Springfield City Councilor and mayoral candidate Bud Williams has seized on one of the most contentious issues to hit the city in recent months: plans to redevelop the former Longhill Gardens apartments into low-income housing.
In point of fact, William has launched a broader attack on all new low-income housing. Earlier this week, he issued a statement calling for a moratorium on low-income housing projects, relying on an argument popular with opponents of such developments: that the city has become a dumping ground for housing for the poor, while neighboring communities have gotten off relatively scot-free.
"[I]t is clear that Springfield has done its fair share of low income housing in western Massachusetts," Williams said. "It is now time for an inventory of low income housing units to be conducted in the city; and a judgment made as to how many more, if any, should be approved with use of city financial resources. …
"[I]t is also time for a summit meeting of all western Massachusetts communities to develop a strategy on how best to proceed … so every community meets its responsibilities under the law," he continued.
Lest anyone miss the fact that Williams' general comments were inspired by the contentious Longhill project, the councilor held his press conference outside the development, which sits at a well-traveled entry point to the Forest Park neighborhood. That community has been dramatically split over plans for the development since the complex was condemned and boarded up in 2007. WinnDevelopment of Boston—with financial support from both City Hall and the state—has bought the property and begun a $20 million renovation that will result in 109 units, about 80 percent of which will be marketed as affordable. (The remaining units will rent at market rates.) The old Longhill project had almost twice that number of units.
While the Winn plan has the backing of the Forest Park Civic Association, a group of neighbors—calling themselves Springfield Forward—has vociferously opposed the project. Opponents say the old complex brought crime, noise and other problems to the neighborhood and worry the Winn development will lead to more of the same.
"[A]ll across America, housing experts, including HUD have rejected the policy of warehousing people in high density developments," Williams said. "Longhill Gardens is a prime example of a past project that should have been demolished and turned into open space or single family units. … [E]ven with the proposed density reduction for the Longhill Gardens project, it is still far too dense for the neighborhood. Creating open space makes more sense which will assist in the revitalization of the Forest park neighborhood."
What Williams left out of his remarks—but what he presumably hopes voters remember—is that his rival, Mayor Domenic Sarno, has thrown his support behind the Winn project, after intense pressure from both sides of the fight. While Sarno's critics charge (often with cause) that the mayor has studiously avoided making tough decisions during his first term, on Longhill, he took a difficult, and potentially politically risky, stand. (What leadership credit Sarno received for that position was somewhat undercut by subsequent waffling; last spring, the mayor floated the short-lived idea that perhaps the city should instead build a new middle school at the site. That plan went nowhere, and by June, Winn had begun work on the housing project.)
Williams' strategy to set himself in opposition to Sarno on such a volatile issue is not without its own risks. As the Council's sole African-American member, in a city where poverty and other social problems are particularly concentrated in neighborhoods with large black and Latino populations, Williams is often seen as a voice for the city's poorest residents. While that assumed role is often inconsistent with Williams' actions—for instance, his flip-flop behavior on needle exchange and ward representation, two issues that have had strong support in communities of color—it's a role that has, at times, served him politically.
Still, try as Williams might to focus voters on the "equity" aspect of his argument—that Springfield's better-off neighbors should take more responsibility for housing the poor—it's hard not to see his proposed moratorium as yet another politician scapegoating the poor. Williams, for instance, was quoted by the Springfield Republican equating low-income housing at Longhill Gardens with criminal behavior: "[T]here's a spike in crime, there's a spike in breaking and entering, there's drug dealing, it becomes a hub."
Indeed, the mayor's office describes Williams' position as poor-bashing. "It's extremely unfortunate and shocking that Councilor Williams would make these types of statements," Tom Walsh, Sarno's press aide, told the Advocate. "The suggestion that because someone is poor or lives in low-income housing they are more likely to commit crime and have involvement with drugs is offensive."
Sarno, Walsh went on, "recognizes the need for affordable and quality housing for all of our city's residents. Mayor Sarno has remained cognizant of the ongoing nationwide economic downturn and the ongoing foreclosure crisis that has had an impact on housing across the country." Walsh pointed, by way of example, to the "Buy Springfield Now" homeownership program and an anti-foreclosure center, both started under the Sarno administration.
In addition, Walsh, said, Sarno "had been very aggressive in procuring a 20 percent market rate component at the Longhill Gardens redevelopment complex, recognizing that mixed-income units are the best combination for this location.
"Non-support of this project by the City would have carried great risk," Walsh continued. "The City could not afford to have Longhill Gardens fall into the hands of an irresponsible landlord or possibly worse, lose the opportunity to redevelop the project, laying the foundation for the buildings to remain abandoned and blighted indefinitely."