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Wu sets sights on housing, schools in first State of the City address

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Boston Mayor Michelle Wu speaks during the State of the City Address in 2022. (Mike Mejia/City of Boston)
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu speaks during the State of the City Address in 2022. (Mike Mejia/City of Boston)

Mayor Michelle Wu took some big swings during her first State of the City address on Wednesday, including fundamental changes to how construction is done in Boston and a push to resurrect a modified form of rent control.

Her speech was warmly received by the crowd of about 3,000 at MGM Music Hall at Fenway, who peppered the address with cheering and applause.

Notably, Wu announced her intention to end the Boston Planning and Development Agency, the decades-old body she has fiercely criticized for its approach to development within the city.

"When the 'Boston Redevelopment Authority' was created nearly 70 years ago, its purpose was singular: to clear the way for new development, even if that meant displacing tens of thousands of working class, immigrant, and Black and brown residents," she said.

"Since 2016 it's been called the Boston Planning and Development Agency, or 'BPDA,' but the focus on building buildings rather than community has held back the talent of its staff and deepened disparities in our city."

She then touched on a narrow housing policy she pitched last week to cap rent increases for some Boston rental stock.

"In the coming weeks, we'll be sending the City Council a Home Rule Petition on rent stabilization to end rent gouging, and protect our families from eviction and displacement," Wu said.

Wu needs support from city councilors and state legislators to carve out an exception to the state’s rent control ban. Many of the people she has to convince were in the audience Wednesday night — and there was some skepticism.

"I’m totally OK with disagreeing with someone and loving you at the same time," City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson said in an interview after the speech.

Wu's rent control proposal "wasn’t totally what the advocates and the community have been fighting for," she said. "But I think it’s a work in progress. So let’s get to it."

State Sen. Liz Miranda said she would fight for rent control on Beacon Hill.

"You know someone might be my constituent today, and be kicked out of their city and be a Worcester resident tomorrow," she said. "So the issue of housing is not just a gateway city problem, it’s not just a city of Boston problem, it is a state of Massachusetts problem."

Wu also focused on a plan to give 150 vacant lots to developers willing to construct new, affordable housing, and for mortgage support programs for residents.

"Local builders: work with us to design high-quality, affordable homes that enhance the surrounding neighborhood, and we'll give you the land for free. And we'll provide increased mortgage assistance so our residents can afford to buy these homes," she said.

She also highlighted several plans to better Boston Public Schools, just months after fending off a threat of state receivership for the beleaguered district.

Wu announced a $50 million effort to improve special education in the district, and a new investment in "social workers and counselors at every school, with dedicated bilingual social workers trained to meet the needs of our multilingual students and families."

She also pledged to renew efforts to prepare and support students for education beyond high school.

"Tonight, I am announcing that—in partnership with UMass Boston—we'll build on that foundation by piloting a Year 13 program at Fenway High School," she said. "This will give our students an additional full year of college-level courses debt-free as they transition to college and accelerate toward a degree."

While the meatiest parts of her address focused on new policy, other parts struck a balance between her future ambitions and her gratitude toward her fellow city workers. She shouted out by name several members of her cabinet, noting that the diversity within their ranks is a better reflection of the city.

She also took time to tout some of the accomplishments in her first year, pointing to efforts to provide treatment and housing stability to people who had been living in a tent encampment in the Newmarket areas of the city; providing increased alternative service during the MBTA Orange Line shutdown; fare-free bus lines; new facilities and amenities for residents across the city; and the lowest levels of property and violent crime in 15 years.

"And we did all this on top of filling 5,000 potholes, collecting more than 500 tons of curbside composting, and plowing through 53 inches of snow last year," she said.

This article was originally published on January 25, 2023.

This segment aired on January 6, 2023.

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