophole is “clearly being exploited” and said ISD needs to modernize its systems to more effectively follow up on complaints.

Councilor Campbell also believes executive suites in the city remain a persistent problem and said that some of the ISD processes that have gone virtual during the pandemic should become permanent changes, especially in regard to reporting illegal construction projects and “problem properties,” among other issues.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey was unable to attend the candidates forum, said Haywood, the event moderator.

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