Our Revolution Somerville looks to campaign locally, focusing on affordability

A group of community members canvasing for Our Revolution is shown. (Courtesy Rand Wilson)

Somerville’s chapter of Our Revolution, a nationwide progressive political action group, has begun planning its priorities for 2018, following the victories of all nine Our Revolution-endorsed candidates for Board of Aldermen in last year’s elections.

Our Revolution, which emerged from Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, looks to support progressive candidates “across the entire spectrum of government,” according to its website. The group’s Somerville members discussed local priorities at a meeting this January. Their primary areas of focus will include housing affordability, immigrant rights, public education, organized labor and environmental justice, Our Revolution Somerville steering committee member Monica Achen noted.

“We’re really trying to build a coalition for a broad progressive agenda in Somerville,” Achen said.

Last year, the group chose candidates to endorse based on several factors, including making a commitment to decline campaign contributions from for-profit real estate developers, according to Achen and Jon Leonard, another steering committee member. Following that, volunteers went door-to-door to promote their slate, an effort that Alderman Matt McLaughlin says was an asset to his Our Revolution-endorsed re-election campaign.

“Half the battle is just getting the message across,” McLaughlin said.

Canvassers for Our Revolution worked to target intermittent voters and other residents who were less likely to be on the lists compiled by the official campaigns for positions on the Board of Aldermen, Leonard explained. Their goal, Leonard says, was to act separately from the campaigns’ efforts rather than to replicate their work.

Although voter participation is traditionally low in municipal elections, last November’s race was unusually busy, with the number of ballots cast increasing by more than 145 percent between the 2015 and 2017 elections, according to city voting data.

Our Revolution Somerville’s local organizers and candidates say concerns about housing affordability have helped to drive this recent spike. According to Achen, many Somerville residents with whom the group spoke during last year’s canvassing brought up concerns and anxieties about housing.

“In a lot of ways, Somerville is becoming a place where it’s increasingly difficult for lower- and middle-income people to afford to live,” Achen said. “We’re at risk of losing diversity of people in this city as it becomes more and more unaffordable.”

McLaughlin agreed that the city’s dearth of affordable housing helped to drive political participation last year. In particular, he cited the Planning Board’s controversial decision last spring to waive the city’s 20-percent affordable housing rule for the Federal Realty Investment Trust development at Assembly Row.

Leonard says the run-up to the decision, and its fallout, catalyzed some of Our Revolution’s activism.

“[The process] was laid out in front of a lot of people who previously thought, ‘This is the most progressive city in America,’” McLaughlin said. “They saw firsthand the influence that developers have on us.”

Somerville’s inclusionary zoning ordinance currently requires developers to price at least 20 percent of any new units at a rate affordable for lower-income residents. The Assembly Row deal, however, requires Federal Realty to meet only 16 percent affordability, and most of the affordable units will be located off-site rather than among the building’s 500 new units, according to the Planning Board’s decision document.

In a June 2017 Boston Globe letter, Mayor Joe Curtatone argued that Somerville would risk losing the development if it insisted on 20 percent affordability, especially because permits were approved several years ago, when the city’s inclusionary zoning rule was set at 12.5 percent.

Regardless, McLaughlin views this compromise as insufficient, and noted that the off-site affordable units might not be purchased by the city’s 100 Homes project, an affordable housing program established in 2014 with the goal of creating 100 affordable units, for several years.

“By the time we get these units, the [Assembly Row] building is going to be totally built,” he said. “We could have had 20 percent of 500 units, and now we’ll get six percent and maybe housing in the future.”

Newly elected Alderman-At-Large Wilfred Mbah, whose campaign was endorsed by Our Revolution Somerville, says his personal experiences with housing affordability pushed him to run. He moved to Somerville shortly after immigrating to the United States in 2010. He said he feels drawn to the city’s community, though he has had to relocate frequently because of rising rents. He chose to run for Alderman to help mitigate the situation directly, and though he is not opposed to real estate development, he wants to craft more favorable deals with developers in the future, he explained.

“This is not an investment city,” Mbah said. “This is a community.”

Local organizers and politicians have proposed a slate of policy options to help address housing prices. McLaughlin, Achen and Mbah all mentioned real estate transfer fees, which would pay for affordable housing through a fee assessed on real estate transactions, as well as tenants’ right of first refusal, which would give renters an opportunity to buy their residence if their landlord decides to sell. Both of these ideas will require approval or passage by the state legislature, they said. In addition, Mbah suggests forming a community land trust and cleaning up brownfield sites to build affordable housing.

“The status quo isn’t working anymore,” Mbah said. “We need to push our boundaries to see how we can make the community more inclusive [and] more affordable.”

While affordability is a major local issue, Our Revolution’s organizers believe that displeasure with the national political climate has pushed people to become more involved. Last October, Sanders visited Somerville and Cambridge to support candidates endorsed by Our Revolution, an effort that McLaughlin says was appreciated. Mbah believes the connection with national politics is natural, invoking former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous “all politics is local” mantra.

“Almost everything that we see at the national level has a lot of impact at the local level,” Mbah said.

Alderman Jesse Clingan, who was also endorsed by Our Revolution, said that the national climate and affordability issues both drove enthusiasm for local politics last year. He noted that it is difficult to estimate the extent of Our Revolution’s impact on his election, but he is confident that the association with Sanders likely brought out people who may not have voted otherwise.

“It definitely had to do with people turning their focus locally [and] feeling like they have some control,” Clingan said.

In Ward 2, where Alderman JT Scott won a contested election, the ballot count nearly quadrupled between 2015 and 2017. Scott said he believes this increase is partially due to the longstanding lack of contested elections in his ward, as well as efforts to lead a grassroots-based campaign emphasizing affordability and transparency. He said Our Revolution assisted with that approach.

“[Our Revolution’s greatest impact] was the ability to help people understand how some of these national issues translate directly to their lives here in Somerville,” Scott said.

Likewise, McLaughlin believes last year was marked by the engagement of people who were previously politically inactive. As a result, he added, the voting base was infused with new people, even though municipal election voters usually tend to be more conservative and are more likely to own their homes.

“This election showed that people who are very much at risk will vote in city elections,” he said.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that the city of Somerville allowed a majority of the affordable housing units from the Assembly Row development to be built off-site, rather than in the building’s 500 new units.