It’s not every day that a prospective president weighs in on a development project in East Boston.
But these are unusual times.
Thursday evening, two days ahead of a scheduled rally on Boston Common — and in advance of next week’s Massachusetts primary — leading Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders sounded off about one of the biggest development projects Boston has considered. The Vermont senator fired off a tweet about Suffolk Downs, where activists are pushing for more affordable housing to be included in a massive redevelopment plan. He left no doubt that he is on their side.
We need affordable housing for all instead of more gentrifying luxury developments for the few. I stand with the longtime residents of East Boston fighting displacement from the communities they have spent generations building. https://t.co/OGpZAD755O— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 27, 2020
Given his busy schedule, it’s unclear how closely Sanders has been following the two-year debate over Suffolk Downs, where the HYM Investment Group wants to build about 10,000 homes and millions of square feet of office space on the Boston-Revere line over the next decade or so. But he’s right in saying that affordable housing has been at the center of the discussions.
Activists have been pushing HYM to set aside as much as half of the housing in the complex at low-cost rents, noting — as Sanders does — that East Boston has seen a wave of displacement as investors have bought, and raised rents on, much of the neighborhood’s stock of older housing, occupied mostly by working-class residents.
HYM has said requiring more subsidized units would drive up project costs and make it less economically attractive to build. And, it notes, the company already has pledged to create more than 900 units of affordable housing in the project, and fund about 500 more units off-site — the most of any private development in Boston’s history, while only pushing out a few horses.
“We agree that Boston needs more affordable housing. That’s why our plans for Suffolk Downs will create the largest amount of affordable housing ever created by a single project in Massachusetts," HYM managing director Tom O’Brien said in a statement Thursday night. “We are adding to the communities of East Boston and Revere without displacing a single resident.”
Twitter — at least the subset that closely follows Boston housing and politics — lit up Thursday night in response to Sanders, with Suffolk Downs critics hailing the senator for shining his spotlight in their direction while project supporters pointed out it would add a huge amount of housing in a city that desperately needs more.
Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo, whose city includes about one-third of the project, directed a dismissive “OK Boomer,” at Sanders. While East Boston’s city councilor, Lydia Edwards, who has been a key player in negotiations over the project, jumped in with the trademark tagline of her preferred candidate, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Despite the attention of national politicians, though, the fate of Suffolk Downs is up to the Boston Planning & Development Agency. Their board could vote on the plan as soon as next month.
And by then, the presidential circus will have long moved on to other states