All five major candidates for Boston mayor gathered for a virtual forum Tuesday to discuss a range of issues from housing to education just two weeks ahead of the preliminary election which will narrow the field to just two.
All of the candidates are people of color and four are women, a historic first in a city that has only elected white men for the top post.
The office is currently held by Kim Janey, who as city council president stepped in as acting mayor after former Mayor Marty Walsh left to become President Joe Biden’s labor secretary. She is the first Black Bostonian to serve as mayor and is hoping to win the job outright.
She’s facing competition from fellow city councilors Michelle Wu, Andrea Campbell and Annissa Essaibi George. John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief, is also running.
One focus of Tuesday’s debate was housing. Boston is experiencing rapid growth that is driving up housing costs and putting pressure on many long-term residents, including tenants and prospective homeowners.
Some of the candidates drew from their own struggles finding stable housing in the city while they were growing up.
Janey said she lived in subsidized housing and even a shelter for a time before eventually being able to purchase a home in the city.
“I certainly experienced housing insecurity,” she said.
As acting mayor, Janey said she was able to set aside millions for rental relief and foreclosure prevention during the pandemic.
Campbell also said she grew up in public housing in the city before becoming a homeowner, an experience that has helped shape her views.
“Everything in my housing plan is about breaking” the cycle and helping others find a home, she said.
Barros said Boston has lost a significant portion of its Black population over the past decade because they have been priced out of the city.
“Boston is far too expensive for too many of our families,” he said. “Many of us know neighbors who can’t stay.”
Wu said housing is about more than a place to live. She said it is also critical to the health of individuals and neighborhoods.
“Housing is the foundation of our recovery,” she said.
Essaibi George said the city has to guarantee it’s doing all it can to ensure future generations can still call Boston home, particularly helping those hoping to become the first in their family to buy a home.
“We have to be building more affordable housing and paths to homeownership,” she said, adding that the city must also focus on creating affordable rental units.
All the candidates said they are committed to improving public housing in the city.
They also expressed support for increased mental health services in schools.
Wu, who helped raise her sisters while her mother struggled with mental illness, said students have wrestled with mental illnesses because of the coronavirus.
“This is going to be the ongoing pandemic after the pandemic,” she said.
Essaibi George said she’s pushed to make sure a full-time social worker is stationed in every school.
Campbell also said the city needs to make a stronger investment in school counselors.
“We have much work to do to transform the Boston Public Schools,” she said.
The candidates also addressed concerns about the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the area of the city sometimes referred to as “Mass and Cass” that’s long been an epicenter for the opioid epidemic. The area has become a symbol of the city’s larger struggle with substance abuse.
Janey said her uncle died of an overdose in the 1980s.
“At the time everyone treated it as a criminal justice issue and not a public health issue.” she said.
The election marks a historic change in a city that has wrestled with racial strife throughout its history, including the turmoil over school busing in the 1970s.
All the candidates are Democrats. Mayoral races in Boston do not include party primaries. The top vote earners in the Sept. 14 preliminary election will go head to head on Nov. 2.
Tuesday’s forum is being hosted by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.
Since it first started electing mayors nearly 200 years ago, Boston has never elected a woman or person of color to lead the city.