District 7 City Council Hopefuls Engage in Race’s First Online Forum

Just two months shy of the city’s Sept. 14 Primary Election, seven candidates vying for the District 7 Council seat that acting Mayor Kim Janey will vacate in January were on hand for the first candidates forum for the district race, which took place virtually on July 15.

The candidates in attendance included Tania Anderson, director of the nonprofit, Bowdoin-Geneva Main Streets; Dr. Brandy Brooks, an adjunct professor for the department of history and social sciences at Bunker Hill Community College; Angelina Camacho, director of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Community Health Education Center; Joao DePina, a longtime political and community activist; Marisa Luse, a special assistant to Northeastern University’s director of neighborhood partnerships and programs; Leon Rivera, a longtime community organizer; and Lorraine Wheeler, an attorney and president of the  Roxbury Path Forward Neighborhood Association.

The Hon. Tito Jackson, who served as the District 7 City Councilor from 2011 to 2017, served as the forum moderator.

Asked how in their first 100 days in office, they would help both struggling renters, as well as landlords who are unable to pay their mortgages, during what Jackson said will be an investable onslaught of evictions with both the federal and the state’s eviction moratoriums soon set to expire, the candidates all agreed that the moratoriums need to be extended.

“We don’t want to increase homelessness and hosing instability more than it already is in our district,” said Dr. Brooks, who also said she would determine if there are any discretionary funds in the budget to assist renters and landlords, as well as look at the AMI (area median income) for the city’s affordable housing stock and IDP (Inclusionary Development Policy).which mandates that market-rate housing developments with 10 or more units make 13 percent of them affordable.

Rivera also said he would call for raising the IDP and for allocating 50 percent of linkage fees to creating more affordable housing, as well as for extending the One+Boston mortgage program for first-time home buyers in the city.

Anderson, who said she has personally experienced homeless and “understands the impact skyrocketing rents can have on residents,” suggested that if a Boston resident works 40 hours a week while paying more than 35 percent of their income to rent, “the city should subsidize the difference.”

On the topic of public safety, Camacho said she would support “pre-academy training for culturally appropriate individuals” to join the Boston Police Department and work to change it from within.

Camacho also emphasized the importance of offering youth outreach programs with guaranteed employment for participants.

In addition to advocating for more police training, Rivera said the department “needs to recruit more officers that look like us and have similar backgrounds.”

Also, Rivera said he would allocate money now being used to police Mass Cass to pay for additional mental health services and outreach instead.

Dr. Brooks, who also called for more diversity in the BPD “to make it look like us and represent us,” said, “A badge and a cruiser doesn’t mean safety for some communities.”

The candidates were also asked how they would handle public health disparities in a district that includes Mass Cass.

They all agreed that recovery services in the district, including five methadone clinics located within a 10-block radius, need to be decentralized.

Dr. Brooks, Camacho, and DePina each said they would push the city to reopen the Long Island shelter.

DePina said he wouldn’t support opening safe injection sites and added he’s “not for anyone injecting anything that’s physically harming them” and would instead seek to get them help.

Like DePina, Anderson said she would advocate for wrap-around services, especially for dual-diagnosis patients, who, she said, are at a higher risk of homelessness.

On the matter of environmental justice and how to ensure that all residents can breathe clean air, Dr. Brooks said automobile transportation needs to be diverted via an equitable and more reliable public transportation system, while pointing to the need to create more greenspace in the district.

Rivera said he would explore transforming 30 vacant lots on Blue Hill Avenue into community gardens to provide residents to access to healthy foods. Another step he would take, said Rivera, would be to “retrofit smaller buildings to make them more green.”

Making the case for more trees in the district, Wheeler, who was involved in the successful campaign to save the trees on Melnea Cass Boulevard over the last few years, said when you look at heat maps, it becomes readily apparent that not many trees have been planted near Norfolk Avenue.

Additionally, Wheeler said future development that clears lots and leaves little greenspace, should be prevented from moving forward.

Regarding the reopening of Boston Public Schools in the fall, especially in regard to handling mental health needs of students, as well as the inequality between students that has been exasperated by the pandemic, Wheeler said returning students would need more emotional support while underscoring the need for additional pod programs, as well as academic programing during the summer to address learning loss.

On the same topic, Luse said he would advocate for the hiring of “licensed therapist with cultural competency training” and retrofitting schools to create an “environment for healthy learning” while providing them with enough support.

Dr. Brooks said after the last 14 months, students, as well parents, teachers and school staff, will need sufficient mental health services, but in the long term, more teacher education and teacher certification programs would need to be created in communities of color to enlist more faculty and staff that “reflect the students in the building.”

The candidates also answered several shorter-answer, “lightning round” questions posed by Jackson, including whether they would support a Boston School Committee that’s fully appointed by the mayor, as is the case now; a fully elected committee; or a hybrid of the two.

Anderson, Dr. Brooks and Luse said they would support a fully elected committee, while Rivera opted for a fully appointed committee, with the stipend for Youth Vote, and a mandate that the committee include “more than one young person.”  DePina and Wheeler both said they would advocate for a hybrid committee, and Camacho said preferred an appointed committee, but would also consider a hybrid one.

The forum was hosted jointly by the Boston Wards 4, 8, 9, and 12 Democratic Committees; Fenway Community Center; Fenway CDC; Madison Park CDC; MassVOTE; Greater Boston NAACP; and Nuestra Comunidad; and the South End Forum.

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