Local Candidates Talk Housing, Town Redevelopment

March 27, 2024
• Candidates for the two contested races in April’s town election shared their policy positions and campaign platforms at a Needham League of Women Voters forum Monday night.

Affordability, town renovations and a number of upcoming proposals dominated discussion at this year’s Candidates Night. Incumbent Kevin Keane, Joshua Levy and Tina Burgos are running for two three-year terms on the Select Board, and newcomers Ross Donald and James Flanagan are vying for one five-year term on the Needham Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners.

A significant project facing the NHA is the fate of Linden/Chambers, the 152 affordable housing units that the town is planning to replace.

Flanagan, a member of the Needham Housing Coalition and of Town Meeting, said the phased redevelopment is “well past its time,” and the new space would improve residents’ quality of life. Upgrading the residences now would also enable the NHA to capitalize on outside funding, he said.

“I believe that the true character of a community is defined by how well it welcomes diverse groups and supports residents when they are most vulnerable. Over the next 10 years, Needham has a once-in-a-generation opportunity, maybe once-in-a-multiple generation opportunity, to replace or modernize 288 highly affordable units and add up to 188 more,” Flanagan said, referencing the NHA’s Preservation and Redevelopment Initiative.

Quality of life also proved a concern for Donald, who said he is working on forming a tenants union to “have an effective seat at the table.” Donald, who ran for the NHA in 2020, is a resident of Linden/Chambers and spoke out against the NHA’s approach to the properties’ redevelopment.

“There’s no relocation plan. It’s more of a removal plan by making the property so degraded that it requires a tear down,” Donald said. “It’s faulty logic.”

Flanagan acknowledged that the redevelopment likely will cause disruption for residents, but he said he would try to limit the construction’s impact and “get (residents) as quickly back in the building as possible.” His experience on prior boards enables him to “hit the ground running” if elected, he said.

Donald said he supports NHA residents by being one of them, and his position on the Board of Commissioners would enable him to share their perspectives. His interest is “saving public housing,” and he feels the NHA has failed to adequately address issues tenants face.

Housing became a focal point for the Select Board candidates, two of whom — Keane and Levy — sit on the Housing Needham Advisory Group, or HONE. When asked how Needham should comply with the MBTA Communities Law, the two candidates shared differing views.

Keane said he prefers the Neighborhood Housing Plan, which would allow for significantly more multi-family units than the Base Compliance Plan. The law seems “custom-made for Needham,” Keane said, as it promises to liven the town and contribute to the downtown revitalization.

Burgos, chair of the Human Rights Committee, also prefers the bonus option.

Levy remains undecided, though he said he’s leaning toward the basic plan. The Finance Committee member said he feels the MBTA Communities Law “cannot solve our problems alone,” adding that the town should consider ways to preserve and build more starter homes outside the half-mile radius up for rezoning.

In discussing the increased cost and size of housing in Needham, Levy again stressed the disappearance of smaller homes and the need to incentivize their construction.

“Starter homes are really disappearing, and the town, because of the housing stock becoming less diverse, its residents on the income side may becoming less diverse as well,” Levy said. “I think Needham needs a diversity of residents along all spectrums: age, income, race, ethnicity.”

The MBTA Communities Law is expected to address some affordability issues, Burgos said, who said inclusion is important to her. The “knockdown phenomenon” personally bothers Keane, adding that the housing situation is “dichotomizing the town.”

As Needham eyes the Great Plain Avenue Corridor renovation, Keane said he looks forward to a reimagined downtown experience for pedestrians and business owners alike.

“Presently, Needham’s downtown was designed in the 1950s, vehicle-centric mindset. It doesn’t work for the downtown, and our businesses are suffering,” he said. “What we need is to create a vibrant, charming, safe, pedestrian-friendly village atmosphere in downtown.”

Keane and Levy briefly butted heads on the topic of the 64-acre Foster Property, more than half of which the town was expected to obtain after approval at a Special Town Meeting in the fall. The plans fell through soon after the vote, when a new buyer took the property off the market.

Levy said he was disappointed with the “rushed” process and said he would have pressed for more documentation, including a signed purchase and sale agreement. In a rebuttal, Keane said the plan was “overwhelmingly popular” among residents and only failed because of that new buyer. The board did not have a signed purchase and sale at the end, he added.

On the proposed single-use plastic ban — which includes water bottles, polystyrene packaging and plastic straws — Burgos expressed concern. As a small business owner, Burgos questioned how local businesses would fare under a plastic bottle ban.

At her clothing store, Newton’s Covet + Lou, Burgos said she implemented environmentally conscious packaging, which was much more costly.

“Three years ago, I switched over all of my packaging to biodegradable mailers and paper glassine inserts. My packaging costs have gone up almost three times… When we’re talking about something like this, it’s great for the environment, but what do you do for small business?” Burgos said. “How do people afford this?”

Levy, who supported the plastic bag ban that passed last year, supports most of the article and awaits the petitioners’ survey of local businesses to garner feedback.

Keane said he understands the effort but looks forward to hearing from citizen petitioners at Tuesday’s Select Board meeting. Residents will vote on the ban at the Annual Town Meeting, which is set to begin on May 6.

All three candidates support the proposed MBTA quiet zone and noted the quality of life issues and health issues tied to the train horns. They also all dismissed the suggestion to implement voting clickers at Town Meeting — for Keane, “a voice vote seems more communal,” and Levy and Burgos agreed that Town Meeting seems to be operating fine as is.

The town election is Tuesday, April 9.

For more of the candidate’s remarks at the League of Women Voter’s event, continue on to our Needham Channel News coverage.

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