If you haven’t already, please go watch the Ward 3 candidates forum among Councilors Jim Cote and Andrea Kelley and challenger Pam Wright, competing for the two Ward 3 at-large councilor seats. This is a really interesting discussion in the series of informative forums hosted by the Newton League of Women Voters and produced by NewTV Government.

If you have to choose between watching the video or reading this analysis, definitely watch the video. But, if you can do both …

Some takeaways, in no particular order:

1. Best part of the forum was a thoughtful discussion on housing for low-income and very low-income households. Candidate made a case for lowering the inclusive zoning requirement if the eligibility for units was lower AMI (area median income). Councilor Kelley made the case that providing housing for very low-income families is going to require subsidies, but seemed to stop just short of making the case for higher taxes to pay for more housing. Councilor Cote made a similar case, and made the point that it’s more expensive to live in Newton, so housing needs to be a smaller part of income for low-income households. (I’m calling BS, however, on his assertion that a brake job is/was 3x more expensive in Newton than in Worcester.)

2. Can the Right Size Newton candidates please stop saying that they support climate-change initiatives. Reducing regional car travel by increasing density in the urban ring is the number one thing we can do as a city. If you think density is the biggest threat to the city, you don’t take climate change seriously. 

3. Weird that Councilor Kelley would both say she wants to support local businesses, presumably by encouraging patrons from out-of-town and also bemoans the fact that marijuana shops will encourage folks to come from the opt-out towns — Needham, Wellesley, Weston. I think that, in the end, we’ll look at marijuana shops less as novelties and more as cherished local businesses, just like Newtonville Camera, New England Mobile Book Fair, Newtonville Books, and The Barn. Or, at least no worse than liquor stores.

4. I don’t really understand the grievance mentality of Right Size Newton candidates? Candidate Wright said:

I have concerns about the right size of development. I feel like the city government isn’t listening to the citizens.

What if city government is listening to citizens and not all citizens agree with you? What if, actually, the city is listening too much to citizens like you and compromising important values like solving the regional housing crisis and the global climate crisis because your cohort are worried that buildings are too tall?

Kidding, I actually do understand the grievance mentality. It’s a function of politicians giving excessive deference to the concerns of immediate neighbors to development. 

5. Anybody who thinks the mayor dropped the eminent domain bomb to distract from NewCAL isn’t watching these forums, all taped before Mayor Fuller announced the city’s eminent domain effort. Almost every candidate, particularly incumbents, talks about eminent domain as an option being explored for Webster Woods.

6. Councilor Kelley said that she wouldn’t want a four-story building where there is suburban character. There is no neighborhood in Newton where a four-story, multi-family building should be illegal. If you want to say that four-story buildings shouldn’t be legal everywhere, at least say that duplexes and triplexes should be (legal everywhere).

7. Weirdest answer of the forum: Councilor Cote saying that 5G is the answer to income inequality. Too much to unpack here. Go have a listen.

8. Please-don’t-make-my-head-explode moment of the forum: Candidate Wright’s answer to a question on income inequality in Newton.

So, the first thing that we need to tackle to help with income inequality in Newton is housing. And, generally people want 30% or less of your income goes towards housing. And, if you are in the lower income more of that percentage is going towards housing. So, it’s hard to get out of that hole and to improve yourself and move forward. So, the first step is to concentrate on adding more affordable housing, keeping the naturally affordable housing in the city. And, then, helping people to better themselves with more education or opportunities, and also the transportation to get to their jobs, too. 

This is a (very good) argument for adding housing all over Newton. Each element of her answer (but one). She’s absolutely right that housing is key to income inequality. Housing in Newton is too expensive, because we’ve constrained supply. So, either you pay more of your income or you move elsewhere. If you move elsewhere, you give up the educational opportunity that Newton’s schools provides. You move elsewhere, you have to travel farther, increasing the transportation cut of your income. Councilor Cote also recognized that getting people to and from the workspace is a real problem driving income inequality.

Sorry, Candidate Wright, there is no such thing as “naturally affordable housing in the city.”  Land drives housing prices, not the improvements on the land. You think small houses can’t become multi-million dollar homes, you haven’t been to Palo Alto. It’s nuts. You want naturally affordable (or at least more affordable) housing. Build more duplexes, triplexes, and small apartment buildings to spread the land cost over multiple units. Build them all over the city. Everywhere. Every block. The days of stand-alone starter homes in Newton are decades behind us.

The head-exploding part is that every word Candidate Wright said (except the part about naturally affordable housing) is in direct conflict with Right Size Newton’s anti-growth positions. We need more density. The taller buildings in village centers and commercial corridors that RSN/R is fighting. An end to single-family-only zoning. (In an answer to another question, Candidate Wright says that not all affordable housing should be in the core, so maybe she’s in favor of more of Newton zoned multi-family.)

9. Councilor Kelley nails it … and then sorta squanders it. 

I think that this was a very good exchange and forum. I feel that we have more differences amongst us than came out.

This has been a common complaint I’ve heard about all the forums. From candidates. From the good folks who’ve watched the forums. It’s tough to distinguish the candidates one from another.

Fabulous that Councilor Kelley has called it out. Comes at the perfect time. Candidate Wright had just explicitly articulated her “values,” but in a way that made it hard to distinguish them from the incumbents: reasonable development and density, open spaces, low-income housing, climate change. Okay, Councilor Kelly, you’ve got my attention. How are you different than the Right Size Riverside candidate on development, housing, and climate change? Bring down the hammer of truth!

I think part of differences may come down to approach and attitude.


10. Fun line of the hour also came from Councilor Kelley in her closing statement. Beyond thanking the League of Women Voters and the moderator from a different League chapter for the forum, Councilor Kelley gave credit to the League for her training, multi-issue knowledge, advocacy, and issues.

Thank you League of Women Voters, it’s all your fault.

11. I’m getting a bit tired of candidates who profess to have no prior inclinations, who listen to the people and act accordingly. I’m working on something on this, but for now I wish candidates like Councilor Cote would acknowledge that, at the very least, they have biases. They may listen to folks, but they give special credence to those who think like them. As an at-largian, Councilor Cote is my councilor. I’ve written to him. I don’t feel like he has particularly represented me. But, I don’t really expect him to. We don’t share the same values. I wish he’d acknowledge that he’s got going-in preferences. You can’t do “what the residents want.” There are too many differing preferences. So, how does he balance among them?

That said, all props to Jim Cote. He’s living the value he does explicitly articulate: commitment to his community. He’s on boards of a homeless shelter in Jamaica Plain and a neighborhood health center in Dorchester. All of his answers were suffused with civic commitment. I don’t agree with him on much, but I admire the heck out of him.

12. We don’t talk enough about the impact of inclusionary zoning requirements on housing in general. Broadly speaking, inclusionary zoning requirements — like Newton’s that requires 17.5% affordable (80% AMI) housing in large developments — drive up the cost of — and, therefore, may discourage — building housing. At a macro scale, that may be worse for affordable housing as it acts to constrain capacity.

In Newton, there may be enough demand for housing that buyers will continue to cross-subsidize affordable housing. But, we should talk about it more.

13. Possibly a new candidate for terrible question of these forums.

How important is environmental sustainability and specifically programs such as Newton Power Choice Options and Green Building Principals for new development and transportation?

Oh, and you’ve got 90 seconds. 

That said, the question did elicit a highly illuminating answer. Councilor Cote thinks that Newton’s done a great job and now it’s time to share the best practices that Newton’s developed regionally and internationally. That basically tells you exactly how urgent Councilor Cote thinks the climate crisis is. Low-density, high-driving, low-Power-Choice-electing, natural-gas-leaking Newton can call it a day because we’ve got city electric cars and solar panels going up at the library.

14. The candidates seem to share frustration that there hasn’t been higher uptake for Newton Power Choice. Here’s a free idea: as you go knock doors to win votes, bring literature and encourage Power Choice sign up.

15. I wrote that the compensation issue is boring. But, damn if these three didn’t prove me wrong. Councilor Cote and Councilor Kelley gave the feel-good answer that increasing compensation will increase diversity on the City Council. Candidate Wright was having none of it. 

In order to do that, I think you need to double or even triple the salary and I think that is unreasonable.

Councilor Cote said that the councilor-salary issue was a symptom of a larger problem of the city not having review or compensation plans for high-level city employees.

16. I am naturally skeptical of politicians who place an outside value on civility. Civility has, historically, been used by those who want to maintain the status quo as a cudgel against those who wish to reform it. Martin Luther King, famously, had some things to say about civility. There are some things that are worth getting passionate and angry about: that Newton is a concentration of wealth in a world of income inequality, that the planet is burning, that Newton has not done a good job undoing decades of institutional racism. I understand what Councilor Kelley is driving at, but there are more important things than whether or not city councilors get along.

17. The answers on transportation were just meh. Lots of box-checking: lobby for better transit, bike lanes, walkable village centers, blah, blah, blah. There are more specific things councilors can do. Work to remove parking that interferes with bike lane creation. Insist that road-program funding be used to redesign bad intersections and wide roads. Make car-free zones around schools. Invest in wider sidewalks in Newton Centre and other villages. &c. You want to remain or become city councilors, what are you going to do as city councilors to change the city to reduce car travel?

Introductions 1:40
Opening statements 2:52
Motivation for running and 1st priority 7:40
Maintaining suburban character or affordable housing 11:05
Reduce traffic congestion and improve transit 15:00
Income inequality 19:10
Open Space and Webster Woods 22:50
Compensation 26:00
City Council effectiveness 32:00
NewCAL 35:00
Environmental sustainability 40:20
Recreational marijuana 45:00
Housing for low and very-low income 49:35
Closing statements 54:55