City Limits – The American Prospect

This article appears in the June 2022 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

The downtown skyline view from LoPresti Park on the East Boston waterfront is worth lingering over despite a chilly, brisk wind. On a Tuesday midafternoon, a bundled-up person and a dog stroll around the new blocks of orange, white, and taupe condos, the soccer field, basketball and tennis courts. A few blocks away, mostly young commuters stream out of the MBTA Blue Line subway station to the buses upstairs in Maverick Square. Big banks share the square with check-cashing places, small restaurants, and the mandatory Dunkin’ Donuts outpost in this Latino neighborhood with deep Italian roots. Across the street from the police station is a vibrant mural: “You will always be welcome in the City of Boston/Siempre serán bienvenidos en la Cuidad de Boston/Saranno sempre benvenuti nella Città di Boston.”

If you can afford it. In 2015, a modest three-bedroom rowhouse on a corner in “Eastie” sold for $250,000. In March, it listed for $980,000. Lower-end waterfront condos go for a million-plus. Last year, the median rent for an Eastie one-bedroom apartment was $2,100. In April, the median rent for the city approached $3,000 for a one-bedroom, catapulting “the Hub” into New York/San Francisco unaffordability territory.

Joni DeMarzo sees luxury condos and thinks “social cleansing.” The third generation of her Italian/Austrian immigrant family to reside in the neighborhood, DeMarzo, who works as a nanny, lives with her mother in a “no-man’s-land,” as her sister calls it, near Logan International Airport. She founded Stand Up for Eastie, a local housing advocacy group, two years ago after tussles with developers building next to her home. Most of her relatives still live in East Boston, but the friends she grew up with are long gone. Developers “are not building homes, they’re building investors’ dreams,” she says. “Is there ever going to be a single-family house built ever again in East Boston or is it just units, units, units?”

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In Boston’s current housing crisis, a fortunate few snatch up the available luxury units, while nearly everyone else gets drop-kicked into the exurbs. Tens of thousands of people have left the metro area over the past decade, many of them working- and middle-class renters and homeowners. This situation is not unique to Boston. Longtime residents get forced out of attractive, popular cities everywhere, and modestly paid people look elsewhere. But the national housing affordability crisis affects this city’s residents in a uniquely Boston way.

In 2019, veteran city councilor Michelle Wu dropped a cinder block on the doorstep of the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), which oversees some of the most atrocious planning and economic development regulations in the country. She laid the collapse of housing affordability on the agency in a white paper, “Fixing Boston’s Broken Development Process: Why and How to Abolish the BPDA.”

“Without comprehensive planning and zoning to set clear, community-informed rules for development, Boston is setting citywide development policy through case-by-case exceptions,” Wu wrote, concluding, “The system lacks transparency, accountability, and predictability. Too many residents feel their voices are not heard, while developers are unable to predictably estimate costs and community benefits.”

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Wu’s steady ascent has confounded the white power brokers, accustomed to sidestepping people of color who are moving up the staircases of Boston institutions.

The BPDA is the gatekeeper for a system where nothing is permitted but everything is allowed—if you can win a variance—and what is allowed has changed from one mayor to the next for decades. Boston’s zoning regulations date back to 1964. The last comprehensive citywide master plan appeared in 1965. In short, big developers are BPDA’s main constituency, and development has suffocated planning.

Boston mayors have talked about abolishing the agency since before the 37-year-old Wu was born. But busting up the BPDA involved getting state approval and alienating big-dollar campaign donors. Today, Wu must prove that one of the biggest lifts in Boston politics—restoring real planning to the conversations about development—was not just a rhetorical flex on her road to the mayor’s office.

Her steady ascent has confounded the white power brokers, accustomed to sidestepping people of color who are moving up the staircases of Boston institutions. What they saw was ivory tower–laced naïveté from a woman out of her political depth. What they got was a progressive politico with serious skills and deep-seated convictions about housing, climate, and transportation justice.

Boston’s first woman and first Asian American mayor has a hard slog ahead. “The most worrisome thing is just a very typical kind of Boston thing: You’ve got a nonwhite woman leading the city, so anything that happens, she’s going to get absolutely no leeway,” says John Walkey of GreenRoots, a regional environmental justice and public-health organization. “Some of it is the sort of standard kind of cynicism that people have, especially in Boston, about local government. But some of it is that special kind of racism and sexism that we specialize in so well.”

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FRANI COLLECTION, THE WEST END MUSEUM ARCHIVES

Boston’s most controversial urban renewal project forced thousands of European immigrants and African Americans to leave their homes in the West End.

WU’S CHOICE TO FILL THE POSITION of chief of planning and head the BPDA, Arthur Jemison, has the Massachusetts savvy that makes a difference in a very parochial political culture that contradicts progressive stereotypes about the state. Last year, President Biden nominated Jemison, a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) principal deputy assistant secretary, to serve as assistant secretary of public and Indian housing. Senate Republicans blocked the appointment.

Jemison grew up in public housing in the Western Massachusetts town of Amherst, has degrees from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and MIT, and worked in state housing and development agencies, a Boston private development firm, and at Massport (which oversees Logan Airport); and he spent a couple of years at the BPDA’s predecessor, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) under Tom Menino, the city’s longest-serving mayor.

Under Wu’s 2019 blueprint, most BPDA operations would transfer to new city bureaus, including a planning department headed by Jemison. Currently, the BPDA executive director reports to a five-member board of directors. The mayor appoints four members; the governor appoints one. Eliminating the BPDA and its board is one way for Wu to increase mayoral control and reduce the governor’s interference.

The mayor aims to toss out the city’s controversial urban renewal plans. Most cities have long since cast off urban renewal plans, but some of Boston’s plans remain in force. Earlier this year, the city council deferred action on dissolving the 12 remaining urban renewal plans for one year, so that the affected neighborhoods can discuss what the next citywide master plan entails on issues such as the community engagement processes and the sensitive issue of eminent domain in areas slated for development. Wu also envisions setting up a reliable citywide master-planning regime overseen by a new dedicated planning board to come to grips with zoning and other issues.

Right now, the mayor is tinkering around the edges; Wu could start moving BPDA employees onto the city’s books to pull together planning research, but the exercising of actual planning power and much else remains with the BPDA. Trying to tease out what Boston can do without state approval is a complex exercise that will not get Wu all the powers she needs to shake up the status quo, which is one reason why previous mayors avoided the heavy lifting altogether. So, to regularize practices that many cities take for granted, much hinges on getting rid of the BPDA.

Wu has limited room to maneuver in an overheated housing market with low inventory and strong demand. For starters, she has signed a home rule petition that would create a real estate transfer tax to levy a 2 percent fee on real estate transactions of $2 million or more that would generate an estimated $100 million annually to go into a city affordable-housing trust. A second plan, rent stabilization, would limit rent increases to a small annual percentage.

Boston, like Miami and New York, is one of the most at-risk cities on the Atlantic Seaboard—and City Hall is just a short walk to the ocean.

However, abolishing the BPDA, securing a transfer tax, and rent stabilization all require state approval. The Bay State has a perennial Democratic supermajority in the legislature, but that doesn’t translate into urgency, regardless of who the governor is. Getting to yes breaks down along regional and ideological lines, with conservative and moderate Democratic lawmakers playing key roles in what gets done—or not.

Until that time, zoning in Boston is madness. Most multifamily developments are effectively prohibited under the city’s 58-year-old zoning regulations. So developers must master elaborate tango steps to secure dozens of waivers, known as variances, to allow parking, exceed height and density standards, and other workarounds they need to proceed with projects.

“Boston is passing them out, like no tomorrow, everything is getting approved,” DeMarzo claims when she complains about variances. “No matter how much they say the community process matters. You go [to meetings], you write in your letter, ‘We’re against this,’ they still approve it,” she says. “It is really corrupt.”

To secure these waivers, everyone from developers to small-scale builders must secure buy-in from state lawmakers and city councilors, as well as participate in an extensive community engagement process that brings together local neighborhood groups, small businesses, abutters, and the NIMBY types who live for community meetings held at inconvenient hours. Then they appear before the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA), a separate body, housed under the city’s Inspectional Services Department, to secure its approval.

This leads to perverse situations where the BPDA can approve a housing development, but the ZBA can reject it because it does not comply with zoning regulations. Recent ZBA housing development rejections have included a project next to a subway station that had fewer parking spaces than stipulated by city regulations and another that had a large percentage of affordable apartments near transit, but no parking.

Even with income-restricted dwellings included, says Jesse Kanson-Benanav, executive director of Abundant Housing Massachusetts, “market-rate units in new developments are priced so incredibly high because the developers are recouping those costs because they know they can. There is a market of higher-income earners who will pay for this type of housing and it leaves low-income and middle-income families in the lurch.”

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MICHAEL DWYER/AP PHOTO

While Wu studied at Harvard Law, then-professor Elizabeth Warren became a sounding board and a mentor.

CITY AND STATE OFFICIALS ESTABLISHED the BRA in 1957 to oversee federally funded urban renewal projects. They soon began planning the destruction of poor white and Black communities. The largest “project” involved the West End, a neighborhood of European immigrants and African Americans near the Charles River.

The BRA forced thousands of residents out of their homes, which were replaced by the luxury apartments of the era, retail shops, office buildings, and a highway. The parents of the late actor Leonard Nimoy, best known for his role as Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek television series, were some of the last residents to leave. The BRA issued a formal apology for the destruction in 2015 and was rebranded as the BPDA the following year.

“We gave almost carte blanche powers to the newly created BRA to basically walk in to say that you’re blighted. Then, we’ll create the zoning that favors the developer to get what needs to be built, the tax incentives as well, barely enforce it, and forget half the promises made anyway,” says state Sen. Lydia Edwards, Wu’s former city council colleague and one of her progressive allies. “For [the mayor] to say I’m getting a chief of planning, and I’m winding down this ‘development über alles’ tool, that’s a real shift in how we move Boston’s future.”

The West End disaster galvanized a multiracial anti-highway coalition that prevented another urban renewal calamity in the 1960s: running Interstate 95 through the inner suburbs and Black Boston neighborhoods. “I take great inspiration from the ‘People Before Highways’ movement that stopped what seemed inevitable,” Wu told the Prospect in a phone interview. “Agencies at every level of government, all the way up to the federal government, had decided and approved a major highway construction that would rip through our neighborhoods and displace many thousands of families. People refused to give up.”

Boston housing creation is hostage to a regional problem. Many suburban towns have effectively created municipal gated communities. In these places, there are fears that more newcomers—from Boston, no less—would strain municipal services like schools and lead to property tax hike battle royales. McMansions springing up like dandelions in crab grass are infinitely preferable to building more modest single-family or multifamily homes that attract people of color, low- to middle-income people, and families with children.

Last year, state lawmakers passed new “Housing Choice” regulations to allow communities to build multifamily dwellings in certain locations, relax permitting for accessory dwelling units, or ADUs (such as in-law apartments), reduce parking space requirements, and more. There are also funding carrots and sticks. Some provisions designed to increase multifamily home building in communities served by the MBTA however, have set off complaints. None of these measures apply to Boston, however. But in March, the city launched its own ADU pilot program and has allocated millions of COVID relief dollars to financial assistance for first-generation homebuyers and other affordable-housing programs.

“We are a state where the majority of people live in suburbs,” says Larry DiCara, a former Boston city councilor. “The majority of the legislature is white and suburban, and the majority of suburban families in Massachusetts are white two-income families. So, the reps are not really excited about somebody in Boston, who may have trouble paying their rent.”

TOM MENINO LIVED HIS DREAM JOB, mayor of Boston, for 20 years. Beginning in the late 1990s, Menino enlisted his developer friends to turn a postindustrial marine wasteland of creepy parking lots and mysterious unmarked buildings into what it is today: the Seaport, one of the wealthiest white neighborhoods in the city, filled with more luxury condos, glass-fronted cubes, a convention center, and the Institute of Contemporary Art. There are no schools and no homes priced within reach of the average Bostonian. Few mortgages have been given to African Americans either.

“No one is satisfied with the Seaport,” says Wu. “We lost out on the chance for something truly spectacular to connect people to our waterfront, which should be a treasure.”

Fiscally, it is a treasure: The Seaport is a property tax–generating machine that powers triple-A bond ratings and property tax revenues to pay for municipal services in a city where 50 percent of the land area is tax-exempt—just as Menino, who died in 2014, intended. The downside is that instead of emphasizing climate-resilient features that might absorb floodwaters, like parks, there are thousands of vulnerable people and multibillions of dollars of infrastructure built at sea level.

Boston, like Miami and New York, is one of the most at-risk cities on the Atlantic Seaboard—and City Hall is just a short walk to the ocean. Hurricane Sandy would have hit Boston dead-on in 2012, but the superstorm’s path shifted toward New Jersey and New York. In Wu’s 2020 report “Planning for a Boston Green New Deal and Just Recovery,” she wrote, “Development along the waterfront is highly sought after, but there is a pressing need to balance flood resiliency and public access with development interest to ensure the benefits of the waterfront are not concentrated among a privileged few.” She also observed that there is a “potential need for managed retreat within the next decades,” a subject few people want to discuss.

Built on islands and landfill and yoked to the mainland by four tunnels, East Boston is uniquely vulnerable to storms and sea level rise. Historic flooding could put half the neighborhood underwater. An MIT-Tulane University analysis of impacts from storm surge (based on nine inches of sea level rise projected by 2030) indicates that it would shut down the six-mile-long Blue Line that serves East Boston and cause severe damage to the rest of the MBTA system.

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JOSH REYNOLDS/AP PHOTO

“Winding down this ‘development über alles’ tool” is a “real shift” for Boston, says state Sen. Lydia Edwards.

Absent drastic changes, the capital and planning decisions needed to preserve the neighborhood are too late to make a difference, according to Philip Giffee of the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, an East Boston community development organization. “One way or the other we’re going to pay with taxes and private financing or we’re going to pay by abandoning and just leaving it to the forces of nature, which is not what we want,” Giffee says.

In February, Wu announced that the city would begin to address East Boston’s climate issues through a new municipal harbor plan. She has also set aside a downtown harbor plan supported by Gov. Charlie Baker, former Mayor Marty Walsh, and one of the city’s high-profile developers, who has been on a 15-year quest to build a 600-foot skyscraper almost on top of the New England Aquarium, a leading marine conservation facility. Nothing says old-school Boston like fighting to build a tower on the edge of the ocean in an area that regularly floods during the severe storms of the climate crisis era.

THE CHICAGO-BORN WU EMBRACED Boston as a Harvard undergraduate. The eldest daughter of four in a family of Taiwanese immigrants, she eased into rhythms of college life and found cheer and support in Boston’s Chinatown. After graduating in 2007, she landed a job at the Boston Consulting Group, a Big Three management consulting firm.

It was a brief detour. Soon after Wu started her new job, she dropped everything to return home to Barrington, the Chicago suburb where she grew up, to care for her younger sisters after her mother experienced a mental-health crisis; she was later diagnosed with late-onset schizophrenia. To support the family, Wu opened Loose Leaf Tea Loft, a tea house on the North Side of Chicago.

The enterprise almost never got off the ground. It was impossible to get inspections and permits until she met with a sympathetic alderperson. “We waited in line in his office hours and talked to him, and then the next day we got our inspection scheduled,” she told Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet. But her mother’s condition was not improving and the café, Wu’s answer to one of her mother’s fondest dreams, was not thriving. Wu moved her family back to Boston. With her younger sisters in school, she went to Harvard Law.

“We were welcomed and embraced by the community and neighborhood, but it wasn’t easy. It was a good several years of survival mode every single day,” says Wu of the period. “My sisters and my mom are the strongest people I know. I truly owe everything I treasure in my life to this city: the health care that my mom was able to access, the schools that I was able to connect my sisters with, and the sense of community that we were able to build.”

One professor became a sounding board and a mentor. “She was dealing with a whole lot more than just learning the new way of thinking that first-year law school demands, keeping up with the reading and the research,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) told the Prospect. “She was also playing mother to her two younger sisters, and guardian and advocate to her own mother. She would sometimes have to miss classes, sometimes end up in an emergency room all night long, sometimes have to leave early to get to a parent-teacher conference for one of her sisters.

“A lot of other people would have looked at that and sat down on the side of the road and said I’m done.” Warren adds. “She always kept in mind what she was trying to accomplish and calmly take each step she needed to take to get there.”

Wu’s talent for making sense of bureaucratic nonsense crystalized during her fellowship in Mayor Menino’s office during law school. She embarked on research to find out why food trucks, which had sprouted up in other cities, were so rare in Boston, and discovered a mind-numbing application process. Plowing through the regs, the law student designed a soup-to-nuts, plain-English, easy-to-find online application that demystified setting up the small mobile restaurants.

Wu volunteered for Warren’s 2012 Senate campaign. Giving Wu a crack at organizing Harvard Law students was the obvious way to put her to work, but she was already giving speeches to Harvard Democrats, and had reached out to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and her own Boston neighborhood. She spoke Spanish and had assisted on Latino outreach. Wu finally organized her way into a paid job doing outreach to communities of color as the campaign’s statewide constituency director.

Wu could have walked into a staff position with the new senator. Instead, in 2013, fresh out of law school at the age of 28, she ran and won her first political campaign for one of the citywide council seats, coming in second; the incumbent, Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman elected to the council, placed first. Together they signaled a new assertiveness from the historically weak, rubber-stamping city council. “The body is now more relevant than it’s ever been perhaps in recent years,” says Paul Watanabe, a University of Massachusetts Boston political science professor.

Affordable housing is Wu’s signature issue, but far from her only one.

The council’s first Asian American woman jockeyed for advantage in a body where the route to the mayor’s office ran through Bill Linehan and the powerful conservative Democrats in South Boston, the traditional Irish stronghold. Linehan was a throwback, who marched in the neighborhood St. Patrick’s Day parades that excluded LGBTQ people at the time and tried to redistrict voters of color out of his political way.

Linehan wanted to be council president. Several progressives also wanted the job, including Pressley. Wu supported Linehan and progressives went ballistic. But after two years of championing issues like paid parental leave for city workers, she was elected council president unanimously in 2016, the first Asian American to hold the position.

When Wu informed Walsh that she planned to challenge him for mayor, she had gotten out in front on so many areas—the BPDA, free transit, climate and Green and Blue New Deals—that she had voters’ full attention. Her social presence is electric, and @wutrain regularly clapped back against critics like Airbnb, which lashed out at her on Twitter over a 2018 proposal to limit rentals.

But running against an incumbent is always a gamble. Unlike Menino, Walsh was not an automatic winner in the vastly changed political environment that opened up space for Wu’s candidacy. Wu was “somebody with a lot of guts,” says Watanabe. “Part of the reason was because Pressley’s victory against former Rep. Michael Capuano indicated that the young guard could take on the old guard and win.” Instead of doing battle, Walsh opened the escape hatch provided by Biden for a soft landing as Biden’s secretary of labor.

The old guard came after Wu in the general election anyway, in the person of Annissa Essaibi George, another city councilor who tried “othering” Wu as a Chicago outsider and two-time Harvard graduate to appeal to a whiter and older electorate. But it was a strange move, considering the local politicians with Chicago roots (Pressley and former Gov. Deval Patrick) and the many more with Harvard Law connections (also Patrick). Housing was the top issue, and Wu crushed her challenger by nearly 30 percentage points. But turnout was abysmal: Only a third of the city’s eligible voters cast a ballot.

“In the limited cases where there have been young Asian women as mayors, whether it’s here or on the West Coast, there’s always an element of being a policy wonk coming in with energy and ideas, which in some ways feeds into the model minority myth,” says Lisa Wong, the former mayor of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and the state’s first Asian American mayor. “But it also has to be true, that young, nontraditional candidates have to come in sometimes with more ideas and more energy than anybody else, in order to break through the traditional norms of support, funding, and the other lanes in which people get into these positions.”

AFFORDABLE HOUSING IS WU’S SIGNATURE ISSUE, but far from her only one. Inspired by a cycling tour of Copenhagen with Boston elected officials researching climate concerns in 2016, she commuted by bike and steered dollars to new bike lanes and redesigned intersections. But it was her relentlessness on public transit as a free public good that jolted the city.

Wu’s “Free the T” movement caught the imagination of riders, in part, because making a reliably unreliable system like the MBTA free feels like justice. She helped spearhead one fare-free bus pilot. As mayor, she secured COVID relief funds for two more. (Recent analyses by the city and the MBTA of the first pilot found that most people did not save money since they usually needed to make transfers.) Once COVID relief funds are exhausted, the best hope for the free-fare movement is a November vote on a constitutional amendment that would levy a four-percentage-point tax on the portion of an individual’s annual income above $1 million. The estimated $2 billion in new revenues would fund public higher and K-12 education and road, bridge, and transportation repair and maintenance.

Boston mayors and city councilors have long been content to let the MBTA, a state agency, be the governor’s headache. Wu has stepped into a transportation leadership vacuum that had existed since former Gov. Michael Dukakis, who continues to advocate for transportation upgrades, used the MBTA to commute to his State House office. Only a public-transit superfan would haul their kids and their double stroller all over the MBTA network. Sometimes Wu takes a car when she heads to City Hall, but often enough she still takes the same bus and subway connections she used as a city councilor.

But first she has to get out of her neighborhood. For months, Wu has sailed past hapless protesters haplessly denouncing COVID policies that no one seems to care about anymore. In January, she refused to back down from her stance that all city employees get vaccinated. (She negotiated with the Boston Teachers Union to get their consent on vaccination policies; she dropped the ball by failing to do the same with the city employees’ union and walked straight into a court tussle, a rookie mistake.) Soon after, equipped with noisemakers and posters that mocked her heritage, people descended on the home where she lives with her husband Conor Pewarski (who had resigned from his banking job to take on more family responsibilities), her two young boys, and her mother.

The virulent racial harassment Wu, her family, and her neighbors have faced has produced a reaction of strong support across the city, and, at the mayor’s urging, the city council revamped Boston’s noise ordinance to move protests out of early-morning hours. “Many of us in the Asian American community have known our whole lives what it feels like to be cast as ‘other’ even in the country that we grew up in,” says Wu. “Unfortunately, it’s not a new experience for me in government or for women of color serving in leadership positions in our state.”

A half-year in, priorities pile up. It is not unusual for mayors to have to select a new police chief or school superintendent during their tenure. It is rare for a mayor to have to select two new leaders at the beginning of their first term. For Wu, the police chief could be the easier lift. One important factor in her favor is that Boston did not experience the sharp uptick in crime that struck other Northeast Corridor cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. Boston has a long history of community policing and lower crime rates, elements that kept murder rates and petty crime at bay during the pandemic. But Wu trimmed the police budget by only 1 percent, which set progressives grumbling about her failure to redirect police budget dollars to other programs, and police shootings and union contract friction complicate matters as well.

Boston schools had five superintendents in 15 years. The outgoing superintendent, Brenda Cassellius, will leave after only three years, short even by the brief six-year average tenure for urban superintendents. The public schools are mired in debates that may deter national candidates. Declining test scores and possible receivership hang over the district, along with transportation and infrastructure issues.

There are controversies over prestigious exam school admissions policies, returning to an elected school board (the desegregation crisis stoked by an elected board led to the change), and a high-profile sexual abuse scandal at a K-8 school. All of these problems will complicate an already difficult search at a time when teachers are leaving the profession and families are leaving the school district in droves.

The deep systemic issues facing the schools and the police, ones unfolding in plain view of voters, have the potential to compete with and derail Wu’s housing and planning reform program. Moreover, the success of Wu’s economic development agenda runs through the state legislature. If Boston’s housing crisis fails to resonate with state lawmakers, she must consider what can get done in the next several years on her own political calendar. Wu has picked up the tools to scrape out the mortar binding Boston’s old-school development sector together. Builders may want to fill up the city with luxury housing that looks like Legoland, but Michelle Wu is not here to play.