Updated: Two donations were returned weeks ago. He indicated he won’t return the rest. The mayor also shifted course on zoning. Details below.
“Follow the money.” It’s practically a cliche in legal, government, and journalism circles, but it truly is a powerful technique for exploring relationships and motivations at all levels of society. Earlier this year in Newton, we saw how developer money was used to make a referendum turn in its favor through a massive cash injection to a supposedly grassroots community group (see As sole donor of the “Yes” campaign, Northland’s deep pockets try to steamroll Newton’s democracy). That developer subsequently got the green light to build more than 600 units of luxury housing in Newton Upper Falls, off Needham Street.
Now with two city council seats up for grabs in a special election (following the election of Ward 2 Councillor Jake Auchincloss to Congress and the tragic death of Ward 1 Councillor Jay Ciccone), we see candidates stressing their integrity and dedication to serve the residents of Newton. One candidate, Bryan Barash, even pledged to refuse money from developers and lobbyists on the transparency page of his campaign website, stating:
When I first heard about this, I thought, good for him. I honestly hope every other candidate for Newton City Councilor now and in the future can make a similar pledge and keep corporate cash out of our elections and local democracy. I love my hometown, and am tired of seeing so many of our elected officials bending over backwards to accommodate developers and other corporate interests.
A recent history of developer influence in Newton
It’s one thing to say you are going to follow high-minded ideals and listen to the citizens of Newton. But when the rubber hits the road, I have learned that in Newton local politicians often disguise their true intentions.
In particular, there is a lot of doublespeak and false promises when it comes to real estate development. For many Newton councilors and candidates declaring “we support affordable housing,” they actually mean “we’ll support a sliver of affordable only if there are thousands of luxury condos and boutique apartments.” They’ll use phrases like “housing with a range of price points,” or “abundant housing,” not letting on that the range skews heavily toward the most expensive units, and the primary beneficiaries of this abundance are rich developers as opposed to the ordinary citizens of Newton.
The result of this ongoing deception: gigantic luxury developments Riverside in Auburndale, Trio in Newtonville, and Northland in Newton Upper Falls. In these developments, there is next to nothing for the following groups of people:
- Seniors and disabled people living on fixed incomes
- Teachers, firefighters and other public workers
- Recent immigrants
- Young people who grew up in Newton trying to move back to their hometown
- Anyone earning the Massachusetts median income of ~$77,000 per year or less
The numbers show what’s happening. Here’s the breakdown for Riverside:
- 582 units total
- 102 affordable (18%)
- 480 luxury (82%)
Here’s the breakdown for Northland:
- 800 units total
- 123 affordable (15%)
- 677 luxury (85%)
Successive Newton mayors have also made false promises, making a big show of listening to residents but prioritizing the profit-focused needs of developers. Over the protests of many Newtonville residents, former Mayor Setti Warren and many city councilors gave the green light to develop 28 Austin Street in Newtonville, where the developer paid a mere $1,050,000 for a 99-year lease. It now offers “luxury boutique living” where a two-bedroom apartment requires an annual income of nearly $150,000.
It happened again across the Pike in the Orr Block. Warren and allies on the Newton City Council, with assistance from the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, went to bat for developer Mark Development to force through a mostly luxury development on the corner of Washington and Walnut Street. Renters and small businesses that had been in Newtonville for decades were sent packing. The new complex, Trio Newton, now promotes “luxury apartments in Newton” with prices starting at $2,600 per month to rent a 600 square foot studio (I did the math; your income needs to be at least $104,000 per year to rent an apartment at Trio). 75% of the 140-unit complex are similarly priced. The remaining 35 units (25%) are affordable via lottery.
More recently, a similar farce took place with “Hello Washington Street,” Mayor Fuller’s exercise in building community buy-in for high-density, market-rate housing from West Newton to the Lake. The plans put forth by Mayor Fuller, her planning department, and their consultants ignored the wishes of residents, as demonstrated by the thousands of comments from residents and the survey conducted by the Newtonville Area Council. Not surprisingly, one influential and experienced stakeholder — the powerful real estate developer behind Trio and Riverside — stands to benefit even more from the proposed zoning changes on Washington Street.
Now we are seeing a “debate” about rezoning Newton. I put “debate” in quotes because it appears the Newton City Planning Department has already decided in favor of high-density housing activists, developers, and their proxies in the Newton City Council.
Not coincidentally, the beneficiaries of this high-density housing strategy will be developers – any house that can be torn down, chopped up, and divided into overpriced multifamily units will be. The result: thousands of more “market rate” apartments, condos, and townhouses that are out of reach to any household making less than $100,000 per year. In the midst of the pandemic, most residents have no idea of what’s being forced through by activist councillors and the Planning Department. Update: the city is moving away from “by right” across the city to “by right” close to village centers and mass transit. See Mayor Fuller’s email of December 18, 2020, reprinted below.
Are there any projects which favor the needs of ordinary residents over luxury housing? Yes: The conversion of the West Newton Armory into housing. I support this project, which will turn an unused National Guard facility into 100% affordable housing. This type of project is the exception, unfortunately.
Following the money to Ward 2
There is a database of campaign donors for local races in Newton and other cities in towns in Massachusetts. I decided to check it out, not only to see who is donating money to the candidates running for the Ward 1 and Ward 2 seats, but also to determine how my own recent donation shows up in public records.
This useful state-run resource is operated by The Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and as I will shortly demonstrate, helps improve transparency in our democracy. It’s a searchable database that shows donations from different corporate and individual campaign contributors, from local council races to mayoral contests to campaigns for state positions.
Here’s how to display all of the donors for a particular Newton City Council candidate:
- Go to https://www.ocpf.us/Reports/SearchItems
- In the field that says “Provide part of the filer’s name,” enter the first or last name of the candidate.
- For the next field, “then select a filer,” chose the correct candidate (sometimes there is more than one with a certain first or last name)
You can also search for specific campaign donors using the “Contributor” field.
The resource is not perfect. Donors self-identify their occupation and other details, which can be left blank or fudged, or data transfer problem may arise when the campaigns attempt to upload information to the state database. I discovered for my own small donation of $50 to Barash’s competitor, the occupation and employer information I submitted via an online form (“small business owner” and the name of my company) did not show up in the OCPF database. The date was also wrong, showing a date in early November when the donation was actually one month later.
But other people donating to Newton political candidates do have more complete information attached to their records. The database shows that the Ward 2 candidate who made a pledge to refuse money from developers and lobbyists has in fact received donations from property developers, lobbyists, and others attached to luxury housing initiatives, high-density zoning reform, and businesses that are regulated at the municipal or state level.
I’m leaving donors’ names out of this post. But I will share some other details about their backgrounds and relationships.
The self-identified real estate developer has made regular donations over the years to candidates for state representative, mayor and city council in midsized cities, and the mayor of Boston.
One lobbyist’s website lists a realty and development corporation as a client. There are other businesses and organizations both big and small on his client list and the state lobbyist database.
There are registered lobbyists for retail marijuana and transportation.
There is a person who is listed as a “consultant” and puts his employer as “self employed” on the OCPF database, but his name matches the name of a registered lobbyist in the Commonwealth’s lobbyist database. Update: this donation was returned weeks ago, per Barash’s “No Fossil Fuels” pledge. This was not reflected in the state campaign finance database when I looked at it in mid-December.
Several attorneys donated to the campaign. One of the attorney’s firm’s website lists government relations and lobbying at the top of its list of specialties. The second firm specializes in real estate development law, including zoning, permitting and “neighborhood grassroots outreach.” Its website lists specific projects in Newton, including dozens of townhouse condos and tens of millions of dollars worth of commercial property.
Another donor works for a nonprofit group seeking to reform planning, zoning, and permitting laws.
And so on.
This candidate is not a bad person, and has a right to ask for donations from followers. Those donors also have the right to donate money to their preferred candidates for Newton City Council, just as I and many other residents are doing. But it’s a red flag when those donors may conceivably have business in front of city officials or councillors, including high-profit housing projects and commercial initiatives worth millions.
It should be noted that lobbyists aren’t bad people either, and in some cases promote important work or advance good and worthy causes. Quoting a 2014 OECD report titled Lobbyists, Governments, and Public Trust:
[Lobbying] can provide decision-makers with valuable insight and data and facilitate stakeholders’ access to the development and implementation of public policies.
But lobbying also grants power to the entities paying for it, and in some cases that power can be abused. The same OECD report states:
However, it can also lead to undue influence, unfair competition, and regulatory capture to the detriment of the public interest and effective public policies.
In my view, Newton residents should indeed be worried about the pernicious influence of money in our local democracy.
Feel free to leave comments below.
Update 12/14/20: Someone has accused me of posting misinformation and says I should “not be allowed” to write about a public candidate for Newton City Council taking money lobbyists and developers. A reminder to readers that this is a blog, hosted but not controlled by Harvard University (through my affiliation as an alumnus of the Harvard Extension School), and everyone has a right to disagree and express their opinions (I invite anyone to do so in the comments below). It is not illegal or wrong for me or others to post facts obtained from a public database, no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable they may be. If there is something factually incorrect about those donations, please let me know and I will update the blog post accordingly.
Update 12/15/20: In a closed Facebook group, Bryan criticized negative campaigning but explained that his pledge only applies to donors “who [are] paid to lobby at the city level in Newton or [have] a special permit for a development in Newton” and called on other candidates to do the same. Barash said he did return donations from two people who violate his No Fossil Fuel pledge – these lobbyists were apparently connected with the Weymouth gas compressor station that was the subject of a front-page Boston Globe article this month (“In Weymouth, a brute lesson in power politics“). As for his call for other candidates to not accept certain contributions, I would call on Tarik Lucas in Ward 2 as well as Ward 1 candidates Madeline Ranalli and John Oliver to go even further, and unequivocally reject ALL campaign contributions from for-profit developers and registered lobbyists. The Northland Investment Corporation’s approach to the March 2020 referendum set a terrible precedent for elections in Newton, in which winners can be decided by which side (or which candidate) has the biggest for-profit sponsors. These three candidates can do the right thing and set a new precedent that keeps special interest cash out of our local democracy.
Update 12/17: Removed the graphic referencing a donor who no longer works for the listed real estate firm. The donor also said the firm only operated in Cambridge, not Newton. I apologize for the error.
Update 12/19: Mayor Fuller and the ZAP have pulled back on “by right” multifamily conversions citywide. Here’s what she said in her newsletter dated 12/18/20:
I have had many discussions lately with our residents, members of our building community, City Councilors and Planning Department staff about where we are on evaluating and updating our zoning ordinance. These conversations come near the end of a year of intensive reviews of possible updates for our residential areas and, in the last few weeks, the engagement of 500+ residents in discussions of various options.
I’m pleased that a consensus developed in the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee last Monday night. There is agreement on three important points:
(1) To wait to vote on an overall updated zoning ordinance beyond 2021 so Councilors can undertake considerably more analysis, assure broader understanding of options to address shared goals,* and develop more of a consensus,
(2) To move away from considering both two family zoning as well as the conversion of very large homes into up to six units as by right options applied everywhere in Newton,
(3) To use 2021 to delve deeper into critical challenges that our zoning can be used to address, including how our village centers and mixed use areas can better accommodate housing that is affordable at a range of price points, support our local businesses, protect our environment, and create more vibrant community life for everyone.
This is not surprising, considering the circumstances and the very real concerns raised by some residents, councilors, and experts.