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City of Whose Homes?

Activists call for Springfield's rebuilding plan to be more inclusive.

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Thursday, May 31, 2012

In the wake of the freak tornado that devastated large swaths of Springfield last summer, city leaders began to focus on what, for lack of a better phrase, might be called the silver lining: the opportunity not just to rebuild those parts of the city, but to improve them—to, in the words of a resulting redevelopment plan, "bring the city back bigger, better and stronger."

The "Rebuild Springfield" plan, led by a 15-member advisory committee and compiled by an outside firm hired by the group, was released this spring. It was developed after several months of community meetings; in an introductory letter, Mayor Domenic Sarno wrote that the plan was "directly shaped by the more than 2,000 voices of city residents and stakeholders who came out in our public meetings and online forums to share their aspirations, frustrations and vision for how to make the City of Springfield a better place for all of us."

But critics say that not every voice was heard in the process—namely, those of the city's poorest residents. As a result, they say, that vulnerable population is left at even greater risk by the plan, which calls for bringing more market-rate housing to the city but says little about low-income housing. That, they fear, will lead to gentrification at the expense of an already inadequate housing stock for the poor.

"It's like any natural disaster: the poorest get pushed out and don't get to come back," as was the case in post-Katrina New Orleans, said Holly Richardson, of Arise for Social Justice and Out Now. "We're saying: don't exclude their voices."

It's a message she and fellow activists are taking directly to Sarno, holding, to date, three sit-ins outside his office. Specifically, the group is asking the mayor to create a housing task force made up of 50 percent low- and moderate-income people, who historically have been left out of larger discussions about housing and development in the city, said Arise's Michaelann Bewsee.

"There's a lot of people who think they know what [we] need, but they don't talk to us," Bewsee said. She went to several of the Rebuild Springfield forums and gave feedback on its website, she said, "and I don't feel I had any impact at all."

Sarno has, thus far, refused to meet with the activists—who have brought brown-bag lunches and even set up furniture in the hall outside his office—other than to talk briefly with them during their first visit, last month. He also had Gerry McCafferty, the city's housing director, write a three-page letter to Arise outlining the city's work on low-income housing, homelessness and neighborhood revitalization.

The mayor declined comment for this article, although his press aide, Tom Walsh, reiterated what Sarno told the activists at City Hall: that Springfield has taken on more than its fair share of low-income housing, and it's time for neighboring communities to step up. And, Walsh added, the city found suitable housing for all residents who were displaced by the tornado. "The city's definitely been doing a lot to end homelessness and house people," he said.

Bewsee has no problem with other communities being more welcoming to poor people, but that doesn't mean Springfield's poor should have to leave their community, she said. "To say they should go to Wilbraham or East Longmeadow—well, I don't want to live there."

Bewsee also questions whether the plan's goal of bringing more upwardly mobile young professionals to the city is realistic. "I'm not sure that demographic is significant anymore, considering that college graduates are not finding jobs on their fields," she said. "I really believe that if we can find a way for people who already live here to have their housing and job needs met, then it will make us an attractive city and people will be more interested in living here. ... It always goes back to the question: are we building the city for the people who live here, or for the people we want to live here?"

While Bewsee doesn't object to the proposals in the rebuilding plan, she said, she'd like to see it include more ideas for improved low-income housing, such as small-scale developments with communal spaces like courtyards. But first, she said, people like her have to be included in the public conversation—and she and her fellow activists will keep pushing Sarno until they are.

The group plans future visits to the mayor's office and will be a presence at an interfaith service planned for June 1, the anniversary of the tornado. The activists, Bewsee said, will not disrupt the service. "We'll stand outside and say: 'What about us?'"

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