“We've Completely Changed How People Think Leadership Should Look”

The mayors of three Greater Boston cities, all women, talk about breaking preconceptions, and what’s at the top of their to-do lists

For the first time, three of Tufts’ host communities are run by women. To mark Women’s History Month and the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life hosted a conversation with Breanna Lungo-Koehn, Katjana Ballantyne, and Michelle Wu—the mayors of Medford, Somerville, and Boston, respectively. The March 22 conversation, entitled “The Future (of Cities) is Female,” was moderated by Mary R. Jeka, Tufts’ senior vice president and general counsel. Much of the conversation focused on how these mayors are trying to create conditions in their cities in which every resident thrives.

Here’s what the trio of trailblazers had to say:

It took a century for women to head up these three cities simultaneously because gender norms (and other preconceptions about identity) are tough to bust.

When Wu first ran for Boston City Council, and later for mayor, she was told that every aspect of her identity would be a nonstarter. “Everyone told me… Boston doesn't tend to elect women, young people, Asian Americans, and people not born in the city,” she said. In her early years on the council, which she eventually led as president, its few female members were always referred to as “the women councilors,” she said. Today, the majority of city councilors are women. “I haven't heard the term ‘women counselors’ anymore,” Wu remarked. “We've completely changed how people think leadership should look and who deserves a seat at the table where decisions are made.”

Working toward inclusive cities where everyone thrives is at the top of their agendas. Federal pandemic aid is helping.

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), with its $1.9 trillion in federal aid to help communities recover from the economic and health effects of the pandemic, has enabled Somerville to commit $9 million in funding to childcare, rental assistance, and a universal basic income pilot project. The pilot will give a group of low-income residents $1,000 a month over two years to spend on things that would stabilize their lives.

Wu said the infusion of ARPA money represents a “once-in-a-lifetime level of resources” to address problems on a systemic level, including diversifying Boston’s mental health workforce, which is critical because of the uptick in behavioral health needs; finding permanent, supportive housing for unsheltered residents; and supporting small businesses that have been devastated by the pandemic.

Lungo-Koehn spoke about Medford’s recent diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, including creating and filling the position of DEI director; holding trainings for city staff; and instituting a multilingual resource phone line where speakers of any language can call for assistance with things like housing, medication access, and transportation.

Creating more affordable housing is critical.

All three mayors spoke at length about the things they are doing to provide more affordable housing. Medford has created a “housing production plan” that will, among other things, provide a strategy for ensuring that 10 percent of its housing stock is affordable. That city is also drafting a strategy for an affordable housing trust that allows for the collection of funds targeted solely for affordable housing. The trust would then collaborate with stakeholders such as private developers and nonprofits to create and preserve affordable housing.

Boston is attacking the housing affordability problem on numerous fronts, Wu said. It just completed an audit of city-owned buildings suitable for redevelopment, including for affordable housing. The city council voted to remove minimum parking space requirements on affordable housing projects, lowering development costs. And a proposal to impose a “transfer fee” of up to two percent on real estate sales over $2 million—to be paid by the seller—would benefit Boston’s Neighborhood Housing Trust. Wu has also convened a rent stabilization working group that would look at how other communities have set limits on how much rents can increase year to year. She hopes to submit a rent stabilization bill to the state legislature during its next session.

Affordable housing and transportation equity are inextricably linked.

Ballantyne underlined the link between affordable housing and transportation, saying that lower-income residents also need efficient, affordable ways to get from their homes to jobs and other places. The day before the panel discussion, she and other dignitaries marked the opening of Somerville’s new Union Square station—the first phase of the T’s Green Line extension project that expands the light rail line north into Somerville and Medford. “The Green Line extension represents a milestone in our efforts to restore Somerville back to a place where residents and their families can live with social, economic, environmental, and transit justice,” she said. Ballantyne added that as a hedge against skyrocketing housing costs in the vicinity of new Somerville T stops, she has “laid the groundwork” for allowing developers to increase the density of affordable housing projects. Ballantyne emphasized that other linkages need to be made among Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and beyond. “We also need to electrify everything and keep pushing to make sure that public transportation is free,” she said.

Wu agreed that geographic mobility leads to economic mobility and that fare-free transit is key. She mentioned that earlier in the day she, former Boston mayor Kim Janey, and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley celebrated a step toward her vision of a free transit system by riding the now-free 23 bus connecting Dorchester to Roxbury.

Mothers of young children take note: A future mayor may be living under your roof.

When asked to name a woman who had inspired them to get into politics, all three named their mothers. Wu also mentioned Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was one of her professors at Harvard Law School, while Lungo-Koehn also gave a shout out to her father, saying that both parents taught her at a young age to know she “could do anything a man could do.”

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