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Local elections hinge on housing this fall

Construction at 500 Ocean Avenue in Revere. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Gradually, and sometimes grudgingly, the municipalities that ring Boston have built more housing in recent years, their leaders blessing apartment and condo buildings as part of a broad push to tackle the regional shortage that’s driven rents skyward.

This fall, however, some of those elected officials may pay a price for encouraging residential construction in their backyards.

From Medford to Newton, Revere to Braintree, upcoming local elections could partially hinge on housing and development issues. Several of the 15 mayors who last fall together pledged to permit 185,000 new units of housing by 2030 are facing challengers, or potential successors, many of whom hold different ideas about how their communities should look and feel.


“Braintree is nice and quiet and peaceful, and that’s why people live here,” said Charles Kokoros, a Braintree city councilor who’s running to replace outgoing Mayor Joe Sullivan. “The message from voters has been clear. They do not want high-density residential development.”

That denser development is what housing experts, business groups, and the Baker administration say Greater Boston needs if it hopes to control housing prices that are among the highest in the nation. But decisions on whether — and how — to build it rest almost entirely with local officials: mayors, town meetings, and planning boards. The politics can get very local, very fast.

That’s what’s happening in Revere, where Mayor Brian Arrigo faces a stiff challenge from his predecessor in the office, Dan Rizzo.

Since winning the job four years ago, Arrigo has presided over a wave of development along the MBTA’s Blue Line in Beachmont and Revere Beach, including the 305-unit 500 Ocean Avenue. apartment building, opening this fall. On top of that, Amazon just announced plans for a huge distribution center in Revere, and even larger projects — the redevelopment of Suffolk Downs and, potentially, the Wonderland race track — loom on the horizon.


The growth, Arrigo said, is good for Revere. It brings jobs and new restaurants, and tax revenue to fund parks and a new high school.

“When I talk to people in Revere, they want those things,” Arrigo said. “They think there should be restaurants on the beach, places they can go and enjoy themselves.”

But Rizzo said he hears from residents who are worried about the traffic and parking shortages all those newcomers are causing. He’s pledging a two-year moratorium on apartment development and a new city plan.

“At some point, this overdevelopment negatively impacts the quality of life for our residents,” Rizzo said. “Revere doesn’t have an obligation to build housing for everyone who wants to live here.”

That blunt message highlights a truth about housing politics, particularly in Greater Boston’s suburbs: Most people don’t vote in local elections, and those who do typically are longtime residents, and often homeowners. In many cases, the people who would benefit most from new construction can’t vote because they aren’t yet residents.

That can make a tough vote on a big project even tougher for a mayor or city councilor who’s facing reelection, said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which helps Greater Boston cities and towns plan for housing and transportation.

“There are loud voices in opposition to a lot of these projects,” he said. “It’s never easy to support housing production.”


In some parts of the region — Cambridge and Newton, for instance — pro-housing groups have sprung up in recent years to support elected officials who encourage development and to balance more established neighborhood groups that often argue against it.

One of the largest housing advocacy groups, A Better Cambridge, has formed a political action committee that has raised nearly $14,000 this year, very little of it from developers. The group is supporting a slate of nine pro-housing candidates for City Council.

It’s a way to raise awareness, said cochair Alexandra Markeiewicz, and — in a city where nearly all 22 candidates for the nine at-large seats have voiced support for affordable housing — to highlight those that her group believes will best be able to effectively deliver it.

“They all say they’re for affordable housing,” she said. “One thing we’ve been grappling with is how to illustrate the differences, in a genuine way.”

Of course, endorsements can cut both ways. Just ask Sumbul Siddiqui.

A first-term Cambridge city councilor, Siddiqui has emerged several times as a swing vote on housing issues, most recently the controversial plan to sell the shuttered Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge to a developer, for use mainly as an office building. Some in Cambridge wanted to block the deal, saying the public building should be used for affordable housing or something else with public benefits, instead of being turned into pricey office space near Kendall Square.

As a key vote approached last month, Siddiqui was undecided. Two influential groups that had endorsed her two years ago — the Cambridge Residents Alliance and the Bernie Sanders-affiliated Our Revolution Cambridge — told her they would withhold endorsements this time if she supported the project, according to Siddiqui. But she also heard from residents who wanted something to happen with the decaying building, widely decried as an eyesore. So Siddiqui negotiated with the developer to double the amount of affordable housing it would hold — to 48 units — before casting a decisive sixth vote in favor of the plan.


“It’s a better project now,” Siddiqui said. “Our Revolution and CRA, I know they’re not going to be happy. But in this job I’ve learned you can’t make everyone happy.”

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.