Election 2020

Bernie Sanders Signal-Boosts Boston Activists Fighting 10,000 New Homes That Would Replace a Dilapidated Horse Racing Track

Local activists have argued that the housing officials in charge of reviewing the Suffolk Downs mega-development has violated residents' civil rights by not translating enough planning documents into Spanish, Arabic

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Activists in Boston are trying to delay the construction of a 10,000-unit development project on a mostly dormant race track. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) just weighed in on their side, raising the disquieting prospect that the Democrats' presidential frontrunner could become the nation's NIMBY-in-chief.

In early February, the Boston-area group Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It claims that city housing officials failed to provide meaningful and inclusive opportunities for community participation during their (still ongoing) review of the proposed Suffolk Downs development project.

"We need affordable housing for all instead of more gentrifying luxury developments for the few," Sanders tweeted alongside an article about the group's HUD complaint. "I stand with the longtime residents of East Boston fighting displacement from the communities they have spent generations building."

The project itself would displace no one. The 161-acre site on the edge of East Boston currently hosts only a race track, a clubhouse, a vacant administration building, and horse barns described in city documents as "dilapidated and unsuitable for further use." HYM Investments wants to redevelop the area into a mixed-use development sporting 10,000 new housing units, plus retail, office, and hotel space.

In keeping with Boston's inclusionary zoning requirements, the Suffolk Down development includes 930 below-market-rate units that would be reserved for tenants making no more than 70 percent of the area's median income ($55,550 for a single person). HYM would also contribute $5 million to a housing stabilization fund, with the money going to convert existing rental housing into income-restricted units. That's supposed to create an additional 500 affordable units.

HYM would spend $41 million on off-site roadway improvements, $20 million on public transit in Boston and neighboring Revere (where part of the Suffolk Downs site is located), and $3 million in operations subsidies to a rail transit line servicing the area. The developer intends to use union labor and to contribute $2 million to trade apprenticeship and workforce development programs. HYM says they've committed themselves to hiring a diverse workforce in line with Boston's Resident Jobs Policy.*

A spokesperson for HYM told Reason that the project has already received its needed permits from the city of Revere and the state of Massachusetts; it hopes to get Boston's approval in the next few months.

The activists' complaint argues that the project needs to be delayed because of some translation issues. Close to half the residents of the East Boston neighborhood that borders the Suffolk Down site primarily speak a language other than English (mostly Spanish or Arabic). The complaint argues that the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) failed to adequately translate enough of the project documents, or didn't translate them quickly enough, to allow for limited-English-proficiency speakers to meaningfully participate in community review of the project.

Their complaint says that interpreters at public hearings were often unable to translate technical terms about the project into Spanish and that translation equipment was either unavailable or was "was hampered by high levels of static and failed batteries."

They also say that none of the project documents were translated into Arabic.

This failure to offer adequate translation services, they claim, has so hampered community input that it amounts to national origin–based discrimination in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The activists are asking that city officials halt their review of the project and that HUD suspend all funding to Boston housing agencies until an investigation can be completed.

"We are not anti-development. We are pro-growth—smart and equitable growth," said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, in a press release announcing the complaint. "By failing to hire interpreters versed in the language of planning or zoning, or to translate key documents, the BPDA is effectively excluding immigrant residents of East Boston from the development process. Under well-settled federal law, this exclusion constitutes national origin discrimination."

In addition to the translation issues that the group has raised, an October letter from Lawyers for Civil Rights raised a number of other demands. Among them: that HYM make a larger housing stabilization payment, that its affordable units be reserved for those making 30 percent of area median income, that the city enforce a carbon-neutral standard on the development, and that private security guards hired by HYM to protect its construction receive implicit bias training.

HYM has addressed some of these concerns in updates to in a revised Master Plan dated from last week, including a promise to ensure more documents are translated into Spanish and any other language spoken by more than 5 percent of the East Boston neighborhood.

The development agency has responded to the complaint by stressing the things it has done to accommodate non-English speakers during the review process. The Boston Business Journal reports that "each BPDA public meeting for Suffolk Downs has included Spanish-language translation, and there have been two meetings exclusively in Spanish, the agency said. Numerous project documents are also available in both English and Spanish."

A cynical observer might conclude that Lawyers for Civil Rights is using its HUD complaint to gain leverage over HYM.

Delays to construction projects are expensive. If federal housing regulators decide there's reasonable cause to believe that shoddy translation services amounted to illegal discrimination, the project could be gummed up in administrative hearings or even a Department of Justice–led civil lawsuit.

At some point, HYM might decide that the demands being made on its project are less costly than the legal delays they have to put up with. This is hardly an uncommon tactic. Labor unions in California, for instance, routinely use the threat of environmental lawsuits to get developers to agree to hire all union labor.

Private parties can also file their own discrimination lawsuits within two years of the alleged discrimination. The time it takes for HUD to process a discrimination complaint isn't included in that two-year deadline.

Why would Sanders weigh in on this case? There's obviously a political incentive. The Massachusetts Democratic primary is on Tuesday. While Sanders is currently favored to win that contest, he'll still be competing for progressive votes with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) on her home turf. Signal-boosting the local left's efforts isn't likely to hurt his chances.

Sanders also has a long history of demonizing developers and lending support to NIMBYs who oppose market-rate housing construction on principle. His comments about how the Suffolk Downs project will lead to displacement and gentrification fit neatly into that worldview.

The HUD complaint notes that East Boston has seen a growing number of cases where longtime tenants are evicted en masse from their homes, presumably so that the units can be renovated and leased out to higher-paying tenants. Allowing Suffolk Downs to go forward without additional affordability requirements or other concessions, the activists argue, will just mean more of the same.

But allowing a massive development right next to a poorer neighborhood would be great way to reduce evictions. This is the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) argument at its most basic. If you don't build housing for better-off people, they'll respond by bidding up the prices on existing units, which then leads to evictions and displacement.

Sanders' willingness to parrot NIMBY talking points bodes ill for what housing policy would look like under his administration if he were to win the White House. The Lawyers for Civil Rights argument bases its discrimination claims on past executive orders and regulations, which HUD officials will rely on when adjudicating the complaint. As president, Sanders would be in a position to issue new regulations and guidance that could make proving housing violations easier, potentially empowering anti-development activists across the country.

Given the severe and worsening housing affordability problems the country is facing, that could be disastrous.

Correction: The original version of this article said HYM has reserved construction jobs for local residents, people of color, and women. 

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  1. violated residents’ civil rights by not translating enough planning documents into Spanish, Arabic

    Can’t wait to use this when convenient for me.

    1. The classic DW:
      “That can’t stop me, because I can’t read” it defense.

  2. This failure to offer adequate translation services, they claim, has so hampered community input that it amounts to national origin–based discrimination in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The activists are asking that city officials halt their review of the project and that HUD suspend all funding to Boston housing agencies until an investigation can be completed.

    Diversity is our strength!

  3. Their complaint says that interpreters at public hearings were often unable to translate technical terms about the project into Spanish and that translation equipment was either unavailable or was “was hampered by high levels of static and failed batteries.”

    They also say that none of the project documents were translated into Arabic.

    Welcome to the new global reality. It’s about winning. It’s not about housing, or immigrants, or justice. It’s about winning.

    1. And given that the interpreters couldn’t even find good Spanish translations of technical terms, one can only imagine what they would wind up telling Arabs.

      One is reminded of Coke’s famous “Bite the Wax Tadpole” campaign in China.

      1. In Cantonese, ‘out of sight,out of mind’ translates into ‘blind idiot’.

    2. I don’t think Denmark is translating all their building plans docs into Arabic. Doesn’t Bernie want us to be more like Denmark?

    3. Looks to me like it’s more about whining than winning.

    4. “Welcome to the new global reality. It’s about winning.”

      What the fuck is new about that?

  4. No leftist position is more nonsensical to me than the anti-gentrification/anti-development one.

    Fuck all of us who make money and have families. How dare we (checks notes) try to live somewhere.

    And god forbid we clean the pace up a bit while we’re living here. Oh no, the poor residents who have been living in this shitty neighborhood for 30 years are going to be able to make a profit on the sale of their house, oh no!

    1. One wonders if some of these policies are deliberately intended to make society more unstable and impoverished. That would induce greater dependency on leadership.

      1. I don’t think so, based on the activists I have met or read from. I think economic illiterates cannot see beyond one cause = one effect, and craven or equally ignorant politicians move to harness any populist movement they can to get votes and influence.

        1. I think a lot of “activists on the ground” certainly don’t intend it. For them, your analysis is spot on. Their leadership, on the other hand, seems terrified of something not in their control actually working.

      2. The entire purpose of the left is to create chaos. It’s how all communist revolutions start.

    2. Plus that the ten thousand people who move into these places will leave ten thousand vacancies, and all that extra supply will lower all prices.

      They are economically illiterate, and willfully so.

      1. Thinking a few seconds longer, that’s really unimportant. What they are is people ignorant. They cannot imagine that anyone else has agency, that anyone agreeing to a rental agreement or employment contract or any kind of voluntary agreement with anyone else, knows what they are doing; everyobdy is just too damned stupid, ignorant, and naive to be responsible for their own actions, and the government must monitor everything they do lest they make a boo-boo.

        Except them, of course.

        1. Universal criticism of all paternal laws. Amen.

    3. Gentrification would only be a problem for renters if funding for local government services was not tied to the value of your property.

      Homeowners have a legitimate complaint when improvements in the locality – improvements they neither wanted nor use – increase the taxes on their property beyond their ability to pay them.

      And this isn’t even due to increased government services. All the improvements were done by private investors. But government demands that, since the area is more valuable now, *everyone pay THEM* for it.

      I live in a rural area. If you ran a light rail line by my house into town, my house might become more valuable – but I don’t use light rail so I don’t see any of that increased value (at least until I sell), but I’ll still have to pay taxes on it.

      Because a home is not an investment.

      1. I have light rail being put in 2 blocks away from my home right now, haha fuck me. Fuck property taxes. True, I am enjoying some grade-A appreciation in my property value, but I won’t see that for decades.

        Another tax on phantom income. Between property tax and taxes on unrealized capital gains, it’s almost like cruelty (against those who profit, but aren’t politically connected) is part of the purpose.

    4. I suspect it’s the affluent left that are behind the anti-gentrification shit. maybe they just don’t want new affluent neighborhoods popping up and making their exclusive neighborhood less elite? I mean, look at Bernie, he owns three houses, is a multi-millionaire. He’s NOT one of the little people. So when he’s out and about wagging his finger over who gets to live in poor neighborhoods, he’s NOT looking out for the poor.

      1. He’s definitely not one of the little people, purely by being a Senator, but his net worth isn’t much at all. Everything I’ve read puts him around $2mil, which is around the minimum we should all be aiming for for retirement.

        1. “which is around the minimum we should all be aiming for for retirement.”

          Sure, but that’s people who work for a living, helping to provide goods and services to others. What single productive thing has Bernie ever contributed to society?

        2. Great advice. Wanna follow up by telling us how somebody living paycheck to paycheck squirrels away 2 million on a 40k income?

        3. Does that include his wife? She is the one making money off his campaign. And does anyone think that his three houses don’t push his net worth higher than 2 million?

    5. While their anti-“gentrification” argument is indeed vapid, I find “cultural appropriation” and their insistence the trannies *are* the sex they feel like even dumber.

    6. You want those people coming into the country by the millions. Now you complain about the consequences.

      I suggest you make up your mind.

  5. I looked this up, and this is indeed the location in Fallout 4 where they raced robots…

  6. I’m not an ‘English is America’s official language’ type of guy but . . .

    You would assume that those who actively want to prevent an ‘English only’ requirement would also be ones saying that if you want to participate, its up to you to learn the necessary language. Which, in this case, is English, because that’s what the developers speak.

    Just as if I wanted to shop in a a store run by people who only speak Arabic its not their responsibility to learn English for my convenience.

    Sauce for the goose and all that.

    1. America is the only country in the world that worries this stuff to death. Imagine moving to the middle east and screaming at a regional council meeting of the Sheiks that your civil rights were violated because they didn’t print their development plans in American English.

      Insert any foreign country on the planet whose primary language isn’t English, and there’s no condition under which the person screaming wouldn’t be universally condemned.

      1. No, Canada does the same and we are f….k..d. Cheers!

  7. But it is Ben Carson who wants to deny acceptable housing to the poor.

    1. Oreo said what?

    2. No, he does not.

  8. Does the M in HYM stand for masochist?

  9. If you have read up on any of Bernie’s positions on housing, national rent control and $2.5 T in new government housing over 10 years; it becomes obvious that Bernie is against all private development because he wants the federal government to be America’s landlord.

    1. ^THIS!
      The organizations complaining don’t care that 10,000 more people may have a place to live. They’re angry that the developers might make enough profit off the deal to feed their families.

  10. Novel idea. How about everyone speak English in the US. I would not move to another country without the personal expectation that I must learn the language of the country. And if I needed something translated I would rely on a network of friends or hire a professional on my own dime.

    1. How about everyone speak whatever language they want. That’s called ‘freedom’. The thing libertarians are supposed to want to maximize.

      That would, of course, require anyone who chooses to hire translators – but that’s part and parcel of being responsible for your own choices.

      1. Uh… this is in response to an article about government requiring the translation of thousands of permitting documents filed by a developer into super-popular languages like Arabic before the application can be considered. I really don’t see where individual choice and personal responsibility enter into it.

        At some point the government has to decide what language it is going to operate in. Saying “let’s use English as the official language of government in the United States” is hardly anti-freedom. In fact, I’d say requiring a developer to communicate with its government in a dozen different languages in order to get permission to build something is more on the side of “not freedom”.

        1. “At some point the government has to decide what language it is going to operate in. Saying “let’s use English as the official language of government in the United States” is hardly anti-freedom.”

          From the “Official Website of the Department of Homeland Security”…

          Naturalization is the manner in which a person not born in the United States voluntarily becomes a U.S. citizen.

          Naturalization Eligibility Requirements

          Before an individual applies for naturalization, he or she must meet a few requirements. Depending on the individual’s situation, there are different requirements that may apply. General requirements for naturalization are below.

          [Among others]
          – Be able to read, write, and speak basic English.

          Just sayin’.

          1. I’m all for (small d) diversity (i.e. let people be who they are, but don’t start quotas for how many x y z etc you include – I guess that is libertarianism), but it is high time that we had a Federal Constitutional Amendment that simply states that all governmental communications will be in English and that if you need a translator, you can supply your own. My electric bill and medical statements all come with a page of chicken scratching (and some latin script too) to the effect that “you have a right to have this document translated into whateverthehell language you want”. Ok, I want it in Elvish. Not Tolkein Elvish, but the Elvish from the new Thor movies.

            One nation, one language. Very few truly do multiple languages successfully: Switzerland, uh, the list stops there.

      2. This is not the argument you seek….

      3. How about everyone speak whatever language they want. That’s called ‘freedom’. The thing libertarians are supposed to want to maximize.

        We have a legal system and contracts, and people need to have a common language for that.

        That would, of course, require anyone who chooses to hire translators

        No it wouldn’t. Obviously, the legal system is forcing the government to hire translators for people too dumb and lazy to learn English, and taxpayers to pay for it. We call that authoritarian. It’s what you favor.

  11. There’s enough stupid in this to go around for everyone, but I’ll point out the simple fact that adding 10,000 units of housing to the market will, in and of itself, create more affordable housing units. You don’t really need to price-restrict the development. In fact, if you want better affordable housing, stop fighting the creation of luxury units and allow them to build as many as they’d like. Put 100k new luxury units on the market and I’ll guarantee that there will be some units that were formerly considered “luxury” available as “no longer luxury” units at a reduced price.

    Fighting against the building of additional housing – at any price point – is the antithesis of fighting for affordable housing.

    1. PS

      This is not some abstract theory. I’ve lived through boom and bust of real estate markets. Here in South Florida developers and speculators got ahead of demand and built tens of thousands of units that didn’t have people to live in them. At one point you could get a brand new condo as a rental for a quarter of the price of the mortgage note.

      1. This!

        I too am from South Florida, and what you say is exactly right.

        What begin as luxury neighborhoods (or at least nice ones) eventually turn in to not luxury neighborhoods as people who live there move to newer, nicer neighborhoods.

      2. Silicon Valley has been adding thousands of luxury apartments at 4 to 5 thousand a month for a 2 bedroom. Now the apartments that were 4 thousand two years ago are going for 3600.

    2. Yes. If you understand supply and demand. We have at least two generations of voters now who have been woefully uneducated.

      1. They’ve been purposefully lied to, which is not the same as badly educated. Badly educated is teaching once-good science that’s out of date.

        They’re purposefully teaching discredited modes of economics because it’s what they WANT to be true.

  12. Bernie hates upscale places. He prefers concrete block apartments, like those designed by the Soviets. You can see them in Havana and Prague and other outposts of the fallen empire. They look like prisons without the barbed wire.

    1. A lot of DC looks like that too. Soviet-style housing was all the rage with 60’s progressives and intellectuals.

  13. Only “progressives” worry about the neighborhood getting better. If they truly cared about housing affordability, they would be cheering for all new housing developments, even high end ones, since rich people moving into fancy places makes more mid-range places available for the middle class and helps bring prices down.

    1. They favor equality over opportunity and diversity. Better that everyone live in a tent than that some people live in a nice apartment and some live in mansions.

    2. “Sounds like trickle-down economics to me”. Which was what I was told when talking to a colleague at lunch one day. That was about the time I started eating lunch in my office.

  14. The NIMBY crowd is making an excellent argument here…

    …just not for the case they think they are making it for.

    They make an excellent argument for a “national language” (as many of the much revered Nordic countries have).

  15. Is this Spain or Arabia? Most lawyers should be taken out and shot. They will say or do anything for the almighty dollar, no matter how flawed the logic. Sadly, this is Boston, the former hotbed for American revolutionaries. How the mighty are fallen. This just shows where the country is headed, down in an ever increasing spiral.

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