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Of all the guys, Maura Healey picks this freakin’ guy
On how to really show you don’t care about affordable housing
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The Gentrification Man, rewarded
A fun thing happened in statewide news yesterday!! The person most personally responsible for the increasingly dire housing situation in Worcester was made the state’s Secretary of Housing by Governor Maura Healey.
From Healey’s statement Monday afternoon:
Governor Maura Healey and Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll today announced that they are naming former Worcester City Manager Edward (Ed) M. Augustus to serve as the state’s first Housing Secretary in more than 30 years. Augustus, who helped to create thousands of new housing units at all income levels during his tenure in Worcester, will lead Governor Healey’s new Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities beginning June 1.
“Ed Augustus is the leader Massachusetts needs to take the helm of our new Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities and drive an ambitious, collaborative strategy to increase housing production and lower costs across the state,” said Governor Maura Healey. “He left Worcester a stronger city than it was a decade ago, with booming economic development in the downtown and thousands of new housing units. Importantly, he is intimately familiar with local government and knows what it takes to collaborate with municipalities to move our state forward on our housing goals.”
Fox meets henhouse! The amount of work “new housing units at all income levels” is doing in this statement. Augustus presided over a whole lot of expensive housing creation and almost no affordable housing, as we’ll get to a little later.
The position is a new one, proposed by Healey earlier this year and approved by the Legislature last month. It was marketed as the fulfillment of a campaign promise to do something about the affordable housing situation in Massachusetts, and on those grounds it found a lot of support in the Legislature. It passed the Senate 39-0 and, as Masslive put it, “lawmakers have pointed to a rise in rent and home prices that are putting a strain on residents.”
But now Augustus, someone who played an integral role in worsening that very situation—indeed, welcomed and celebrated it—is set to sit in the chair. It’s like Healey wanted to find the most antithetical person in the state to the stated goals of the position. And the further you dive into the details, the more stark that becomes.
The problem this new position was supposed to address is that economic development and efforts to mitigate the consequences of economic development were being overseen by the same office. Instead of a “dual housing and economic development secretary used in past administrations” there would now be split in two. The housing secretariat, presiding over the “Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities” is to focus solely on housing and related issues, like rent affordability and homelessness.
The idea is to put up a sort of fence between the economic development work (read: bribing developers with “incentives”) and addressing housing issues. That makes sense. The two goals are at best mutually exclusive. This restructure is supposed to be a way of acknowledging that. Putting up a fence. But Augustus is on the wrong side of that fence. He is an economic development guy. His legacy is tied to success in those terms. He is not a housing policy guy. He did a whole lot on the economic development side of the fence and very little on the housing policy side. Appointing him to this position negates the very point of creating it. And it’s not an accident on Healey’s part. It’s in keeping with her whole thing since she assumed office. Matt Murphy at Statehouse News Service put it well in this interview from last November:
And if you dig a little deeper and start looking at who she put on these transition committees, I think you see a sort of diversity of viewpoints that she's assembled around some of these topics. You know, if you look at the jobs committee, for instance, she has business leaders on there. She has unions represented on there. And she you know, and she has the community colleges, education on there. We've heard her talk about the connection between our state's higher education system connecting talent to a pipeline of jobs that will feed the economy.
Same thing in some of these other categories, whether it be housing — where you have affordable housing advocates coupled with real estate developers. I think this signals, and what a lot of people think is, that this governor is interested in perhaps following in the footsteps somewhat of Governor Baker, leading from the center and looking to really find ways where she can make progress rather than driving perhaps a purely progressive agenda.
Translation: Any sort of campaign trail promise to distance herself from the Baker Administration will go unfulfilled. She is continuing the work. This Augustus appointment is a part of that project.
In the eight years that Augustus held office as Worcester’s city manager, from 2014 to 2022, the gentrification machine roared unabated. During that time, average rents increased 67 percent.
Market rate units exploded while affordable housing construction lagged far behind. From a post of mine on the matter last September:
The vast majority of new housing developments in the city take the form of these large, boxy complexes, which promise a luxury urban experience and come at a price the majority of Worcester renters cannot afford. In a May report, which may not even take into consideration some of the above projects, city officials outlined a remarkable disparity: While there are 1925 units of “market rate” apartments in the works, there are only 129 “affordable” units in the same pipeline. The housing coming online is overwhelmingly geared toward a more well-off customer, and while there’s a case to be made that new high-end housing might alleviate the squeeze on cheaper stock, it falls apart when the westward movement of people priced out of Boston is taken into consideration.
This was intentional. This was Augustus’ whole bag. Gentrification wasn’t an unfortunate consequence of his leadership, it was the goal. Nevertheless—or more likely because of it—Healey appointed him state housing secretary.
Augustus may have been ostensibly beholden to the City Council, but as we’ve talked about so very much in here of late, the Council is not really the manager’s boss in any functional way. Not the way it currently works. To truly understand Augustus and his power and his designs for the city, there’s another, much more shadowy government entity to consider: the Economic Development Coordinating Council. This body did not meet publicly, was not subject to the open meeting law and it was never really reported on in any serious way. But back in 2015, Brad Kane at the Worcester Business Journal offered an apt description:
If you are looking for the true economic and political power in Central Massachusetts, you should start by walking into the Worcester city manager's office at 8:30 a.m. every Friday.
There, the executive committee of the Economic Development Coordinating Council holds its weekly meeting to discuss various proposals that impact the lifeblood of the city and region.
This was the brainchild of Augustus and Chamber of Commerce head Tim Murray, per the article. And it’s through this body—not the council or any other elected or even vaguely democratic board—that the project of gentrifying Worcester was largely authored. The City Council didn’t raise your rents. Augustus and the Economic Development Coordinating Council did that. To look at this body is to see the growth machine in action, far away from any public scrutiny or accountability. The WBJ continues:
The EDCC is the brainchild of the city's key political and business leaders, who sought to lock several economic development organizations under one vision. Its formation was an agreement between the city, the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Worcester Business Development Corp. and the Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives.
The “key political and business leaders” operated in this way for the entirety of Augustus’ tenure. The mayor was a member of the EDCC, but not as the mayor, just as a key political and business figure. This is the engine by which all the large “market rate” and “luxury” housing projects got the greenlight. This body likely gave the thumbs up on Polar Park before the Council got to look at it. I don’t know that for a certain but let’s not be naive here. Through this body, the chosen membership and the lack of any public accountability or scrutiny in the press, the “renaissance” in Worcester took its shape without any sort of democratic oversight. That’s how Augustus wanted it. How Murray wanted it. How the developers wanted it. And that overall project was laid out years before anyone with real control over the narrative broached the subject that Worcester has a housing affordability problem. By then the damage had already been done. The groundwork for snowballing property values and real estate speculation were laid. Worcester was put “on the map,” and Augustus was celebrated for it, and anyone who said “hey wait what is this going to do rent prices” was shouted down as a naysayer and ignored.
Only after this Pandora’s Box had been safely opened by Augustus and the rest of the “key political and business figures” did the idea of affordable housing policy enter the public discourse, and on terms set by Augustus and Petty. In 2019, after much demand from the community, Augustus presented something that sort of looked like affordable housing. That October, the city announced the Worcester Housing Now Initiative. Here’s what Petty and Augustus said about it in the release:
“While there is great excitement for all the new development happening in our downtown, we must ensure all residents have safe and healthy living conditions,” said Mayor Joseph M. Petty. “Triple deckers are the soul of Worcester and bringing back offline units will provide some immediate relief to the lack of affordable rental unit availability.”
“The creation, rehabilitation, and preservation of affordable housing within our neighborhoods is something the City administration takes very seriously,” added City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. “This new multi-layered funding and educational approach will allow for safe, affordable units for both individuals and families across our city.”
The plan amounted to a half-hearted attempt to fix up three deckers. It was paltry. A cheap concession.
Then in 2021, there was the affordable housing trust fund, and only amid calls from activists to do more with ARPA money on affordable housing. Meanwhile, the numbers spoke for themselves:
With current proposed or ongoing housing projects, 2,265 rental units are expected to become available over the next five years that represent an investment of $477.5 million, Sullivan said, adding that 240 of the units are designated as affordable housing while the rest are market-rate. Since 2011, 1,802 units have been constructed in Worcester.
Amid ever increasing calls for action, Augustus proposed the inclusionary zoning ordinance in 2022. The version that inevitably passed earlier this year was feckless. The potential impact on developer bottom line outweighed the impact on renters. And what we have is a policy that sounds like it does something but doesn’t.
So from 2014 to 2019, Augustus and Co. carried out an economic development strategy that produced the affordable housing crisis with no attempt at mitigating it. From 2019 to present, Augustus and his successor, Eric Batista, have paid lip service to the problem while offering policy proposals so tepid as to be useless. They never under any circumstances considered interfering with the growth machine on the behalf of struggling residents. In the inclusionary zoning debate, we clearly saw it. That option was never on the table.
And then, there’s all the other stuff! Remember how three Black women in six years quit the chief diversity officer job, saying the culture at City Hall was immune to change? The very scandal Augustus abruptly resigned in the midst of?
In light of that, this quote from Sen. Lydia Edwards back in April when the Senate approved the position is darkly comedic:
The new department, Edwards said, will help eliminate “all forms of discrimination.”
Of course Edwards had no idea who Healey would have picked! This is not a man with a track record of eliminating all forms of discrimination. There’s three successive chief diversity officers who would say otherwise. And lest we forget, the Worcester Police Department, which Augustus presided over for eight years, is currently under Department of Justice investigation for instances of racial and gender discrimination. (Some concerning news on that front a little later in the post unfortunately.)
In the two storylines—the chief diversity officer turnover and the DOJ investigation—we see massive black marks on Augustus’s record which are deeply at odds with the promise of change represented in this new position. In his whole tenure as city manager, we see someone deeply committed to ensuring the developers get what they want and are not bothered with any burdensome protections for residents. Sorry you had hopes Sen. Edwards! Consider them squashed.
This is the person Healey tapped to spearhead her administration’s housing policy. This is the guy she said created “thousands of new housing units at all income levels,” and thus deserves control over state housing policy.
In this appointment Healey is basically saying she doesn’t take affordable housing seriously as an issue. The problem will not be addressed. For the real stakeholders, it’s not even a problem at all. Love living in a blue state!
March of the Lady Uncles
Last week we talked about a push for a moratorium on homeless encampment sweeps. During the public health subcommittee meeting where the idea was presented, Director of Health and Human Services Mattie Castiel said this:
“Think about all the people who are against siting a shelter. That’s been our problem everywhere we go,” she said. “People who are homeless need to be treated with dignity and I think that’s our major problem.”
And as if she knew it was coming, those very people with that very problem got together Monday to force the Zoning Board of Appeals to delay approval of a temporary family homeless shelter at the Zion Lutheran Church on Whitmarsh Avenue. A small one. Room for six families. Families!
Leading the charge? None other than At-Large City Councilor Donna Colorio. From the Telegram:
Councilor-at-Large Donna Colorio agreed it was concerning that residents had not been notified and the residents feel like nobody involved in decision making cared about their say. She said the city wants to provide homeless shelters, but it must work with the neighborhoods.
"What I've read from Burncoat posts, what I've read on the Nextdoor app, what I've heard tonight, it's disturbing to me that people were not notified," Colorio said. "All they want to do is be involved in the conversation prior to the decisions being made."
Colorio said the neighbors had compassion for the homeless.
"You're hearing compassion from the people who testified. They don't want to stop the homeless people from going into the shelter. They want it to be made sure that the neighborhood creates a safe environment for everybody," Colorio said.
Yeah they don’t want homeless people—repeat: families!—to have a temporary shelter per se they just don’t want to see it personally. We want people to not be on the street but better the street than my street.
Worcester has an aggressive, motivated and growing progressive coalition. And that’s great. But there is this other side. The Donna Colorio side. The Jose Rivera side. These people are best thought of as Uncles and Lady Uncles, as depicted in this hilarious Gilly and Keeves sketch.
Understanding these people to be Uncles and Lady Uncles, represented by the four Lady Uncles on the City Council—Kate Toomey, Donna Colorio, Candy Mero-Carlson and Moe Bergman—brings a level of clarity to the situation. They’re not motivated politically so much as they’re motivated by Uncle Energy. They are the Uncles making “ALL LIVES MATTER (even the Black ones)” macaroni art. They are the Lady Uncles looking out the window at kids riding their bikes and going “yeah from which country.” They aren’t to be taken seriously, but they are going to vote. There’s no reasoning with an Uncle or a Lady Uncle. They simply need to be outnumbered and otherwise ignored.
They may have delayed this shelter approval, but I have it on good authority the delay isn’t going to accomplish much. This much needed shelter will go up, but it will also be a motivating factor for the Uncle Coalition. Same as it is at the Thanksgiving table the Uncles need to be shouted down or else allowed to tucker themselves out. All an Uncle wants to do is shout. What we can’t let happen is this shouting—on the townie Facebook groups and Nextdoor—to translate into anything more than that. We mustn’t fear the Lady Uncle, but we can’t lose sight of them either.
Some late-breaking news today of significant relevance to Worcester, courtesy the Associated Press:
Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins will resign after a monthslong ethics investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general into her appearance at a political fundraiser and other potential issues, her attorney said Tuesday.
The Justice Department’s watchdog has yet to release its report detailing the findings of its investigation, but an attorney for Rollins told The Associated Press that she will be submitting a letter of resignation to President Joe Biden by close of business Friday.
Rollins is of course the official through whom the Department of Justice investigation into the Worcester Police Department came to be. Very unclear what impact this’ll have on the investigation but these sorts of things do tend to be political footballs, as I wrote about in Welcome To Hell World back when the investigation was announced:
Since 1994 there have been just 76 such investigations into the roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country. These investigations are wonky, they take years, and while there’s a solid body of academic research showing they’re effective, they’re not a panacea. Police killings have clearly not stopped as a result of them. But the research shows that over time they do tend to lower instances of excessive use of force.
The main idea here is that the DOJ uses their leverage to get local police departments to change policies they otherwise wouldn’t by way of a “consent decree,” which is legalese for “handshake deal but with a very firm hand.”
David Simon’s mini-series We Own This City (2022) depicts the chaos of the Baltimore Police Department after Freddie Gray’s killing and contains probably the only dramatization of a DOJ pattern and practice investigation ever put to film. The main DOJ attorney in the show, Nicole Steele, describes the work this way: “we hold hands and we twist arms.”
Investigations like these have also been a political football since they came into being. Clinton used them. Bush didn’t. Obama used them. Trump didn’t. Fulfilling a campaign promise, Biden brought them back. Worcester is the sixth such investigation launched under his administration.
It is entirely possible that the Worcester investigation is lost in the administrative shuffle. Or not! Let’s hope it isn’t. But the concern is real. The person who replaced Rollins will almost certainly be a Democrat, appointed by a Democratic president, buuuuut as the Maura Healey/Ed Augustus portion of this program shows, “Democrat” means a lot of different things.
Something to just wait and see on, I suppose.
Odds and ends
Thanks again for reading! Please subscribe! And share!
This is a very busy week for me so if you saw any typos in this post no you didn’t.
Highly suggest reading the most recent post in Shaun Connolly’s Bad Advice column which is not advice but rather a eulogy to his father, the late great Tim Connolly. It was a very nice tribute to a great man.
There’s a Council meeting tonight at 6:30 p.m. and we will be streaming. Maybe even a Power Hour to follow.
And lastly, good for Andrew Quemere calling out the Telegram for doing the obnoxious passive voice thing that the local press does when a cop shoots someone.
And tsk tsk to the reporter in question for this embarrassing defense,
Ok bye bye!