Nimble, Accountable, Tangible: An Interview with Michelle Wu

Boston’s mayor talks about the Green New Deal, meeting people where they are, and her fondness for brutalism.

Drawing by Hannah Lee

This interview was conducted in September 2021. Michelle Wu was sworn in as Mayor of Boston two months later.

On August 27, Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu gave an Instagram Live tour of a building she loves: Boston City Hall. Wu is one of two remaining candidates in this year’s tight mayoral race and is running on one of the most progressive platforms in the city’s history. As City Councilor At-Large, Wu has championed ideas that, once considered out-of-reach, are serious proposals—including fare free public transit, bringing back rent control, abolishing the Boston Planning and Development Agency, defunding the police, and ushering in a Green New Deal.

Wu’s mayoral run takes place amid a reckoning about the city’s housing crisis and racial wealth gap. Between 2007 and 2017, home prices in the city rose 61 percent. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing revealed that the average rental cost for a one-bedroom apartment in Boston is $2,880. Skyrocketing housing prices have forced thousands of predominantly non-white and working-class people to remain in a constant state of precarity. Things get worse when considering wealth distribution: today in Boston, the median net worth of white households is $247,500; for Black households, it’s $8.

The reason for this disparity can be partly attributed to the removal of rent control in 1994; evictions and rent increases followed, as chronicled by Matthew Schuerman in Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents. Wu sees her platform as a way to reverse this trajectory, and essential when repairing the damage that has been consistently inflicted on Boston’s non-white and working-class residents.

These big ideas are easier said than done, however. Over the past decade, Wu has gradually developed a broad base of support for her platform. Thanks to a large coalition of activists, community groups, and representatives, ideas such as rent control in Boston are back on the table.

Wu faces Councilor Anissa Essaibi George in the race to decide Boston’s next mayor. The general election takes place on November 2; early voting begins on October 23 and runs through October 29.

I spoke with Wu via Zoom to talk about why she loves Boston City Hall and her plans for the city’s future.

Dan Jonas-Roche: What prompted you to give an Instagram Live tour of Boston City Hall?

Michelle Wu: I love the building that I have the honor to work in. I’ve realized over the years, however, that not everyone shares my deep love for not just what happens inside the building, but also the architecture.

The other mayoral candidates and I were in an interview with a local media outlet awhile back about our views of Boston City Hall, where I said that I would be willing to fight anyone who disagrees with my assessment of how amazing and beautiful the building is or to take them on a tour. Unfortunately, there were way too many people who disagreed with me to do individual tours, so we decided to do it collectively over Instagram.

DJR: What do you think of the improvements being made to the building and plaza?

MW: I’m excited to see more placemaking and improvements to the space around City Hall. It has always felt like we were falling short in our potential to draw people in and create the sense of community with government that our city deserves. With new landscaping and improvements, I’m excited to see people back out there again.

DJR: In 2019, you released your plan to Abolish the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA). This would entail moving all BPDA functions, assets, and powers not enshrined in state law to city departments; ending all 21 urban renewal areas (16 of which remain active); and asking the state to restore a City of Boston Planning Board for citywide master planning processes. What will the first 100 days of your mayoralty look like? What are the next steps?

MW: This is an unusual year in the city for vacancy. The new administration will start not in January but on November 16, so the first 100 days begins a lot sooner than usual! Basically, the transition will be happening simultaneously to us hitting the ground running. Because there won’t be the chance for an extended transition, most of the first hundred days will be about building out the team as we go and ensuring that we are prepared for major issues such as the ongoing pandemic, the imminent arrival of winter, and supporting our schools, while we start to lay the foundation for the larger changes we will be implementing starting the next year.

We’re hoping to have some staffing changes that would help oversee and guide this process, including a Chief of Planning who would work with the agency on moving towards reforms.

DJR: What would the city’s relationship be with the suburbs outside of Boston? How do you plan on working with mayors outside of Boston to implement a vision for the region?

MW: This is incredibly important. It’s a big part of the reason why we have built a coalition for the campaign that extends beyond the City of Boston as well. We got a lot of questions early on about why we were announcing endorsements from so many elected officials outside the city who don’t officially represent the constituency and voters that I am looking to represent in the upcoming election. The reality is that our deepest challenges are regional: our housing crisis, transportation access, climate vulnerability, the opiate crisis, how we fund and support our schools. We need to have strong regional partnerships as well as collaboration across all levels of government.

DRJ: What are the Green New Deal’s biggest implications for Boston’s urban environment?

MW: We are past the point of urgency to act on the climate crisis. There are stark reminders of that day after day and month after month, whether it’s intense storms and flooding that claims lives, or heat in our neighborhoods that threatens the health and safety of our residents, or air pollution that is holding back the potential for our young people and risking the community’s health.

It can seem like a big global international issue, but things can be improved by very tangible decisions about city government, design, and the built environment. We can’t just add “resiliency” as one more checkbox that we ask or think about. This goal should be guiding our efforts around planning, development, and zoning. This means connecting our systems so that we are prepared and resilient, as well as tapping into the potential to close the racial wealth gap through the enormous opportunity that climate change represents.

DRJ: I’ve always been impressed with how you can propose radical ideas in a way that comes off as pragmatic and practical. What’s your strategy? How do you propose big ideas in a city that often feels like it’s impossible to get anything done?

MW: The beauty of city government is that we must be nimble, accountable, and tangible in the changes that we seek. All of these big issues—and the plans and solutions that we’re putting forward in response—are built on the day-to-day experiences of our residents. These details add up to how we care for our families, experience our city, and build community.

DRJ: So, it’s about meeting people where they are.

MW: Exactly!

Daniel Jonas-Roche is an editor and adjunct professor living in New York. Originally from Boston, he likes wearing his favorite Red Sox hat when he walks around Manhattan.