In District 5, a debate about how to address housing issues

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Inside the Hyde Park campaign headquarters of Maria Esdale Farrell, supporter Dan O’Connor says there’s no one better qualified than her to sit on the Boston City Council.

“This is the person,” O’Connor says. “Mother; children have gone to the Boston Public School system.... And that’s why I want her for the next councillor.”

Esdale Farrell, 49, is a mother of six and an education adviser for the outgoing city councillor she’s hoping to replace. But on the campaign trail, she has learned that the No. 1 issue for voters is something other than education.

“In the last six months, development has just taken over,” she says. “So now the focus is ... ‘I can’t even afford to live here. I can’t afford to buy here. It doesn’t even matter about the schools right now because I’m being displaced.... It’s too much development!’"

Vying for the open District 5 seat, Esdale Farrell faces Ricardo Arroyo, another first-time candidate from Hyde Park, in Tuesday’s municipal election.

Arroyo, a 32-year-old public defender, agrees that displacement and development are critical issues facing the district. But the two differ on how to address those issues.

District 5 is the southernmost in the city, covering most of Roslindale, Hyde Park, and Mattapan. While Roslindale has seen a lot of development in recent years, change has been slower to come in Hyde Park and Mattapan.

And, Esdale Farrell says, many of the residents in those neighborhoods like it that way.

“Roslindale is definitely a stronger progressive community,” she says. “A lot more professionals have moved in, and so the constituent base is changing dramatically. And Hyde Park and Mattapan are a little bit more traditional-based. ‘Not in my backyard.’ ‘You’re not changing what I love,’ and ‘build somewhere else.’ “

But there are signs that development is about to take off in areas of Hyde Park and Mattapan as well. The city’s planning agency has approved or is reviewing six housing developments in Hyde Park and seven in Mattapan.

Esdale Farrell says she recognizes the need for growth and more dense neighborhoods, but she wants to take into account those who are resistant to development.

“It’s listening to why they don’t want change,” she says. “’What is it that you love about your neighborhood?’ So people just don’t want change when they’re happy. People want change when they’re unhappy. And as a councillor, it’s my role to make everybody happy.”

Esdale Farrell’s boss, retiring District 5 Councillor Tim McCarthy, is one of three councilors who voted against the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act, a rent reform effort that passed the council but was shot down in the State House. The ordinance would have required landlords to inform tenants of their rights in the case of an eviction, and to notify the city as well.

Esdale Farrell says she thinks the ordinance wouldn’t have solved the problem of rising rents, but she’s open to finding ways to cap rent increases.
Arroyo says McCarthy’s vote against the ordinance is the reason he decided to challenge McCarthy, who then announced he wasn’t seeking re-election.

The act “was just a data gathering tool ... so that [the city] could see the scope of the issue and then try to come up with ways to deal with it,” Arroyo says.

He says he wants to go even further and propose a residential vacancy tax to generate money for affordable housing. He says that would help address the ultimate issue he sees in the city: income inequality.

“We’re in a situation now in the city of Boston where the average net worth of a white family is about $250,000 and the average net worth of a black family is about $8,” he says. “And the major difference there is ... who owns property and who doesn’t.”

Identity Politics

The District 5 race has also become about identity politics.

Since 1990, the share of people of color living in Hyde Park has nearly tripled to three-quarters of the population. But the district has never had a city councillor who wasn’t white and male.

Either Esdale Farrell or Arroyo, who is Puerto Rican, is about to change that.

McCarthy inserted race into the contest when he spoke at Esdale Farrell’s victory party after the preliminary election, in comments first reported by the Bay State Banner. Cell phone video of the event spread online:

“We ran against women,” he said, “we ran against minorities, we ran against people who have a name that’s been out there for 40 years — that was endorsed by all the nonsense people who don’t have the boots on the ground like we do.”

When McCarthy refers to someone with “a name that’s been out there for 40 years,” he’s talking about Arroyo, whose father was the first Latino on the city council.

McCarthy came under fire for the comments. He apologized to anyone who “misunderstood” him and said in a statement that he meant to convey “my excitement at casting my personal vote for a working mother of six, who, without the usual laundry list of political endorsements, had defied all odds and won a spot in the final against such a deep and diverse field.”

Esdale Farrell says the quote was taken out of context, and adds that she’s frustrated she’s being forced to answer for McCarthy.

For Arroyo, McCarthy’s comments remind him of the discrimination his family faced when they first came to Hyde Park from the South End.

“I’m very sensitive to the idea of people feeling like they’re being otherized, or like they’re not being characterized as from here, or what the image of somebody from Hyde Park or somebody from Roslindale or somebody from Mattapan looks like,” he says.

Canvassing for Arroyo and other candidates, Roslindale resident Travis Marshall says he’s picked up on a lot of anxiety about the changing face of the city.

“As the traditional power structure in Boston is changing, there is some fear about that, or even anger,” Marshall says. “But I think it just makes sense in a representative democracy that folks who best understand their constituents should be folks who are or leading them.”

For Marshall, that means a vote for Arroyo. But for Esdale Farrell supporters, she’s the one who best understands the realities of people who live in District 5.

This story was first published on Oct. 30 by WBUR 90.9FM. The Reporter and WBUR share content and resources through a media partnership.