Wednesday, July 17, 2024

City councillor Quinton Zondervan.

Editor’s note: The Monday meeting of the City Council ground to a halt briefly as councillors walked out during councillor Quinton Zondervan’s reading of a letter by resident Michael Turk and his own follow-up comments. The letter, about the role of a developer lobbyist group called Naiop in writing legislation, can be read here. During Zondervan’s comments councillors Alanna Mallon, E. Denise Simmons, Craig Kelley and finally Tim Toomey left the the room. Mayor Marc McGovern called a recess when there were too few councillors present to constitute a quorum; when the meeting resumed, McGovern gave Zondervan 30 seconds to finish his remarks, afterward cutting him off. “I’m trying to get at what the point is here,” McGovern had said. “This isn’t a time for a soapbox on this.” 

On Twitter, journalist John Hawkinson – who has been consulted by officials for judgment on Robert’s Rules of Order – said he found the situation “not normal”:  

Zondervan’s comments:

This letter is regarding the Massachusetts chapter of Naiop, which markets itself as the Commercial Real Estate Development Association of Massachusetts.

This organization’s legislative efforts are a case study in how commercial interests influence our politics in Cambridge. We like to think that we don’t have the kind of influence-mongering here that exists at the federal level – and because we represent a tiny piece of the American pie, we certainly don’t have it at the same level. But within our purview, particularly around real estate development and land use, we continue to see strong pressure from industry and its lobbyists to build, baby, build. What are some of the consequences of this monomaniacal focus on “growth”? There are many, and Naiop Massachusetts’ own remarkable list of legislative “accomplishments” highlights exactly the downsides to this approach of prioritizing economic growth and development over human lives and the environment:

Naiop claims victory for defeating a “radical” (its word) anti-wage theft bill. In other words, even as the real estate industry regularly trots out hardworking union laborers to beg us to approve building projects that create jobs they desperately need, it’s fighting with the other hand to defeat efforts at ensuring contractors and wage laborers are paid a living wage so they can feed their families. They seek to suppress the cost of doing business, even if that means worsening economic inequality and poverty. This is how America does business, and it is high time we acknowledged that many of our big-business practices are socially corrosive and directly contradict the goals we claim to espouse on this council.

Similarly, Naiop claims victory in defeating several environmental and climate change protection bills, because they “could have,” in its opinion, resulted in “needless delays and legal challenges” for development. Naiop also claims to have “lobbied the Board of Building Regulations and Standards against adopting stringent solar standards, stretch energy code standards and electric vehicle readiness mandates.” In other words, we can’t have environmental protections and a climate change response with actual teeth, because that might get in the way of development. And so it is that we end up with massive tree canopy loss in Cambridge, devastating global climate change all over the planet and continued resistance to necessary changes, even here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to respond to these existential, life- and property-threatening disasters, lest we get in the way of any “development” that is directly responsible for these problems in the first place.

We love to rail against our fossil fool-in-chief for refusing to acknowledge the need to end our dependence on fossil fuels, which is the primary driver of climate change, but we ourselves refuse to come to terms with the fact that our growth-above-all, profits-over-people approach is part and parcel of the same self-destruction humans are inflicting on our civilization.

And it gets worse! Institutions such as Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are proud members of Naiop, and the head of Mitimco, Steve Marsh, is the former head of Naiop Massachusetts. These institutions of higher learning are our community partners, who should be, and in many cases are helping us and leading the way on responding to climate change and environmental destruction. And yet, at the same time, we give them a free pass for their support of lobbyists such as Naiop.

I’m hoping that shining some light on these connections will help my colleagues and the public better understand what we’re up against when we try to take action on climate change, inequality and housing.

Let me close with housing, because it’s affirmed to be our highest priority on the council and certainly presents a major challenge to too many residents of our city fighting to stay in their homes. While we go to bat for our tenants at risk, while we honestly and carefully debate housing policy and tenant protections, Naiop at the state level seeks to boost commercial development while fighting any efforts to protect tenants or keep rents from rising. Why? To maximize its profits. The fact is that rich people pay more, and so these industry lobbyists are not interested in keeping rents down and keeping families in their homes; they are interested only in driving profits up and pretending that doing so doesn’t hurt anybody. The reality, of course, is exactly the opposite, and we see that on a daily basis in our offices as people come to us with desperate pleas for help.

In fact, in its list of accomplishments, Naiop includes this:

“Defeated far-reaching zoning legislation that would have added expense and delay to the land development process in Massachusetts – eliminating the Approval Not Required process, reducing the scope of zoning ‘freeze’ protection under current law, authorizing impact fees without limitation and mandating inclusionary zoning without incentives.”

Again, this organization is directly opposing some of the great work being done by the City Council.

It’s high time that we take these matters to heart and take them seriously. We need to double down on our efforts to protect tenants, to create living wage jobs, to protect our environment and to fight back against the insanity of growth at all cost, profits over people and the future be doomed. I urge my colleagues to carefully read Mr. Turk’s letter and to thoroughly understand these connections and influences that may not measure up to what is happening at the federal level, but nonetheless result in severe injustice and despair for too many in our city. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, it is never too late to do the right thing, and that is as true today as ever.

Quinton Zondervan is a city councillor and climate activist.

The editor’s note on this post was updated Feb. 18, 2019, after councillor Craig Kelley complained it was unfair to say Zondervan’s comments “inspired” four councillors to leave the room, causing the loss of quorum; it now says only that four councillors left the room while Zondervan was speaking, causing the loss of quorum.