Photos: Alena Kuzub
The waiting room outside the city council president’s office is full of visitors, staff and paperwork changing hands. Portraits line the walls, from paintings to black-and-white photos to more modern colorful pictures—the eyes of councilors past watching the goings-on in City Hall.
It feels crowded, even claustrophobic, and Michelle Wu’s new office feels sparse, almost empty, by comparison: some furniture, a big desk, a large framed photo of Wu with her former boss and professor, Senator Elizabeth Warren. It’s understandable, since she just became council president on Jan. 4, two years after winning a seat as councilor at large.
The sparseness is fitting, in the way that emptiness often represents potential—like a blank canvas. As the first Asian American council president, Wu has already created history. But she hopes to cement her place in Boston lore with what she calls an “ambitious” two-year plan, one that will see the council tackling homelessness, mental health, recovery, affordable housing, criminal justice and transparency.
We’ll have to wait to see what marks she leaves on the office, what commemorative photos and trinkets will line the walls and what will ultimately define her tenure. For now, City Council President Michelle Wu took the time to speak with Spare Change News about her goals and plans.
Spare Change News: You’ve created a specific committee to deal with homelessness, the first of its kind. What will the committee actually do?
Michelle Wu: So homelessness, mental health, and recovery are the three areas the committee is focused on. These are three distinct issues facing residents that are very interconnected, especially for our most vulnerable neighbors in Boston. The goal is that the council will then take leadership in addressing these three issues in trying to define ways the city can step up and keep pushing the state and other [agencies] of government. We’ve had a housing committee for years on the council. The issue of homelessness would sit on that committee, but I really wanted to make sure we as a council were being focused and deliberate. Our new councilor, Annissa Essaibi George, is the chair, and Councilor Tim McCarthy is vice chair. I’ve asked each committee chair to hold town halls to hear from residents and get input.
And what will the committee do on the recovery front?
The mayor has set up an office of recovery, so it’ll be continuing to support the work of [Recovery Officer] Jen Tracy. It’ll come to us to listen to town halls and come up with ideas. I think with so much happening at the state level through the attorney general’s office and the governor’s office, [it will be important] to make sure the council is tying into those recovery efforts. The bottom line is we need more beds, more treatment on demand.
What kind of action is city council able to take to address these three issues?
The city is where most our service providers are. We saw rising numbers of men and women experiencing homelessness, not all seeking shelter, over the last few months.
Part of it is a coordination role—making sure that all of our providers are on the same page, interacting with and helping the same groups of people—and continuing to try to push for funding from the state and other sources. The reality is that we need to support long-term, stable, supportive housing. Housing where people can start to get a foothold on getting a job and getting back to stability and can access health care services, mental health services and treatment for substance abuse issues. We can’t keep putting a band-aid on the problem, asking people to come to shelter every night. The mayor announced in the state of the city that Boston had ended chronic veteran homelessness and that Boston will end all chronic homelessness by 2018. There’s a lot of energy in the city to make sure people have access to affordable housing.
The city and state don’t always come together to coordinate on homeless issues. Would this committee try to foster more collaboration?
Yes, that’s the goal: having one place where the focus is on how to better coordinate, support and advocate for residents.
What’s your take on the state of homelessness in Boston? What do we need to do next to address the issue?
When I first started on the council two years ago, before Long Island shut down, before new shelters were constructed, I said my focus for the first few months on the job is going to be homelessness. I would always end up meeting some incredible person who was homeless who just wanted to share how hard it is to get onto a good pathway in Boston. Once you are homeless, it’s just a cycle—of not being able to store your things; not being able to stay healthy because conditions in shelters aren’t great; not being able to apply for benefits because you have no address. As I was going around the city two years ago, talking about my visits to shelters, people would ask me why I was talking about this so publicly. People called it a quote-unquote “controversial” issue two years ago.
Years later, the need for housing has become part of mainstream conversation. Part of it is that the face of homelessness has changed, and we are seeing a lot more working families still unable to find housing they can afford. Families with two incomes who still need to go to the food bank and need access to emergency shelter. I want to make sure we are truly talking about everyone when we’re talking about housing. One issue that came out of my visits two years ago was homeless youth. There’s a disproportionate number of LGBT youth in the homeless population, and I don’t want that lost in conversations.
One of the biggest news stories this month is that General Electric chose Boston for its new headquarters. Some celebrate Boston landing such a huge company. But GE has a history of laying off workers in the Commonwealth and receiving huge tax breaks. It’s leaving its current home state of Connecticut over a tax raise, and now Boston gives it $145 million in incentives. You’re someone who wants to mend the gap between expensive-development Boston and struggling middle-and-working-class Boston. Does this GE deal actually help mend that gap?
Boston has a lot of work to do in terms of mending that gap. We were recently called out as the most segregated city in the country, according to the Brookings Institution. Every action the city takes needs to be focused on how to reduce income inequality and how to tie economic growth and jobs to every neighborhood, not just this downtown area.
What I believe GE represents to Boston is bringing a core of jobs to our innovation sector. Boston was in competition with GE and by my understanding, we were not the highest bidder. Other places offered much higher tax incentives and more in terms of giveaways. Boston’s bid was less about free stuff and more about being a city with colleges and universities and a growing start up scene, a place where GE, this really old company, would be able to start a new chapter for itself.
Now, what does that mean in terms of reducing income inequality? For one, making sure those jobs are accessible and that we are creating pathways for people of color, women and low-income residents. It means GE will be asked, as are other business partners in Boston, to give back to the community. Also, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for innovations in GE’s core areas around transportation, infrastructure and energy to help us do better as a city. Fixing our public transportation would help people from every neighborhood. They’d be able apply to jobs, get to work and make more affordable housing options possible. There are places in the city where rents and housing costs are less, but there’s no nearby transportation.
How can the city council push GE toward those areas?
There hasn’t been a final site selected yet, so the council will follow that very closely, as well as looking to engage GE in terms of supporting community.