“I Will Roll My Sleeves Up”: Mayoral Hopeful and City Councilor Tito Jackson Talks Housing, General Electric and Working-Class Boston

Photo: Alejandro Ramirez

When Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson announced he was running for mayor—the sole challenger facing incumbent Mayor Martin J. Walsh—he presented himself as a champion of Boston’s working class. A working class that’s being forced out of their homes and their city, he said, while companies like General Electric get $25 million “sweetheart deals.” He’s not pleased with Mayor Marty Walsh, calling him out on everything from shutting down the Long Island Bridge to cutting Boston Public School Funding to the proliferation of pricey developments across the city. Jackson once endorsed Mayor Walsh and is now disillusioned with the leadership.

“This administration has lost its way,” said Jackson at a press roundtable on Feb. 16.

The GE deal in particular has been a consistent target for Jackson. He compares the $25 million tax gift to the city’s FY2017cuts in Boston Public Schools budget, which saw BPS losing $20 million for its central office and $10–12 million for the per-pupil funding formula that determines the budget of individual schools.

“When I see a budget, I see a value statement,” said Jackson. “The city of Boston says we have enough money to give GE $276 million of your money to move here… If we have enough money for GE, do we have enough for our children?”

It’s worth noting that $276 million was an early estimate of the GE deal, now considered to be around $145 million, and included figures from the state and city. Boston itself offered $25 million, the same amount GE has pledged to donate to schools.

Jackson was also an early critic of how mayor Walsh handled the closure of the Long Island bridge. The bridge was the only access point to the island, which was home to the city’s largest homeless shelter (at 440 beds) and over a dozen detox and addiction recovery programs. In October 2014, the city closed the bridge with only three hours notice due to safety concerns.

In January 2015, the city constructed the new Southampton Street Shelter in Newmarket Square and opened up 100 beds. Three hundred more beds opened in the summer. In October 2016, two years after the closure, the city announced that most beds and programs from Long Island had been restored on the mainland.

“Two years is too little, too late,” said Councilor Jackson of these efforts. “People died. There are individuals who overdosed when they were taken out of their detox programs. Two years for a house is two years too long. Two years for temporary housing or a shelter bed is two years too long. By the way, we don’t make rich people wait two years for housing. We build luxury towers in less than two years.”

Councilor Jackson also pointed out that you don’t have to be homeless or in recovery for housing to affect your health. In Roxbury, he noted, people have a 33 year shorter life expectancy than those who live in Back Bay.

Still, Councilor Jackson’s talking points risk getting muted by the mayor’s own accomplishments. The administration announced it has functionally ended veteran homelessness and has set up a new housing-first model to combat chronic individual homelessness. Mayor Walsh also boasts 3,000 units of affordable housing as part of his Boston 2030 initiative.

But Councilor Jackson sees a difference between “affordable housing”—which he calls a euphemism—and “housing that is affordable.”

“Most of the housing developed today is slated for individuals and families making 70 percent of the area median income,” he said. The AMI is a number that is used to determined what qualifies as affordable housing for families of different sizes and income levels. The AMI for the Greater Boston Area is $68,700 for one person and $98,100 for a family of four. However, Councilor Jackson noted that nearly half of all Boston residents make $35,000 or less (which translates to about 50 percent of the AMI for an individual worker). This means the most common “affordable” unit “isn’t affordable for 50 percent of the people in Boston,” said Jackson.

To provide housing, Councilor Jackson plans to unveil a city-funded housing voucher program based on Washington, D.C.’s program. The Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants (MAHT) has advocated (unsuccessfully) for this model with the current administration, and Jackson credited them with bringing the idea forward. MAHT’s proposal calls for $5 million to create 400 housing vouchers.

He also plans to increase the current amount of affordable housing units developers must include in their projects. Currently, developers are legally required to ensure 13 percent of their housing units are affordable, and Jackson hopes to increase that number to at least 25 percent.

“As mayor of Boston, I will roll my sleeves up and address these issue starting day one,” he added, promising to include these measures in his first budget.

If the early strategy was to position himself to the left of Mayor Walsh, it likely got a bit complicated. Mayor Walsh (as Boston Magazine noted) has been pushing a more progressive agenda in recent months. In response to President Donald Trump’s threats to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities like Boston, Mayor Walsh said he’d protect undocumented immigrants in City Hall if needed. He also made an appearance at the Women’s March in Boston and showed up to protests against the president’s travel ban in Logan Airport (where Councilor Jackson also made appearances). Mayor Walsh also unveiled an ambitious package of legislation to the Massachusetts State House related to affordable housing and eviction prevention.

Ultimately, though, Jackson’s biggest hurdle might not be policy or rhetoric but campaign budget: Mayor Walsh’s war chest of over $3 million dwarfs Councilor Jackson’s, which is under $100,000.

Should Jackson overcome the deficit in November, he’ll be the first African American mayor in Boston’s history.

“I will roll my sleeves up and get to work on Day one,” he said.

Update: This article initially said the GE deal cost Boston $276 million; that number referred instead to an earlier estimate that included the state’s contributions. The figure has been corrected. Additional, language about the school budget and the AMI have been adjusted for clarity. Spare Change News regrets the errors and any confusion.

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