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Dynamic changes shaped Boston in 2016: A year in review

Rising rents, police violence, school funding battles sparked protests

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Dynamic changes shaped Boston in 2016: A year in review
Demonstrators gathered on Dudley Street in Roxbury during a July rally against police violence.

Boston underwent dynamic changes in 2016 that filtered into every neighborhood. The furious pace of new construction, battles over school budgets that included thousands taking to the streets, Black Lives Matter protests and low-wage workers demonstrating for a $15 minimum wage were the issues dominating the Banner’s headlines over the last year.

Bostonians gathered at City Hall Plaza in solidarity with victims of the June shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando where 49 people were killed.

Add to that substantial developments in the black community’s business world: new restaurants and other ventures that are transforming the local economy, the closing of the decades-old Dudley anchor business A Nubian Notion and a major lawsuit pitting black developers against Northeastern University.

The majority of the stories grabbing Banner headlines revolved around issues of community development, education and criminal justice reform. What follows is a roundup of the major stories in those areas.

Education

Boston Public Schools principals got a jolt early in January when they were summoned to the Bolling Building, where many were informed of cuts trimming as much as $800,000 from individual school budgets. While Mayor Martin Walsh asserted that the BPS budget had increased over the previous year, parent advocates noted that the 1 percent increase was far less than the 3 percent increase given to other city departments and not in keeping with rising costs, including salaries and benefits for BPS employees.

News of the cuts triggered a picket line in front of the mayor’s annual State of the City address at Symphony Hall, with teachers, parents and students braving frigid January air as a who’s-who of Bostonians lined up to hear the mayor outline his vision for the year. The demonstration turned out to be the first of several, as student activists grew more vocal in their opposition to cuts that would eliminate librarians and Advanced Placement classes while increasing class sizes.

February featured the first of three student demonstrations last year, with thousands of BPS students taking their demands to City Hall and the State House. The protest came as Walsh administration officials disputed the severity of school budget cuts. Students, parents and teachers pushed back, questioning why the schools’ 1.3 percent budget increase — the lowest in years — came in the midst of a building boom that added more than $100 million to the city’s annual property tax revenue. During a March demonstration, in which more than 2,000 students walked out of classes, protesters at Faneuil Hall confronted the mayor, who was whisked into a waiting car. A student’s sign read, “Cranes in the sky, cuts in our schools.”

The battle over funding continued as BPS pushed forward with BuildBPS, an at-times controversial planning process aimed at setting a course for the public schools. Long before the process began, Mayor Walsh sparked controversy, according to members of the parent group Quality Education for Every Student, alleging that BPS has a surplus of seats and a shortage of students. The parents said Walsh told them in a September 2015 meeting that BPS might pare its inventory of school buildings down from the current 126 to 90, a statement Walsh said he never made.

That dispute colored the beginning of the Build BPS process as the city contracted with McKinsey and Associates to study student enrollment trends. To many, the resulting report — and its finding that the system’s 57,000 students occupy space for 93,000 seats — seemed to confirm parent activists’ fears that the city was contemplating a sell-off of school properties to operators of charter school. The $660,000 McKinsey report, conducted over ten weeks, incorporated non-classroom space like hallways and cafeterias into its analysis. It also called on BPS to cut funding for Special Education, English language learners, transportation and salaries and benefits for teachers.

At the time of the third student walk-out in May, Walsh drew fire with his allegations that outside groups were pushing the students to demonstrate. Weeks later, Walsh then added an additional $4.7 million to his $13 million proposed BPS budget increase — still lower than the $30 million increases made in previous years yet less than the 3 percent increases most individual departments received.

Criminal justice

The year 2016 saw civil rights attorneys pushing for change at the Boston Police Department.

In early January, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination issued a ruling ordering the department to cease and desist disparate treatment of black recruits in the Boston Police Academy, who were found to be subjected to more stringent penalties for allegations of misconduct. The ruling came in response to a complaint from a recruit who was dismissed after a white colleague accused him of asking about questions on an exam — one of 61 MCAD complaints filed against the department since 2010. Black officers in the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers said the BPD routinely has fired people of color for offenses that commonly earn white officers a lesser punishment.

Also in January, the department released a trove of data on police stops, showing that cops used the rationale “investigate a person” as justification for 34,375 of the more than 157,565 stops recorded. As civil rights activists pointed out, stopping, detaining or searching an individual without an articulable suspicion that they’re engaged in a crime is a violation of the individual’s Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure.

Mayor Martin Walsh said the numbers were concerning, but that the BPD is making progress, citing a 15 percent drop in arrests over the previous year.

Meanwhile, body-worn cameras remained in the news, with the city and the Patrolman’s Union coming to an agreement to implement a limited trial run. While 100 officers have been randomly selected to wear the cameras, the department has yet to outline firm plans to equip all officers.

The Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus carried its criminal justice reform agenda from 2015 into this year’s legislative session, calling for reforms ranging from mandatory collection and sharing of data on race and police stops to independent investigators for officer-involved shootings along with elimination of mandatory-minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Members of the Legislature’s Progressive Caucus added their support to the criminal justice reforms, yet as 2016 comes to a close, the Council of State Government’s overwhelmingly white working group on criminal justice reform, which includes Gov. Charles Baker and legislative leadership, is poised to push for reforms that fall far short of those being advanced by caucus members. Last week, criminal justice reform activists interrupted a meeting of the CSG working group, demanding substantive change. Group members gave no indication they would alter their incremental approach.

City planning and development

This year the city’s push to ease the housing crisis by increasing housing production continued apace, with city officials announcing the completion of 10,500 of the 53,000 units Boston will need to absorb its growing population by 2030. A further 28,000 units are currently in the planning, permitting or construction phase.

Much of the new housing in Boston has been in the downtown luxury towers that have transformed the city’s skyline in recent years. Those units, ranging from $800,000 one-bedroom units to a $30 million+ penthouse in the Millennium Tower building, have attracted well-heeled refugees from suburbia and foreign investors eager to park their dollars in U.S. real estate, raising fears of an artificially inflated Boston housing market.

In neighborhoods like Roxbury, smaller condo buildings and the sales of large single-family homes have been spreading out from Fort Hill and transit-accessible areas. Housing costs in the predominantly-black neighborhood have shot up by 70 percent — more than anywhere else in the city — sparking fears of widespread displacement.

At the beginning of 2016, the Boston Redevelopment Authority — which changed its name to the Planning and Development Agency — kicked off a planning process for the area including Dudley Square, Melnea Cass Boulevard and Tremont Street between Ruggles Street and Roxbury Crossing. As the BPDA geared up that planning process — and pressed forward with a similar one affecting land between Jackson Square, Egleston Square and Forest Hills — the agency ran into increasing pressure from local activists to increase affordable housing goals, ease displacement of low- and moderate-income residents and include greater community participation.

A primary target for affordable housing activists: the BPDA’s Plan JP/Rox process, with protesters demonstrating during BRA planning meetings and complaining that the development of luxury apartment buildings in the area is leading to displacement of long-time residents from what once was a working-class neighborhood.

In Roxbury, activists working with City Councilor Tito Jackson launched their own neighborhood-wide planning group, Reclaim Roxbury, largely ignoring the BPDA-led process in Dudley Square. When the Reclaim Roxbury members did show up at a BPDA Plan Dudley meeting in November, the conversation quickly turned to the city’s affordability guidelines and the residential development projects in the pipeline for the Dudley area, few of which would be affordable to current Roxbury residents.

One of the most significant developments in the city was announced in December, about a month before the Trump administration’s ascendancy: a $30 million HUD grant for the redevelopment of the Whittier Street public housing development and its surrounding neighborhood. The grant will preserve the existing 210 units of affordable housing and add another 260 market-rate and affordable units. The grant is one of the last in the HUD Choice program made by the administration of President Barack Obama. As the Trump administration takes office and the Republican-dominated Congress is poised to cut HUD funding, it may be the last grant of its kind for some time.

At other public housing developments in Boston, including East Boston’s Orient Heights, the Boston Housing Authority is partnering with private and nonprofit developers to redevelop and preserve affordable units.

Meanwhile, private, university and nonprofit developers continued a furious pace of housing development, helping the city pass the 10,000 new units mark en route to its stated policy goal of 50,000 new units by 2030, with more than 28,000 more approved for or already under construction.

Transportation

The administration of Gov. Charlie Baker disappointed Mattapan transit activists and local officials with its withdrawal from an earlier agreement to transform the Fairmount commuter rail line into a full rapid train line, featuring smaller cars running with greater frequency. Citing the $240 million price tag for 30 new cars, Baker administration officials said the plans are on hold indefinitely. State officials did give the green light to a new Mattapan Station along the Fairmount Line, opening up transportation options in the neighborhood’s commercial hub.

2017

As 2016 draws to a close, new construction remains brisk, rents continue to inch up, black elected officials persevere in their advocacy of enhanced criminal justice reforms and student activists gear up for the mayor’s January State of the City address, during which he is expected to announce another budget that forces cuts at BPS schools. And Banner reporters — pens, pads and cameras at the ready — are girding up for another year of news.