Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone’s Mid-Term/Farewell Address
Good afternoon Somerville. In a normal time, I would be delivering this mid-term address in this chamber with a room full of people. We’d have multiple speeches from multiple City leaders, all looking back at the past year and looking forward to what we hope to accomplish in the new year.
But as we are all painfully aware, these are not normal times. So I will be speaking to you via this virtual talk as we all look forward to a day when we can gather again.
However, before I get started on discussing the state of our city, I have a more personal announcement to make. This will be my final year as Mayor of Somerville. It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve the city where I was raised. I love this job — and this community — with every ounce of my being.
For nearly 18 years, I’ve been privileged to work alongside so many in this community to strengthen, grow, and advance our shared goals and to take on the many challenges faced by our city, the nation, and even — in some cases — the planet. This past year, we also mobilized city staff across all departments to mount an unprecedented, intensive, and ongoing emergency response not just to the historic pandemic we face but also to its tremendous economic and equity impacts.
Every day as we do this work of the City I pass by the portraits of the mayors who served before me. It is a constant reminder that mayors are links in a chain that extends well beyond each of our time in office. I want to honor my role in that chain and hand our next mayor a city that is on solid footing and ready to take the next 20 steps in its evolution. So make no mistake, as I carry forward during my final term, I’m all in, Somerville. I will be hard at work for you until my last day on the job.
To start, Somerville needs to rebound from the health, economic and social hits brought on by the coronavirus outbreak. I am determined to carry us successfully through this crisis and I’m glad to do so without the distraction of running for another term in office.
We have been beset by a pandemic that has surged past half a million dead across our country, killed more than 1 in every 500 people in our state, and taken 74 souls here in Somerville. It is a devastating amount of loss.
To everyone who has lost family, a friend, or a familiar face during this crisis, you have my heartfelt condolences. Nothing can replace the person who has been taken from your life, but know that we as a city grieve with you. These losses are made especially cruel because we cannot gather together to mark the passing and celebrate the lives of our loved ones.
Please know you are not alone.
I am informed of every new COVID death, and every time, the profound loss of another human soul hits me. We are being asked to bear too many sorrows. On top of that, this crisis has magnified inequities in our larger society that must be addressed.
Families are going hungry. An increasing number are housing insecure. Residents are not getting the physical and mental healthcare they need. Workers have lost jobs or income. Community members are staring down the digital divide. Through no fault of their own, people have been pushed to their limits and the fringes of our society.
Coronavirus also has laid bare the public health crisis that is systemic racial injustice. This virus is hitting Black and brown people far harder. It’s happening here; there’s no denying it. The numbers are overwhelming. It puts a whole different frame around how we truly recover from this pandemic and what constitutes a healthy society going forward.
But in Somerville we’re always ready to take our inequities head on. It is fundamental to our local character and values. And that is exactly what we will — and must — continue to do in 2021.
This starts with vaccines and the inequities in accessing them. Vaccines are arriving for those able to get to the front of the line. But it will take months before everyone is inoculated. And for your own health and the health of our community we need you to get vaccinated.
Vaccines are how we band together to beat this disease, but we find ourselves having to battle the state to make sure vaccines are truly accessible to everyone. The state is no longer giving vaccines to communities, and it’s set up mass vaccination sites that are not easily accessible to many of our most vulnerable and economically strained residents.
At the same time, more contagious variants of this virus are taking root. The biggest public health crisis of our times shouldn’t be yet another fight for fairness and equity, but that’s exactly what it’s become.
Yet there are still measures we can all take to protect ourselves and our neighbors.When you mask up and socially distance, when you stick with your household rather than gathering with others, you are taking simple steps that can break the chain of transmission for this disease.
I know Somerville is capable of being extra attentive as we get our community fully vaccinated in order to put this dark chapter in our history behind us.
I know because I’ve seen it happen. Neighbors have worked together to create mutual aid networks. Our City masked up and socially distanced right from the start. So many have reached out over the past year asking how they can help. City staff took on new roles and long hours to be rocks for our entire community during the pandemic. Businesses, hurting themselves, still stepped up to help others by donating meals, supplies, and support. In Somerville, “In This Together” is no empty slogan; it’s who we are.
Let me tell you about just a few of the ways your City has responded to this crisis.
One of the earliest needs that surfaced with this crisis was food access. City and School staff, community partners and nearly 115 community volunteers sprang into action. In 10 months the Somerville Public Schools provided nearly 155,000 meals; and roughly 26,000 free food deliveries were made to residents left homebound by the virus.
Along with ramping up their food distribution, the Somerville Public Schools also took on the Herculean task of connecting roughly 500 families to internet service and tech devices to support remote learning. We are taking what we learned from that effort to begin the Digital Bridge Initiative, which will identify nimble, targeted approaches to closing the digital divide. We’re going to pilot new ideas, find what works, and build upon those successes. The bottom line is that the internet is a lifeline to jobs, education, social services, and communications that should be treated like any other essential utility. If we want to make sure all our residents have a shot at success, we must bridge the digital divide.
We remain focused on helping through the remainder of the pandemic and beyond. If you need any kind of personal assistance, please do not suffer in silence. If you are in danger of losing your housing, contact our Office of Housing Stability. If you need food or assistance to pay for utilities or childcare or help of any kind, please reach out. Assume help is available and let us help you locate it. You do not have to navigate this crisis on your own.
It’s not just residents who have been hit hard financially by COVID-19. Our local businesses are hurting too. I want to thank our City Council for approving more than $7 million in small business relief and waived fees.
We haven’t just allocated City funds to help. We joined cities and towns across the Commonwealth to advocate for more relief, and in the wake of that effort the state government also made $668 million in small business assistance available. Our City Office of Economic Development and our Office of Immigrant Affairs staff are putting in long hours to make sure Somerville businesses can access these funds as well as federal aid that can help them to weather these lean times. Residents have helped too, committing to shop and spend locally to keep our businesses going.
Yet COVID-19 is not the only crisis we’ve had to face in the past year. While COVID-19 killed more Americans in a year than we lost in four years of World War II, we have also come to a national moment of reckoning for racial and social justice.
It’s long overdue. Much of the conversation has focused on policing and how systemic racism – whether overtly expressed or an internalized bias – can lead to deadly and destructive outcomes for people of color, as we witnessed with the murder of George Floyd and so many others.
When I first became mayor, one of our top priorities was reforming the Somerville Police Department from its disconnect from the community to the culture inside the department. It was known by many in those days as “the house of hate.” The department is now a regional and national leader in compassionate community policing, and we continue to advance racial and social justice efforts within the force.
Somerville has also been a national leader in offering robust social services designed to derail the desperation and neglect that can beget criminal activity. We have been blazing that path for the past two decades and we will build on it.
We have committed to the creation of civilian oversight, and I want to thank the Council for working on that effort. We are creating greater independence for internal and external police investigators. We changed our asset forfeiture policies and shifted funds to recovery and jail diversion services, ended Somerville PD’s participation in federal military weapon distribution, and shifted funds from the police budget to social and housing services and racial and social justice efforts.
We are re-imagining how our police force operates. We will make substantive changes in how we select who polices our community and how we can hold them to the absolute highest standard of public service. We remain steadfastly committed to implementing body-worn cameras in the Somerville Police Department. We will soon be holding an open community process to select our new police chief. We will find a way forward that provides greater public safety, maintains prompt response to 911 calls and keeps social justice our true north.
But the conversation, and work that needs to be done, doesn’t end with policing. We need to examine all of our institutions and policies and make sure they are working for all residents.
During this administration, we have made historic investments in our schools, social programs and infrastructure to help uplift both individuals and whole neighborhoods. We have fostered the growth of minority and immigrant-owned businesses in our city. We spend less than 7 percent of our municipal budget on police and we provide social service, health, housing, and multilingual outreach that gets services to thousands of vulnerable or underserved residents each year.
To ensure this work continues and grows, we are hiring a Racial and Social Justice Director who will be part of the Mayor’s core policy team, putting an equity and racial justice lens on everything we do. They will lead the community effort to achieve true equity, making sure the people who’ve borne the pain of systemic racism lead the process. And they will design and staff up a new Racial and Social Justice Office that will be at the beating heart of city government working to create transformational change.
However, we have not been idle while our community-based hiring committee completed an exhaustive search for the right candidate to lead this vital work. I can also report that when our schools reopen, Somerville High School will have deans of students in place of resource officers, and each school in our system will have its own equity specialist to support social justice programs and work with school administrators to identify and address systemic inequities.
Our focus on racial and social justice has to be systemic. We want to root out not just the obvious but also the hidden ways that injustice exists in the work we do. That’s why we are taking on procurement to ensure more people of color-, immigrant-, women-, and LGBTQ-headed companies are included in our contracting.
And that is also why we are also moving to create a new position in the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development that will focus on racial and social justice in the context of planning, zoning, housing, and economic development policies.
Our efforts around climate change intersect with this work. People of color have been and will continue to be disproportionately affected by climate change. One city like Somerville cannot mitigate climate change or structural racism alone, but that shouldn’t stop us from setting ambitious goals and demanding that state and federal governments step up and do their part.
The good news is, we’re making significant progress on our Somerville Climate Forward plan. Right now, the power in Somerville homes is 28% clean energy. That’s up from 20% in 2019, and we are on track to be above 50% by the end of this decade. We’re also on track for carbon-neutral City operations by 2035. Starting with our new public safety building on Washington Street, all of our new City buildings will be carbon neutral.
We anticipate the state soon will pass new regulations that allow us to ban fossil fuel hookups in new construction. If for some reason that legislation gets blocked, we will gather like-minded cities and towns from all over the state and raise hell until the state passes it.
We will be installing more electric vehicle charging stations throughout the city so that, by 2025, every resident in Somerville will live within a 10-minute walk of an EV charging station.
We are working on a new rental building energy efficiency standard so renters will have information about their expected energy costs before they sign their lease. On the transportation side of things, we will continue to push toward free public transit for all by launching a free transit program for all Somerville school students. Eventually we want to see this expand to every Somerville resident or employee who uses the MBTA.
Just as our Shape Up Somerville initiative committed us to making the healthy choice the easy choice, we now commit ourselves to making the climate-friendly transit choice the easy choice. The future doesn’t revolve around driving your car everywhere you need to go. It revolves around innovation, equitable transit, and new choices.
And we will be working with community groups to identify ways to bring leading edge technology for heating, cooling and energy efficiency to those who have the least, providing them a better quality of life and a lower cost of living.
In just a few days we’ll be welcoming the first phase of students back into classrooms. For months we have been preparing to make sure that once our schools open, they stay open. I’m a parent of four school-aged children. I know how difficult remote learning has been and we are now entering the phase where we start bringing back our students and restoring a sense of normalcy for families in our city. For all of our students, especially those who have suffered the greatest impacts, we owe them more than just opening up buildings. We need to provide every support necessary to restore the academic progress that they have been denied and help them heal socially and emotionally.
To help students recover academically, we’ll be expanding summer school programming and after school programs in the fall, with specific support for special education students and English language learners. To make sure mental health needs are addressed, the district will be adding more social workers. Our Summer Jobs Program will provide high school students with the opportunity to attend academic supports and work with younger students. And we’ll be working to match Career and Technical Education students with jobs to help them make up hands-on experience they missed this year.
I want to extend my thanks to the students, their families, our teachers and school administrators, and everybody on City and School staff who’s been working themselves to exhaustion to try to get our school buildings operating as safely as possible and to stand up comprehensive school covid testing and contact tracing to keep our district safe during this pandemic. Your extraordinary efforts have enabled us to make the best of these trying times and protect our school staff, students, and their families.
I also want to report we have a new state-of-the-art high school building that’s ready to open. It will play a major role in our phased reopening plan and, more than that, it will enhance the education of generations of our children.
It is the tangible result of our city’s deep commitment to education. The people of Somerville approved our first ever debt exclusion to build this school, and I hope everyone takes a moment to appreciate the lasting legacy of our collective decision.
Institutions like our high school form the bedrock of our community. They play a central role in every initiative we undertake to better our society. In the future people will be able to take for granted how much effort and community support had to be marshaled to make that building a reality.
In normal times we’d invite everyone over for a celebration. While we can’t do that right now, it does not diminish what an enormous step this is in shaping the future of our city and the students who will be educated there.
As we begin this year with one opening that will reverberate deep into the future, we are on track to finish it with an opening that is also momentous. The Green Line extension is set to open later this year.
The stations are under construction right now. We are counting down months instead of years to when the trains start running. Soon enough we’re going to have a new nervous system running through the middle of our city.
We’ve had to fight for 30 years to make the Green Line Extension and Community Path happen and it’s going to change the way we live in this city. It will accelerate all of our other transportation initiatives like streamlined bus service, protected bike lanes and becoming a more walkable city. It will transform city squares, catalyze thousands of new housing units and eventually bring tens of thousands of new jobs.
Its effects will stretch far beyond Somerville. When the rest of Massachusetts sees the fiscal benefits of economic growth and a more affordable method of travel; when it sees the societal impact of living closer to jobs, education and healthcare; when it sees the environmental benefits of fewer greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and cleaner air to breathe — I expect it’s going to launch a new era of transit improvement in our state.
The Green Line extension is going to be the project where the 21st century begins in earnest in Massachusetts. It’s time to stop nibbling around the edges and start doing the big, transformative things.
Somerville doesn’t view the Green Line Extension as an endpoint. We know our transportation future has only begun to take shape. We recently submitted a request to the City Council for funding to add three new positions to the Mobility Division to advance our work around Vision Zero and climate-friendly transportation. The Green Line Extension is going to be big for Somerville, but we also have to build safe, accessible bus and bike routes, sidewalks, and roads throughout our city.
A few years ago the Boston area won the dishonor of being cited for the worst traffic in the nation. If our region is to continue to thrive, we need a modern, 21st century transportation network that puts the needs of the people using it first. People need safe, affordable options to get to work, school and errands. No one wants to spend hours every week idling in their car, and our planet can’t take the emissions. We deserve better, and we know we can do better. We’re going to be the model for that right here in Somerville.
Looking back on how we got the Green Line Extension and Community Path, it’s important to remember that it only got off the ground because of the strenuous, unflagging advocacy that insisted the state deliver the project it promised us decades ago. Something I’ve learned in these past 17 years of being mayor is that it’s leadership that drives these advancements forward. But leadership isn’t limited to government officials or those in positions of power. Grassroots advocacy was key in us getting the Green Line Extension. That kind of leadership from and collaboration with the community will be key in advancing racial and social justice initiatives and in tackling our climate challenges.
Just as our national leaders in Washington are debating a reinvestment act designed to reignite our economy, we also need critical investments in our community at the local level. A decade ago in the wake of the last recession, we put forward our SomerVision plan to align our future around our shared community values. We will put serious money and resources into supporting those values as we recover from COVID-19.
We are going to launch what is the most important initiative for the future of this community – a new way to invest in our most important infrastructure – our people. The Somerville Advancing Reinvestment in our Community – or Somerville ARC – Initiative will be a model for how we leverage the growth in our city to invest in our residents and community.
Somerville is going to recover from this pandemic in dramatic fashion and we need to make sure that prosperity touches everyone. We want to make sure that every resident in our city has the opportunity to thrive. If you want to open a business, attend community college, or create art that uplifts and inspires our community, we want to honor what you’ve told us is important and support those goals. This is a way to seed new civic organizations and establish public institutions that enrich our quality of life. It’s a way to derive a constant flow of new public benefits from the growth of our local economy, ensuring we have a rising tide that lifts all boats.
And nowhere is that more of a priority than it is with housing.
Prices continue to soar, and the place where we’ve most been losing the affordability battle is in our existing neighborhoods. I was raised here because Somerville was an affordable place for an immigrant family to raise their kids. I would hate to see the street where I grew up turn into a gated community with all the affordable housing segregated to another part of the city.
We want our neighborhoods to retain their character and diversity, so we’ve got to secure residences in those neighborhoods for people who can’t keep up with the rising cost of housing
The good news is we have a proven way to do it. A few years ago we launched the 100 Homes program to buy up existing housing units, and I’m happy to let you know we have procured 100 homes. That’s housing for older residents and families and people with lower incomes who otherwise might have had to move out of Somerville.
Along the way we learned that buying up existing housing units is more cost effective than building news ones. The concept works. We can get about 50% more affordable units for the same amount of money. It’s an opportunity we must seize.
What we will be proposing is that the 100 Homes program become the 2,000 Homes program.
This would be a 20-year goal, which means we would be looking to purchase an average of 100 housing units per year. It’s an ambitious goal, but the entire Boston area has a housing crisis on its hands, so we need to think big. Too many people in our community are housing insecure, and we need an aggressive strategy to change that.
While we do this work, we need to remember that just creating housing isn’t enough. We need more than 2,000 homes. We need 2,000 paths forward. We need to ensure that the people in those homes have internet access, can access affordable food and health care, have the option to take reliable — and free — public transit, and can take advantage of educational and job training opportunities. Affordable housing provides crucial stability, but we must focus on every barrier to an individual’s path forward. This holistic approach will guide our work.
Over the past year the inequities in our society got laid bare. As the pandemic hit, the people who had the least are the people who suffered the most. It doesn’t have to be that way.
I’m proud that during my time as Mayor we were able to address many of the legacy issues plaguing our physical infrastructure. But we as a country have also systematically underinvested in our communities and residents. Just as we have put into place plans to invest in our roads, pipes, and buildings, we’re creating a framework to invest in our people, our businesses, and the arts and culture that breathe life and new aspirations into our city.
In this city we have always operated on the proposition we can do better, and better is what we will do.
And that burning desire to do better is why being the Mayor of Somerville has been such an incredible experience. It’s a value embodied by our residents and something I see every day from City staff. In normal times, I’m amazed at the work City employees put in day in, day out, and the volunteerism and advocacy that residents contribute in service of Somerville, but I’ve been blown away by how our staff and how our community have stepped up even more during this pandemic.
I want to thank every City employee and every community member who is contributing. You have risen to the occasion under difficult circumstances. You’ve worked extra hours. You’ve taken on new tasks. And you’ve found creative solutions to the new problems COVID-19 threw at us. The work you’ve done to serve the people of this city has been outstanding. To City staff, I must add, you have been a beacon of dependability in a sea of chaos, the very best example of what it means to be public servants. I am honored to work with you, my fellow elected officials, and alongside the people of Somerville.
To everyone I say take care of each other, remain vigilant about checking the spread of this disease, give the vaccines time to do their job, help a neighbor or a friend who is struggling if you can, and stay focused on our future. We will not simply get through this. We will seize this moment. Somerville is still moving forward.