STATE REP RACE Q&A: Erika Johnson Discusses District’s Infrastructure Needs & Affordable Housing Needs

WILMINGTON, MA — Wilmington Apple is asking weekly questions to the seven candidates running in contested primaries for the Wilmington/Tewksbury State Representative seat (19th Middlesex).

Below, in her own words, are the responses to this week’s questions from candidate Erika Johnson (D-Wilmington).

#17) What are some of the major infrastructure needs in the district? Can you point to specific streets/areas within both towns that “need work?” What will you do as State Rep to ensure certain roadway projects, sidewalk projects, etc. finally get addressed?

First and foremost, we need to fix Route 38. I cannot count how many people who live, work, or commute through this district have told me how frustrated they are with this major state road that desperately needs some work. I have also heard countless voters tell me how we need to repair our sidewalks and put some in on certain dangerous roads across the district.

Second is traffic and dangerous intersections. Personally, I was involved in a car accident in the intersection of Salem Road and South Street in Tewksbury that totalled my car and sent the firefighters in the South Tewksbury station running over because they heard it happen. They, along with the responding police officers told me how they’ve lost count of the number of car accidents that have occurred at that intersection. Over a year later and I do all I can to avoid that area. In sharing my story, residents have brought up intersections and roadways they are concerned about such as the new turn on East St to Maple St in Tewksbury and In Wilmington, the lights at High Street where it meets Route 62. At the light, the right lane is a turn-only lane, but many people go straight from there so they aren’t stuck behind someone making a left on 62. As State Representative, I want to continue to hear about areas of concern for residents and from there, work with local and state powers-that-be to address these concerns, secure state aid and grants when eligible and make sure our roads are safe for all who travel them.

As an anecdote, back in March 2010, the bridge known as the Brown Street Bridge in Tewksbury and the Nichols Street Bridge in Wilmington, was closed due to flood damage. While they did end up finishing ahead of time, the state-funded repair project that was low cost and a relatively minor project, took over 2 years to complete. In the summer of 2012, the project was still incomplete. While interning for Representative Miceli, I was given the task of calling the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) every day that summer asking for an update and reminding our contacts at there how important it is for bridge to reopen as soon as possible. The project was complete in September 2012 and reopened. If elected, I would continue Representative Miceli’s “squeaky wheel” approach; delivering results for the residents by fighting for state aid to make necessary infrastructure repairs while making sure they are addressed in a timely fashion to have minimal disruption to traffic and local neighborhoods.

#18) As State Rep, what will you do to increase affordable housing opportunities for seniors, veterans and young adults right out of school? Also, what are your thoughts on the Governor’s proposal to promote more dense housing developments by changing the 2/3 majority vote to a simple majority vote for rezonings at Town Meetings? (Background: https://www.massachusettslandusemonitor.com/zoning/governor-baker-proposes-zoning-changes-to-promote-more-housing/) Finally, do you feel the state’s 40B laws need to be updated? Why?

As a person who had to move home after graduating college due to student loan debt, I am well aware of the lack of affordable housing opportunities in the district as well as the greater Boston area. I also had a firsthand look while interning for Representative Miceli at how few affordable housing units there are in the district and just how long the waiting list is for places like Deming Way in Wilmington for seniors and veterans looking for affordable housing. As real estate prices soar in this area, Wilmington especially, we must take a smart approach to growth and help these demographics be able to live in our communities. As I am talking to voters, I keep hearing how their children who grew up in Wilmington having to move to other towns that are more affordable or how long their children have to commute into Boston to work because they were priced out of the area. What I find especially troubling is what I wrote about last week, the Wilmington firefighters who are being priced out of the very community they put their lives on the line to protect.

Dan Koh, a Democrat running for Congress in Massachusetts’ 3rd District, recently issued his plan for affordable housing on the federal level that I completely agree with. His plan is to expand incentives for affordable housing development, pass legislation to protect home buyers, ensure safe public housing standards, and fight to end chronic cycles of homelessness. While I hope we see these ideas come to fruition on the federal level, Massachusetts can work on these initiatives on the state level as well, all concepts I would advocate for if elected.

Governor Baker released a proposal to add 135,000 housing units across the Commonwealth by 2025. “To do so, he has introduced legislation that will allow municipalities to adopt certain changes to local zoning by a majority vote, instead of by super-majority, as currently required by state law. The zoning changes include relaxing dimensional, density and parking requirements, as well as adopting smart growth and starter home zoning districts. The proposed legislation would also promote accessory dwelling units and the transfer of development rights to allow cluster developments.”

While we do have a need for increased housing, I have several serious concerns about the Governor’s proposal. The first thing that comes to mind is capacity in our public schools, making sure both communities’ new high schools and other schools can properly hold the amount of people these new rules would bring in as well as keeping class sizes down to allow for an effective learning environment. In terms of the proposal to promote more dense housing developments by changing the 2/3 majority vote to a simple majority vote for rezonings at Town Meetings, I don’t agree. I believe in the sanctity of Town Meetings and believe in the right of the residents to have a real say in town decisions. With any proposal that comes forward, residents need to consider how it fits into the landscape of the town it is proposed for, how many affordable units are included if any at all, number of units/occupancy and its impact on our schools, public safety and infrastructure. Changing the super-majority rule to a simple majority vote is a disservice to the participating town.

The one part of this proposal that I think is a fantastic idea is the Starter Home Zoning Districts that would help young people attain homeownership, a concept that is becoming increasingly harder given crushing student loan debt and an economy where real estate prices keep soaring. While speaking to voters throughout the campaign, my team and I met numerous residents who had their adult children living with them because moving out was financially unattainable. In Wilmington and Tewksbury, median home prices are in the $400,000 range and high monthly rent for the apartment complexes in the district, price tags that are not feasible for so many people. Starter Home Zoning Districts would make it much more realistic for young people especially, to be able to move back to their hometowns when they would’ve been priced out before this initiative.

Wilmington and Tewksbury have long been communities that foster a deep sense of community, where families plant their roots and generation after generation have lived and grown; ideals that are threatened by status quo thinking. By finding new solutions, such as “Starter Home” zoning districts, we can help our communities thrive by maintaining these ideals while fostering growth.

While I agree with the goal of Chapter 40B, to make at least 10% of every Massachusetts’s community’s housing stock affordable, I am troubled by the qualifications under the current law. Chapter 40B relies solely on income and number of people living in the household at a time where average wages have been stagnant for quite some time and costs across the board are rising. We live in a country where a person working a minimum wage job cannot afford rent anywhere in the U.S. therefore these qualifications need to be adjusted (https://bigthink.com/stephen-johnson/report-minimum-wage-jobs-cant-pay-the-rent-anywhere-in-us). The current program also does not take into consideration other necessary bills and added costs such as student loan payments, living expenses, monthly bills for those with a chronic illness etc. all necessary expenses that affect financial stability and for many, render Chapter 40B un-affordable housing. This statute gives developers far too much power over local communities as they can override municipal zoning bylaws and determine their own pricing structure. Developers can choose to build minimum amounts of affordable housing units, while profiting largely off of the other units in the development. This creates a demand for affordable units and pricing out those who may not meet the affordable criteria but still can’t afford the market value units.

(NOTE: Do you have a question for the candidates? Email wilmingtonapple@gmail.com and it may be asked in a future Q&A or in a debate.)

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