Council at-large hopefuls take questions at Roxbury forum

City council at-large candidates discussed issues important to senior citizens during a forum held last Thursday in the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Roxbury. Katie Trojano photo

The eight finalists in the at-large city council election addressed issues specific to the city’s seniors last Thursday at a forum in the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Roxbury.

Saying that “seniors matter, and we are the most vulnerable population,” the moderator, Russell “Russ” Ashton, the president of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council (MSAC), which sponsored the event, invited council members to ask questions of incumbents Michelle Wu, Annissa Essaibi-George, Michael Flaherty, and Althea Garrison and challengers Alejandra St. Guillen, Julia Mejia, Erin Murphy and David Halbert— were in attendance.

The first question was raised by Linda Freeman of Roxbury, who is concerned about the number of homeless in the city.

Flaherty answered that the city “can and must do more” to address homelessness. “This council, working with our mayor, has supported a number of programs and initiatives to help on the affordable housing side and to address homelessness,” he said. “Our hope is that by increasing the linkage formula we’re able to create more opportunities, supporting SROs [Single Room Occupancy], tenant protections, and line items in our city’s budget.”   

Said St. Guillen: “When we talk about housing, we need to talk about the multi-faceted servicing that needs to go along with that; it’s not just putting a roof over someone’s head. We have to think about the circumstances that put them in that position in the first place.” 

Halbert replied that he “stands behind” the Housing First movement. “We have to use it as a platform to bring people the services they need,” he said. “But we also have to think that people shouldn’t have to get to the place of being homeless in order to get those services. We should be doing everything we can to make sure that we’re being proactive.”

He also said that he would look to increase homeownership in the city, calling it “one of the best ways to stabilize and prevent homelessness.” 

Mejia said that she “likes the idea” of Housing First, and would pursue it further. “We’ve been having the same conversation and expecting the same results,” she said. “What I’m proposing is that we look at the Inclusionary Development Policy (IDP), and I’m pushing for 50 percent instead of [the current] 13 percent for each affordable housing project.”

Murphy agreed with the other candidates, saying that “we shouldn’t wait for people to become homeless before we begin addressing this crisis.” She also said that she would look at freezing home taxes for seniors as a step toward being proactive. 

Wu said that she “fully supports” Housing First and how Boston is already implementing facets of it. “Many of our emergency shelters are already starting to use that model like Pine Street Inn, which already has more transitional housing beds than they do overnight emergency beds,” she said. “Investing in a person, investing in their value and giving them stability pays off in the long-run.”

Wu pointed to her recent call to abolish the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) as a bold step towards a holistic look at how to plan for housing in the city. 

Garrison said that her solution would be rent control, eviction control, and price controls over anything that has to do with development. “You can’t build your way out of a housing crisis,” she said. She also chided her incumbent colleagues, saying they “have not taken steps to address the crisis although they know there is a crisis and they’ve been elected over and over.” 

Another questioner asked the candidates their opinions of a federal voucher lottery, which mixes seniors with those who have substance abuse or disabilities.

Flaherty said he would support a policy that senior housing should be for seniors only. St. Guillen said that the issue “goes to the core of how we create policy” and she would look to address the policy and change how the city incorporates seniors’ voices in creating policy that affects them. 

“We need to make sure that we’re thinking about this whole issue holistically,” Halbert said. “We need to ensure that seniors can feel comfortable where they live, but also that those individuals who do need mental health and addiction services aren’t just being turned out.” 

Mejia would focus on creating a community-centered approach to development. “Everybody deserves to live in a safe space and I think we have an opportunity to change the way we do business in the city of Boston period,” she said. 

Murphy replied: “We have to deal with addiction, mental health trauma and homelessness, but senior housing should be senior housing. We already know we have a crisis, but we shouldn’t put those problems onto seniors, who we already have to serve better.” 

Garrison, who at one point drew a reaction from the gathering when she urged voters to “bullet” her, that is, only vote for her, again took on an at-large colleague. “I’ve been aware of this policy ever since I’ve been running for public office,” she said, “However, Mr. Flaherty has been on the council about 12 years and what has he done about it?” She said she would propose legislation to address “alcoholics and drug addicts,” and that she’s not in favor of putting “these people” in senior buildings. 

Wu said that she wanted to get the facts straight, noting that the issue has been a popular topic when she has talked with seniors.

“Councillor Flaherty and I have actually pushed and gotten change on this piece,” Wu said, “It’s not everything that we need but I know that we pushed hard. This [voucher system] is defined by federal law, and because the buildings are getting federal funding, we are subject to some of those constraints.”

A question centered on transportation asked the candidates how they would improve access and affordability of transportation to seniors. Flaherty started off by thanking Wu for speaking to his efforts after Garrison name-dropped him. “I didn’t have to drop the mic, Michelle did that for me. So I’m going to do the same for her,” he said. “Michelle has led the effort on the council to really take on the MBTA, deservedly so.” 

He added: “There’s no reason why fares cannot be free, given that we spend so much on them. And we should have a seat on the board to make sure we get our fair share with respect to the $86 million we give the MBTA.”

St. Guillen thinks there can be more work done on the city level to supplement state efforts. “We have tons of luxury developments coming in,” she said, “and we have the opportunity to tax them and use those funds to be able to fund services for seniors.” 

Halbert said that the issue is related to development.

“We need to cluster the places seniors are going so that they don’t have to make multiple stops,” he said. 

“I am all on board with the Wutrain and supporting a lot of the efforts that Michelle has been leading about a “free T,” Mejia said. “I would push a little bit further. There are a lot of places that don’t have enough transit to begin with. We need to make service more frequent across the city.” She also supports bringing back late night T service to accommodate those who provide care for seniors. 

Murphy called the MBTA “broken” and said that there must be a city council seat on the MBTA board. “We need to make sure the T is affordable, reliable, and in places that we need it most,” she said, “We also need to make sure The Ride is brought to where the seniors are.” 

Garrison said that she filed legislation that would hold out $85 million from the MBTA until repairs were made, then accused Wu of blocking it. “Replace all three of those councillors that have been there for years. Get rid of all of them,” she said. 

The rebuke prompted a response from Wu. “Is this a candidate forum or a reality TV show?” she asked, adding, “I do want to give Mrs. Garrison all credit where it’s due. In February, when the MBTA said that it would raise fares across the board, she was there protesting, and I appreciate that.” 

Wu said that issues related to transportation are important to every single person in the city. “We contacted the MBTA in order to get that hearing, and the T refused. We’ve been trying to find ways to take it to them, and we have a lot more work to do.” 

Wu topped the citywide field ticket in the preliminary election, finishing with 19 percent of the votes cast. She was followed by incumbents Essaibi-George and Flaherty, who each collected just under 14 percent. St. Guillen, a former member of Mayor Martin Walsh’s administration, secured the fourth slot with just under 9 percent.

Competition for the fifth position was fierce between Mejia (7.7 percent), incumbent Garrison (7.09 percent), and Erin Murphy, who ended up with 6.84 percent. Halbert earned himself a spot on the November ballot by securing the eighth position at 4.76 percent. 

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