Candidate Forum: Community Development and Neighborhood Revitalization

I’ll liveblog when we get started; right now there’s a crowd of 30-40 people here.

Candidates here: Bergman, Coleman, Gaffney, Gomez, King, Petty, Wally.  (That’s right — no women)

This forum is sponsored by:

-Worcester Branch NAACP
-The Initiative for Engaged Citizenship
-Worcester Common Ground
-Worcester Education Collaborative
Oak Hill CDC and The Neighborworks HomeOwnership Center of Central MA
-Main South CDC
-Southeast Asian Coalition of Central MA
-YWCA of Central MA
-Worcester Community Labor Coalition
-Neighbor 2 Neighbor Education Fund

6:08 – Konnie arrives

Also, City Hall legend Keith Scott

More folks filing in; I’d say more like 50 people here now.

No opening statements; candidates will have a 1-minute closing statement.  They will have 1 minute to answer each question.

Councilor Toomey will be coming later on after a meeting she is chairing; Sargent and Zlody not able to attend.

First question: What is one community development initiative you would like to lead to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods in Worcester?

Bergman: foreclosed properties, given that foreclosure rates have increased, match up people who want to live in their own homes with a home owned by absentee landlord– this is a missed opportunity

Coleman: Agrees with Bergman; folks out there paying $1100-1200 for rent when they could be paying $500-700 for mortgage.  He thinks the process of foreclosure when people don’t pay taxes needs to be repealed.

Gaffney: storefronts, no one is going to want to move to a neighborhood, shop where needles are.  Control crime and addiction problems.

Gomez: Centro las Americas is invested in Main Middle — no man’s land with no major institution — with resources we will put together revitalization plan.

King: if people don’t feel safe, if schools don’t meet kids’ needs, they will not stay in the neighborhoods.  As a social worker, owner-occupied home and small businesses invest in the community.  Can’t talk about community development without talking about small businesses.

Petty: Union Hill, inspectional services, police, taking a neighborhood back.  Wal-Mart neighborhood (Worcester Crossing), a number of great projects like Kilby-Hammond-Gardner.

Wally: inner-city economy built by small business growth.  Businesses in Worcester need to have access to capital.  Biz Worcester Now program, like Buy Worcester Now program.  Downtown, he feels, has a foundation and need to complement with business corridors with access to capital.

Lukes: has supported all the incentives that we resort to as a city council.  Reagan: Hello, I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.  Neighborhood councils would make a difference.  In the charter over 25 years but no one has looked at it.

Given finite municipal resources, what criteria would you use to focus community development $$?

Coleman: we keep hearing can’t do it, city manager who has been an elected official who is moving forward with projects that would have been stifled in years past.  We need a new police station.  Money in Washington, why not use Wyman-Gordon.

Gaffney: will need to leave by 7.  We have scattershot approach.  Doesn’t do anything.  What’s happening is Canal District, Shrewsbury St., need to move it out.  Move the whole force into other neighborhoods.

Gomez: low and moderate income individuals, lack of institutional stakeholders, crime stats, should all determine eligibility.  Reminds everyone that he is the only comprehensive economic plan; pretty thorough.  Time for folks to think about the big picture.

King: there’s been a lot of development downtown.  Invest in neighborhoods.  The business is coming, but the way we move forward as a city from inside out, focus on small businesses and neighborhoods, targeted tax breaks for the small businesses.  Without public safety, we cannot move forward.

Petty: not sure there’s a finite dollar amount, need right partners to take a neighborhood back.  Union Hill neighborhood, had Oak Hill CDC.  Just like Kilby-Gardner project with Main South CDC.  He mentions SWIP, ripe for development.

Wally: look at two things: high unemployment/vacancies, and level 4 schools.  Allocate resources to those areas.  But do not forget areas where private capital is — focus on two different areas.

Lukes: only one candidate has said words need to be said: Juan Gomez: big picture.  We may deviate from a vision, but should be looking to the long-term.  If we merge fire and police, then we can look at a new public safety complex.  That eyesore, the Wyman-Gordon property, can solve a lot of problems.

Toomey: came in during the question.  Dollars are short some years, need to take priority perspective.  Public engagement: by talking to folks in community and identifying areas of need, we can understand where to place $$ the most.  Reach out into the community.  You can’t do it all at once, but do need a big picture.

Bergman: Return on investment, but not just in dollars and cents.  What will bring us back the most tax money, but also moral/ethical role.  Spread in areas where people can have hope; next generation can prosper and succeed.  Not necessarily a short-term or long-term approach, but want to make Worcester a better place.

A large portion of federal funding has been allocated to projects by private developers.  Do you think greater portion should be allocated to non-profits?  Why or why not?

Gaffney: Not sure if I agree with the premise of the question; significant amount of funds go to CDCs, 3.4 million dollars penalty (not the word he used).  TIFs tend to go to private developers.

Gomez: reality is that not any one developer/entity has what it takes to revitalize the city.  Happens to disagree slightly with the question, have to use all the tools available to us to positively impact life in the city.

King: have to exhaust all options.  Project-by-project basis.  The one thing we want to be assured if it’s local jobs for local people; ensure that our folks have access and opportunity to jobs.

Petty: doing an excellent job with private and non-profit developers.  Private mostly gets TIFs; mentions the El Morocco development proposal from last night.  All working together on the same page with various partners; mentions Main South.

Wally: no one knows what community needs better than CDCs.  Larger projects like old voke school – Winn was able to leverage their resources better.  Not an either/or — can be a mixture of both.

Lukes: When I listened to the question, I immediately nodded no that’s not correct.  Several small property owners feel at disadvantage with CDCs.  We look at tax incentives, which make us lose taxes on promise that jobs will be created, but we never confirm that jobs are created.  We should not be allocating few resources we have this way.

Toomey: Very often federal funding comes with caveats.  Take it on case by case basis; not one size fits all.

Bergman: agrees with Toomey.  One thing we do poorly is divide: commercial vs residential tax rate.  Projects need to be evaluated on case-by-case basis.  Don’t pit one group against another — don’t look at groups as enemies of one another.

Coleman: Back in 80s, we made commitment for linkage programs, we don’t hear that anymore.  He supports both non-profits and for-profits.

What would you do to enhance local public transit system and make sure all our neighborhoods have reliable access?

Gomez: Transportation is a problem in every urban center.  We have to rely on private sector for people who are looking to get jobs.  In 2004 and 2005 – fought to protect those who could transport low and middle income people — entire municipal structure fought it.  Work with individuals developing private transport.

King: Reliable transportation can be difference between homelessness and a home, stable family environment and not.  Not question of private and public, look at Local Aid to see if state legislators can bring in additional $$ for transportation.  Nothing more important than reliable transportation within and without the city.

Petty: important issue, esp when comes to elderly getting to their doctor’s appointments.  How do you make a more vibrant transportation system?  Perhaps huge transport system with Worcester Public Schools.

Wally: Look a pre-existing resources.  There were a lot of concerns about the Hub.  A lot of those issues have been solved.  Continued dialog – public sessions where riders can express concerns.

Lukes: Bus company cannot work the way it has been.  Fixed routes cannot be only way – boutique services.  Competing with the marketplace: Uber, taxis, livery.  This area is ripe for reform.  To say we are doing a good job is being charitable because we are not.  Sees major changes coming in that whole environment.  Bus company should be more responsive.

Toomey: Usage issue.  We had better public transportation issue when more people used it.  Jobs in suburbs, people can’t get to them.  You can’t be everything to everybody.  Car sharing, bike sharing, all different ways of getting people places.

Bergman: One of the reasons is that the WRTA isn’t responding to consumers are is that the city council has not asked them to.  Isn’t there a better way to be doing this?  We need to start with asking consumers what they need.  Throwing money at the problem isn’t going to solve it.  Walk/bike paths part of solutions.

Coleman: The Hub is a failure.   Bring the buses back to City Hall.  Businesses around there have lost 40% of foot traffic.  Proposes that in Nov 3 election, WRTA target certain polling places for free.  They did it in 2008 for presidential election.  They still need to help people get around city.

Gaffney: agrees with Councilor Bergman, lots of empty buses.  Coleman as well – change to Hub hurt some downtown businesses.  Worcester one of the worst walkable cities around; we are looking at state money for Main St revitalization.  Transportation as a whole can be improved.

The term “affordable housing” often has a negative connotation.  What do you understand of term and impact in community? Do we need to increase, decrease, or maintain levels?

King: Number of construction projects: Osgood-Bradley, old courthouse.  All these are important for our city.  Gentrification – want to be able to have affordable housing to not lose the culture of neighborhood.  (First use of “city of neighborhoods” in this forum!)

Petty: Affordable at all income levels.  Been trying to keep it that way.  Fine with 13% affordable housing.  Affordable Housing is not poverty; you want to mix housing with market-rate.

Wally: misunderstanding in community that those in affordable housing do not work and do not care about their neighborhoods.  Thinks there has been a concern about too much affordable housing or not enough.  500 units of market-rate housing downtown, benefit to community, but need to make sure everyone’s needs are being met.

Lukes: Housing is an emotional issue because it affects how the city looks.  Significant funds available for affordable housing, not so much for market-rate.  Worcester is a bargain — cheaper to buy a house than to rent.  Government intervention will make a big difference in this.  We are over the state limit for affordable housing.  We are doing more than our fair share.

Toomey: everyone has a different perception of what that means.  Can’t have one kind of housing in community — needs to be mixed.  Match jobs and housing.  We want to bring companies into the city too; element that should be looked at.  We have existing housing that needs to be looked at.

Bergman: According to the housing study the city spent a lot of money on, we have enough affordable housing.  His preference would be to give people who want to the opportunity to own a home.  Worcester is 50/50 renters/homeowners.  Small businesses, neighborhoods, schools benefit when people buy a home.  A lot of time mortgage is less than rent — Albany gave mortgage vouchers instead of rent and it was great.

Coleman: if you own a home, you build up equity.  Supports homeownership.

Gaffney: we’ve got a free lunch program here in Worcester.  If we don’t support more market-rate housing, we won’t be able to support anything.   Three-deckers: if you have one tenant that doesn’t pay, that can ruin things for you.

Gomez: to him, affordable housing is accessible to individuals who are lower-income, working class, as well as those who are poor.  If we want Worcester to grow, we need jobs.  No affordable housing, no people to have those jobs.  Market rate will come.   we need more affordable housing in the city.

Some of our city’s neighborhoods have high foreclosures and low owner-occupied rates in commonwealth.  How would you create new homeowners and support existing ones in these neighborhoods?

Petty: Union Hill, close to 80% renters.  We put $5 million into the neighborhood to make it stronger.  Would like to see police and fire class be given money for down payments to have them be neighbors, or other government workers.

Wally: financial literacy.  Homeownership Center of Worcester – folks who have ability to buy a home find an opportunity / capital to buy a home.

Lukes: not everyone can take advantage to buy home in Worcester.  In order to get that kind of constituency, city employees should live in and invest in the city.  Stable middle-income layer to our city.  Sees it shrinking more and more.

Toomey: rent-to-own program would leverage our dollars, and stable way to make homeowners.  So many absentee landlords; one of our big problems in the community.

Bergman: doesn’t want to tell certain people that they can’t buy a house.  That’s the American Way.  As a city, can work with local banks with incentives to buy in the city of Worcester.  When we identify homes in critical neighborhoods, perhaps city should buy them and stabilize the neighborhood.

Coleman: we allow outside entities to buy foreclosures and flip.  would like city council to opt out of this.  We can acquire 10-12 homes and have them refurbished and offer a lottery for first-time homeowners.  Environment they can afford to live in.

(Gaffney has left)

Gomez: Mariano has Better Life Program.  Doesn’t see any current elected official supporting that program.  Get out of cycle of dependency – give them opportunity to buy their own home.  Local banks need to CRA/invest in community.

King: Tax breaks for locals who want to rehab their homes.  More pride in neighborhood, but you have to keep them there – schools, public safety, parks, etc.

In the last year, 80% spike in foreclosures, many need extensive repairs.  How do you envision this would be accomplished?

Wally: that spike was because of backlogs, of banks seeing how the court decision on foreclosures would play out.  There are 15,000 3-family units.  Many graded in poor condition.  19% vacancy rate.  There are a number of properties in such a state of disrepair that they cannot be brought back to re-habitation.  Need to be torn down, built back, or made into community gardens or pocket parks.

Lukes: Inspectional services will make them torn down, etc.  CDCs or other orgs who focus on housing in needy neighborhoods should get the properties.  Many people say that inspectional services are too heavy-handed with landlords.  We will have to dedicate private space to public.

Toomey: Utilize the people in our community (labor orgs, CDBG, students) who can help with restructuring and rebuilding some of the homes.

Bergman: we need to be careful that residential tax rate doesn’t go up beyond people’s ability to pay.  Can’t choose between taxes and repairs.  Need to be vigilant about properties owned by absentee landlords.

Coleman: When you have an 80% increase, would like Council to be on record to take tax title property and sell to outside people.

Gomez: stop electing the same people who have been in office 10, 15, 20 years.  We keep electing them and expect different outcomes.  There is a political machine that is designed to keep certain people out and only provide opportunities to those who are politically connected.

King: Concerning statistic.  We have to have safe neighborhoods.  City residents, have incentives for city residents who want to buy and rehab.

Petty: Disappointing when we lost the Springfield case with the $5,000 bond.  Worst thing for a neighborhood is to have a number of blighted houses.

Closing Remarks

Next Forum: September 30 – at WPL about Youth

Wally: Twenty years of direct community development experience.  Have helped design comm dev program at Roger Williams University.  Has educational background, for-profit, and non-profit experience.  His experience would make him a great candidate for at-large candidate.

Petty: We did a lot of great planning over the past year.  About working together with the federal govt, state govt, businesses, a number of projects he is proud of.  South, Doherty, and Burncoat will all be done!

King: has been a front-line social worker for 20 years.  By the time he was a sophomore in college, he was a pallbearer at two of his friends’ funerals, due to gun violence.  Through his work, has had fortune to work with WPD, Mayor’s Office, runs Crompton summer basketball league.  You can’t talk about community development without talking about jobs, public safety, status of education, engaging all partners.  We need a community voice on this council.

Gomez: I will be, with your vote, and God’s will, your city council.  Thirty years of service — no question about whether he is committed or has skills.  Took a small organization and made it into a full-service org.  Will tell the truth, when emperor has no clothes.  Has to make this government responsive, not just to private interests.

(claps)

Coleman: that was Juan’s sister (laughs from the crowd) He has been a community activist, though he wanted to be a parish priest.  He was in Washington many years ago, he’s started running in Worcester in 1979.  It’s been a challenge running in this city.  Never felt that race was the biggest issue holding him back.  Ran Cribs for Kids, raised $500k when city ran out of money in 2002.  We have people on one side of the aisle and council on the other, and ne’er the twain shall meet.  He’s a 24 hour direct connect candidate — call him.  You can go out to breakfast — it’ll be on him!

Bergman: He thinks Initiative and those who attended deserve a credit.  There’s not anyone here who does not care deeply about the city.  The most important thing on his resume is that he’s a child of immigrants.  He understands what hope is, to not understand the language, to live in a three-decker, he saw all those things.  He struggles with wondering whether we are giving everyone the same opportunities.  That won’t show up on a piece of paper — he wakes up every day wondering how to make your lives better, and your children’s and grandchildren’s lives better.

Toomey: Grateful to all who have put the program on and who have attended.  Incredible honor to have served on CC for 10 years and SC for 6 years before that.  Has been involved in parks and school sports.  Knows that kids are getting a good education, wants to make sure it’s basis for continued growth in development.  Can’t look at city myopically.  Need to be able to engage young people, school system, educate kids for jobs of the future, safe streets, police, fire, infrastructure.  Stop broken windows theory in our community.  (Though I think she just used that incorrectly.)

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