WGBH Boston: With No Incumbent, The Race For Allston-Brighton's City Council Seat Is Wide Open
By: Arjun Singh
After more than a decade serving as the city councilor from Allston-Brighton, Councilor Mark Ciommo announced last month that he would not run for re-election. Without an incumbent, the residents of Allston-Brighton, for the first time in 11 years, will be represented by a fresh face in City Hall. So far, three candidates have announced their candidacies: Brandon Bowser, Liz Breadon and Lee Nave. None have held public office before, and while none of them were born or raised in Allston or Brighton, Bowser and Breadon have lived in the district for over a decade, and Nave has been a resident for several years.
Though it's still early, the issues of affordable housing and public transportation dominate the platforms of each candidate. In separate conversations with WGBH News, each committed themselves to working towards the development of more affordable housing in Allston-Brighton and working to combat traffic congestion that is getting worse every year.
Lee Nave landed in Allston-Brighton by way of Ferguson and St. Louis, Missouri. Nave, who is currently a community organizer for Citizens for Juvenile Justice, says economic mobility and affordable housing will be the focal points of the campaign. Like Breadon and Bowser, Nave also wants to mandate that new developments rent 20 percent of their units at affordable prices. He said that among his concerns is that Allston and Brighton will lose a significant part of their current population if rents continue to rise.
“We have a pretty large artist population in Allston in particular that’s being priced out. We also have a large senior population, and even though a lot of them own homes, who are being priced out of the area,” Nave said.
Nave is also in favor of pushing institutions exempted from property taxes to increase their PILOT payments to the city.
“As a city councilor or a mayor, we have to look at every revenue source and try and get as much as possible, because we can’t just depend on 70% of our budget coming from our own people from property taxes when we have folks making billions of dollars and not helping out the city as much as they could,” he said.
Though Nave is the newest to the district, he believes his advantage will come in tapping into his experience as a community organizer to build a diverse coalition that can help vault him into office. Nave also has an intimate understanding of the local political process due to his advocacy and organizing in support of the 2018 criminal justice reform bill, which, among other things, raised the minimum age a child can be held criminally responsible and tried in juvenile court from 7 to 12 and encouraged district attorneys to put people in diversion programs rather than jail.
“I’m big on coalition building,” Nave said. “I can talk to a Trump voter. I can talk to anyone and have a conversation to come up with any kind of conversation or compromise.”
Nave hopes to bring his experience in criminal justice reform with him to City Hall, where he also plans on tackling the city’s traffic crisis by supporting congestion pricing and Councilor Michelle Wu’s proposal to charge $25 for a residential parking permit.
“We have to really look at how important having the city be more public transportation friendly is, and really invest in that as an option instead of just looking at people having as many cars as they want,” Nave said.
Residents of Allston-Brighton may already be familiar with public school teacher Brandon Bowser, who ran against Ciommo in 2017. Though Bowser lost in the race, he did win 38.4 percent of the vote. Similar to his 2017 run, Bowser is putting the housing crisis front and center in his campaign. Bowser, who has commended Mayor Marty Walsh for taking steps towards investing in housing stock, said that he’d like to work with the mayor to reform the city’s Inclusionary Development Policy to require that developers rent 20 percent of the units in new buildings at affordable prices rather than the current requirement of 13 percent.
“What we need to focus on is making the conversation around housing we can afford,” Bowser said. “So, we need to make sure as we have this development, we’re riding that wave instead of being crushed by it.”
When it comes to reforming the city’s transportation system, Bowser said he’d like to make better use of data to inform reforms, and would push for more transportation studies to achieve that goal. As for imposing congestion pricing to reduce the amount of drivers on the road, Bowser said that while he’s not fully committed to the proposal, he views it as a “tool in the tool box.”
In the race, Bowser believes his strength will lie in building a strong coalition of voters between Allston and Brighton, two neighborhoods that, while often lumped together, tend to be split in terms of age, income and culture.
“[In this race, we’re] definitely making sure that we’re bringing different folks together,” Bowser said. “Renters and homeowners, workers and retirees, young folks and old folks and Allston and Brighton together; that’s the major focus is coalition building.”
Aside from being the only candidate who has run for public office before, Bowser believes his strength as a councilor will be derived from his experience as a teacher at the Jackson Mann School in Allston and the Thomas A. Edison K-8 School in Brighton.
“I go in every day to work and I serve the kids of Allston-Brighton, and I think being in Allston-Brighton schools has given me an inside look at what this district looks like, and what this city looks like, and what the needs are — and the needs are great,” Bowser said. “What I’m trying to take on as a city council candidate is meeting people where they’re at — finding out their perspective, and then trying to synthesize that into a cohesive thought to share with other people, and that’s what an educator does.”
Noting the appointment of a new superintendent, Bowser said that he is “100 percent” in favor of returning the Boston School Committee to a purely democratically elected body, as opposed to an appointed one.
Liz Breadon first emigrated from Ireland to Brighton nearly two decades ago. During her time in Brighton, Breadon has opened a small business — a homeopathy studio — and has worked with a variety of local civic organizations. As an activist, Breadon was integral to the fight to keep the Faneuil branch of the Boston Public Library open and also to convert the Presentation School building in Oak Square into a community center. Though she was not a candidate in the 2017 election, Breadon organized one of the debates between Bowser, Ciommo and Alex Golonka.
As a councilor, Breadon says one of her top priorities would be to advocate for more affordable housing by fighting to increase the required amount of affordable housing units in new buildings to 20 percent, and also to make sure that the units would be considered affordable to the residents of Allston-Brighton. Key to Breadon’s concerns are that the district’s median area income is distorted due to the inclusion of more affluent suburbs. As a result, she says, even some “affordable” units built in Allston-Brighton are still too expensive for some residents.
“The thing I’m really concerned about now is affordable housing, because we’re building a huge amount of new housing in Allston-Brighton — thousands of units,” Breadon said. “The fact is that it’s not affordable for the people who actually live here, and it’s not in the price bracket that working families and young professionals can afford to purchase a home or even rent a home. It’s really difficult.”
A proclaimed environmentalist, Breadon is also dedicated to increasing the amount of green space in the district and cutting down on pollution from transportation costs. Citing its success in London, Breadon says she is in favor of using congestion pricing to encourage carpooling and public transportation usage.
“It’s been used in other cities in the world. It’s really to try and incentivize people to carpool or take the mass transit,” Breadon said. “I think it’s really critical to use every tool that we have at our disposal to try and reduce our carbon emissions because we’ve got a global warming crisis ... and you have to walk and chew gum at the same time.”
If elected, Breadon would also push to have universities, hospitals and cultural institutions that generate significant income, but are exempt from property taxes, to increase their payment-in-lieu-of-tax (PILOT) contribution to the full amount requested by the city each year. In the 2018 fiscal year, medical, cultural and educational institutions paid the city 81 percent of the city’s PILOT request.
“We really feel like it’s time for universities to pay their full assessment of the PILOT taxes,” Breadon said. “Our neighborhood’s been greatly impacted by the presence of these universities.”
Another of Breadon’s priorities is improving transportation infrastructure. Though much of transportation policy is done in the state legislature, Breadon would push for smaller reforms such as adding a protected bike lane on the stretch of Commonwealth Avenue that runs from Allston-Brighton to Kenmore Square, a street that has seen several cyclist fatalities.