Elizabeth Weinbloom Candidate for Ward 6 Alderman Responses 2015

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1) If elected, what steps will you take to keep residents in Ward 6 informed about the municipal decisions, issues, and proposed changes that affect them: legislation and budgetary matters, proposed development, decisions by City officials, issues that surface from the community, etc.

EW: The primary role of a ward Alderman is to serve constituents – being an accessible, responsive, and proactive partner for the ward at City Hall. I am well-suited to this aspect of the role, as I don't have career or family commitments that would take me away from the ward during the day or jockey for my attention at night. As a freelance curriculum developer my work can be scheduled around the needs of the city.

In terms of keeping residents informed, I would go beyond the traditional model of relying on Resistat emails and occasional newsletters to keep residents up-to-date. I have made social media a central element of my campaign, and if elected I would continue to personally maintain an active Facebook and Twitter presence for the ward. None of the current aldermen have a strong social media presence, which increases the perception among the city’s younger residents that the city government is “not for them”; I would take as a social media role model Mayor Curtatone, whose detailed and informative Facebook posts are a great source of information. For another role model I’d look at Cambridge City Councilor Nadeem Mazen, who has done a fantastic job of communicating with his constituency using all the tools at a millennial’s disposal, and who has also engaged in constant organizing to mobilize his constituency not only for elections but also for action on specific issues and for holding the government accountable throughout its term. In my campaign I have also spent many hours staffing a table in Davis Square to register voters and make myself accessible for questions; this has been a great way to meet a diverse group of residents, and as alderman I would love to adapt this practice into regularly scheduled “office hours” in casual public spaces. And of course I’ll also be easily reachable through the telephone, email, or a knock on my door.

Finally, in the course of my campaign I have heard from frustrated constituents that the city needs to do better at publishing minutes within a reasonable timeframe after public meetings. Our professionals at City Hall work very hard, and I would push to make sure they have the tools they need to rectify that situation and give citizens a timely account of their government’s activities.

a) What steps, if any, should the City take -- and what steps will you take, if elected -- to provide access to information and services to Somerville residents who have limited English proficiency?

EW: Most of the city’s large Portuguese-, Spanish-, and Creole-speaking populations reside outside of my ward, but those residents and anyone else who speaks languages other than English should always feel welcome in Ward 6 and throughout the city. I am aware that the city hired fulltime interpreters for these three languages last year, and added phone-translation services to 311. I will support these and future efforts to increase the municipal government’s accessibility to people of all backgrounds. I speak conversational Spanish but I would rely on the professional interpreters for official communication.

2) What kinds of changes would you like to see in the nature and density of businesses and/or residences in Davis Square, and how should the City encourage those changes?

a) What do you want to see at 240 Elm Street (the former Social Security Building)? What can you do as an elected official to make sure this building is stabilized and occupied by a business that people in the neighborhood will support and patronize?

EW: Like everyone in the neighborhood, I have my wish list for 240 Elm; but at this point I think we need to take the best possible option, to avoid further disruption to the neighboring businesses as well as the dangers and instability of a partially-demolished building. Filling this vacancy should be one of the first priorities of the new alderman, and I would look very closely at the zoning and other regulations to find any possible way to pressure the owner to get the building quickly repaired and rented.

My own wish list is topped by a grocery, although something more affordable than Roche Brothers would have been preferable. Many neighbors still speak of a previous plan that involved a beer garden. I know many would prefer not-another-bar, and I agree that our square is already a bustling nightlife destination even without another spot for fancy drinks. But with the imminent departure of Johnny D’s, we have an opening for a live music venue and dance hall. With so much square footage available, I think the space could be ideal for an arts and performance venue, perhaps along the lines of the upcoming Thunder Road in Union Square, or The Sinclair in Harvard Square Such a venue would maintain Davis’s reputation as a hub for the arts and nightlife beyond just bars and pubs.

Of course, any project in the space is likely to involve condos or rental units. I would seek to ensure that a minimum of 20% of constructed units, in this space and other developments in the ward, be designated permanently affordable.

b) What is your vision for the West Branch Library and what will you do to ensure that the upcoming reconstruction happens and properly serves our community?

EW: Most importantly, the West Branch Library needs to be updated to full ADA-compliance so that all members of our community can access its resources. It’s a beautiful, historic building, and we have a responsibility to maintain both the facilities and the collections in good condition. The current state of the second floor stage is a particular shame I would love to see that stage in useable condition for events like author talks and community meetings.

Increasingly, libraries are multipurpose resource centers and diverse gathering places. The public library should be the most welcoming place in the neighborhood. We need to ensure that improvements and new facilities at West Branch enable a broad range of programming, especially activities for young children and afterschool time. The newly renovated Cambridge Public Library on Broadway is a good model for a building that balances those activities with media availability for young people and facilities that serve the many job seekers, homeless folks, and people needing basic internet access who rightly rely on our public libraries.

3) What kinds of changes, if any, would you like to see in the way Davis Square accommodates pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicular traffic?

EW: We have a responsibility to make our streets safe for all types of transit and all levels of mobility, without unduly preferring cars over other options. At a holistic level, I would push the city to implement a Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic fatalities, and I would seek to work with colleagues in the Cambridge and Medford city councils to address the regional issue of the safety of our roads for pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and passengers.

For pedestrians, we need to fix and replace the broken bricks that represent a tripping hazard and have a negative impact on the accessibility and attractiveness of the Square. I’d support the elimination of the left turn lane from Highland to Elm in favor of expanding the traffic island in front of Mike’s and creating a more useable public space. Another significant problem for pedestrians is the crosswalk in front of the library; at times of heavy traffic this light can block up College Ave all the way to Powderhouse, while at night a pedestrian is at serious risk from cars that speed through the blinking yellow light. I would want to work with a traffic expert to determine the best fix for this dangerous crosswalk, but one interim fix might be the addition of a visually-striking mural on the asphalt around the crosswalk, as in the Neighborways pilot; such murals have been found to slow drivers.

For cyclists, we need new and improved bike lanes that protect cyclists from the dangers of parked and moving cars, while also giving cyclists a better option than darting around traffic. A particularly dangerous street is Cutter Ave, which is frequented by cyclists approaching Davis from Elm St /Porter Sq.; a bike lane is sorely needed on this dark street, particularly at the two-way turn onto Highland. The bike lane on Willow Ave is excellent and would certainly be the preferred route from Porter to Davis, except for the four-way light at the intersection with Highland, which would be well-served by the addition of a bike box or a designated turn signal for cyclists.

In a cyclist’s dream version of Davis Square, Elm St would have only single-side parking to make room for a protected, two-way bike path… but let’s start with solutions that only require a bucket of paint.

I’m not a driver, so I will rely on the advice of others to know what would make the square safer and more convenient for motorists. I have heard from neighbors along College Ave, where there are many churches, that parking has become a major problem due to a proliferation of copied parking passes among churchgoers. I would investigate this issue and seek to find a solution that ensures reliable street parking for residents with cars.

4) What steps would you advocate that the City take to ensure that Somerville residents benefit from the employment opportunities created by development/construction projects that receive public funding support and the businesses that come to occupy those sites? What kinds of incentives will you advocate offering to other businesses that hire Somerville residents?

EW: All Somerville citizens should share in the benefits of development. It is my hope that this will happen by implementing more progressive municipal taxes. I favor a real estate transfer tax, targeted to primarily affect large commercial projects and speculators. Such a tax could directly fund affordable housing programs, public infrastructure, and education while alleviating some of the pressure on residential property taxpayers. Developers should be good neighbors, and that would be my preferred way for them to show it. But there are other community benefits that developers can offer. Developers can also show that they are good neighbors by hiring Somerville residents. Under a new real estate transfer tax scheme (which admittedly is a long-term goal that requires cooperation at the state level), perhaps developers could reduce their transaction tax burden by proving to the City that they had hired a certain percentage of Somerville residents or that their activities would result in the durable creation of a certain number of jobs.

In previous years, the BOA proposed the Local Hiring Ordinance, which would have required developers who receive grants or local tax incentives to hire 30% of their workforce from Somerville residents. I would have supported this ordinance, and I would support an attempt to revive or revise it, to ensure that all our residents, particularly those with barriers to employment, have the opportunity to benefit from the new development.

5) If market forces alone shape residential development, we'll likely see a lot more high-end studios, one bedroom, and two bedroom units, that are too small and too expensive for Somerville families with middle-school-age or older children. If these families can't find affordable multi-bedroom housing, they will likely have to leave the city, adversely impacting community stability and our middle and high school systems. What steps will you advocate to ensure preservation and expansion of the supply of family-size housing that is affordable to low and middle-income households?

EW: Growing families, low-wage workers, young tenants, students, artists and creative professionals, older people on fixed incomes, and those who’ve recently immigrated to America are among the populations being adversely affected by Somerville’s rising housing costs. These are the people who have made Somerville a diverse, vibrant, and exciting place to live, and they’re the ones who are being pushed out. The Somerville Community Corporation found that 43% of Somerville residents are paying more than a third of their income for housing and are therefore considered cost-burdened; for the two-thirds of the city’s residents who rent their homes, more than half are cost-burdened (including myself!). This is unacceptable, and it is getting worse.

One potential solution I’ve heard, from members of the Sustainable Neighborhoods committee and elsewhere, is to levy a transfer tax on property sales above a certain (high) threshold, which the city would use to fund affordable housing. (Such a tax requires the cooperation of our state legislature, which I am told is unlikely in the immediate future, but the Community Preservation Act could potentially be used in a similar fashion.) The city would then be free to offer incentives to benevolent landlords who use their position of power to support the community; designation as a benevolent landlord could be assigned for charging reasonable rents, increasing the energy efficiency of rental units, or combining smaller units into duplexes or other family-appropriate arrangements. Another approach would be to require developers of large new residential projects to include a certain number of family-friendly larger units, and that some of these units also be designated permanently affordable.

One method of preserving family-size housing that I do NOT support is the limit on the number of unrelated tenants who can share a unit. This regulation is often justified as a response to dangerous overcrowding. If a unit is dangerously overcrowded with five unrelated tenants, it would also be dangerously overcrowded with five brothers. Safety and overcrowding should be regulated on the basis of a unit’s square footage and modes of egress, not by blanket limitation of the number of tenants. The way to give families access to larger units is not to prohibit friends, cooperatives, and found-families from larger units; it’s to encourage the construction of more such units and the general easing of rent prices.

6) What should the City do to capitalize on the benefits of the Green Line extension, and what should it do to avoid or mitigate the adverse impacts on Ward 6 and other neighborhoods that it passes through?

EW: We in West Somerville must pay close attention to the introduction of the GLX in Union Square, so that we can learn from the successes and difficulties of the GLX’s introduction in that neighborhood. In particular, I think that we must begin attending to Ball Square’s development now, before the GLX is on our doorsteps, to help smooth the transition. As a city, we must remember that we, not the developers, are the ones holding the cards; our city is in demand, and therefore we have the leverage to demand more of the developers who want to profit off of our commercial centers, neighborhoods, and public transit. We should be requiring a minimum of 20% of all new units be permanently affordable, with a wide range of definitions of “affordable” within that. We should also demand any significant new residential construction include units that are large enough for growing families, as well as units that are accessible for people with disabilities and those who wish to age-in-place. Again, I support a transfer tax that would allow the city to tax large real estate transactions, particularly those of developers, and use the proceeds of that tax to fund affordable housing and our schools. Finally, I would support efforts to require (or incentivize) GLX construction to hire a minimum percentage of workers from Somerville.

7) What steps will you advocate to make Somerville an even more environment-friendly city? Your answer can address energy use, pollution, waste, water management, greenspaces, trees, etc.

EW: There isn’t a lot of room in Somerville for more green spaces, so we need to be smart with what we have. The extension of the community path is a great example of how we can turn underutilized space into pleasant and useful transit corridors and recreation areas. I would fully support the completion of the community path not the least reason being because it would be my commute from Davis to City Hall! As well as the connecting mixed-use path alongside the GLX. While the fate of the GLX is uncertain, we must make sure that the mixed-use path isn’t treated as a bargaining chip to be sacrificed in the budget overrun; that mixed-use path must be considered a vital and necessary element of the project. I’d like to see other odd-shaped and otherwise undeveloped parcels of city land be likewise rehabilitated as public green spaces.

I’m pleased that the city will be implementing a pilot program for curbside compost collection, and I will support the rollout of compost collection to the entire city as soon as the program is viable. Another way the city can help individual residents to reduce their footprint would be to encourage solar power conversion through helping educate homeowners and landlords about federal and state incentives for solar conversion, and better publicizing the Residential Energy Efficiency Program. I support the creation of a “benevolent landlords” program that would incentivize community-centered choices by our city’s landlords, and along with reasonable rents I would also include solar conversion and other energy-efficiency retrofits among the requirements for designation as a benevolent landlord.

Energy efficiency isn’t only for residences; city buildings and departments should be made up-to-snuff as well. Even simple initiatives like nightly shutdowns of municipal employees’ computers can make a big difference for the city’s energy footprint.

8) What should the City do to reduce the number of drug overdoses by Somerville residents? What can the City do to address problem drinking?

EW: Opioid misuse and overdose in Somerville is one of the most pressing public-health health problems facing the city today. The Somerville Office of Prevention and Somerville Overcoming Addiction are already working on a number of initiatives throughout the continuum of substance misuse care prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery and these actions should be continued and supported by the city. These initiatives include collecting unwanted prescription medication at the Somerville Police station, raising awareness about the Good Samaritan law and overdose prevention and reversal with naloxone, making sure naloxone is available behind-the-counter at area pharmacies, and presenting information about nonmedical use of prescription drugs to students and their parents.

One important and sustainable way the BOA could further help reduce overdoses would be to advocate for the hiring of a fulltime substance misuse coordinator; the coordinator would help people navigate the treatment system and manage the city's response to the opioid crisis. The BOA should also support our police department in "treatment not punishment" initiatives; Gloucester recently implemented a policy of connecting people with addictions to treatment and resources when they approach the police for help, to great success and acclaim, and Somerville should take note. The BOA could also work with the courts to involuntarily commit repeat offenders for treatment, and push the city to collect up-to-date data on the number of fatal and nonfatal overdoses so that the city’s responders can better understand who is being affected by this crisis. Finally, we should work to prevent future addiction by implementing school health curricula that cover the whole continuum of substance abuse prevention (from underage drinking to opioids), as well as by promoting proper storage and disposal of prescription drugs and the enrollment of prescribers in the Prescription Monitoring Program.

Preventing risky and underage drinking is of a piece with substance misuse prevention, and education is key. Somerville Cares About Prevention has been doing wonderful work for years, mostly with Somerville youth. For our college students, Tufts has improved its alcohol policies in recent years (for instance, formalizing a “good Samaritan” rule in 2013), and the city should help the university further combat risky drinking by students on- and off-campus. Looking forward, Somerville should continue to invest in these primary prevention strategies and relationships.

9) Why are you running for Alderman? What issues or concerned compelled you to run? What would you like to accomplish if elected?

EW: I began paying closer attention to local politics to learn more about housing issues. My roommates and I love living in Somerville and we want to build our lives here… but we don’t know if we’ll be able to afford it. The rent increases every year, and as we get into our thirties we might some day want to think about home ownership, but buying a home in the neighborhood where we’ve helped build a community will be well-nigh impossible. I wanted to see what the city was doing about the pressure on the housing market. And the answer is, well, not very much; supply and demand are in control of the housing market, and demand far outstrips supply. As I began looking more closely at these matters, I also saw that the rising rents and housing costs didn’t only affect young tenants like us, but also growing families who can’t find a unit large enough for their needs, low-wage workers who can no longer afford to live near their jobs, older folks on fixed incomes who bring stability to a neighborhood by aging in place, newcomers for whom Somerville is their first home in America, and artists and performers who helped make Somerville a desirable home in the first place.

I believe that a city as predominantly residential as ours has a responsibility to ensure the diversity of our housing stock to preserve the diversity of our community. So when I heard that Alderman Gewirtz was stepping down, I saw an opportunity to get deeply involved by running for the open seat on a platform of affordable housing; my goal is to make housing the number one issue on the city’s plate. Moreover, two-thirds of the city’s residents are renters, but all but one of our elected officials are homeowners. We need leaders on this issue who know what it’s like to look for an apartment in this city right now, and who can be a bridge between the sometimes-disconnected tenant community and the city’s long-term goals. Displacement and gentrification are a challenge all over the world. Rising housing costs are a reality in all the cities and towns in our region, and in many regions across the country. Somerville has an opportunity to be a leader in new approaches to this common problem; as a largely residential city, we have the bandwidth and we have the responsibility to explore innovative solutions and try things that haven’t been tried before. In so doing, we might not only help prevent displacement in Somerville, but also in cities across America.

10) What kind of political or community activism have you engaged in over the past few years?

EW: My dedication to the community began through the arts. I am committed to several local performance groups, including an amateur orchestra and Small & Casual Productions, a Somerville-based musical theater troupe that performs in living rooms. As half of a creative events production team, I have co-created large-scale public events for the Somerville Arts Council and the Somerville Armory. As my involvement in the local arts scene has grown, so too has my awareness of issues affecting the broader community, and I now seek to have a greater impact. I have previously been engaged and involved with social issues at the national level; last year, I marched as an ally in several #BlackLivesMatter protests against police brutality in Boston and New York, and I spent time at Occupy Boston and Occupy Wall Street, learning and asking questions. I am still at the beginning of my political career and I have been grateful for the opportunity of this campaign to connect with neighbors and help organize people around progressive priorities in Somerville. I also believe the arts are vital to the health of a community, and I will continue my involvement as a creator, producer, and consumer as I move into deeper engagement with nuts-and-bolts politics.

11) What else about your candidacy makes you a logical choice for a progressive voter?

EW: As this race’s only woman, only tenant, and youngest candidate, my election to the BOA would maintain the number of women in our elected offices and double the number of tenants and people under 40. It would also increase the professional diversity of our political representation. I am an educator, working in curriculum development, and I hold a masters in educational technology; adding an educator to the Board of Aldermen would further communication and cooperation between the BOA and the Schools Committee. I’m a feminist, and I strive to be an ally to people of color and the LGBT community. Moreover, over the course of my campaign I have worked hard to reach out to people who are often overlooked by local politicians; I’ve registered over a hundred new voters and specifically targeted tenants, young people, and students. Conventional wisdom says that these populations aren’t involved in local politics. Maybe that’s because no one has invited them to the table.