DSA in Office: Interview with Ben Ewen-Campen

  • Reading time:29 mins read

By Shayna Take

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

Shayna Take (ST): You are a member of the Somerville City Council, ward three, and you’re on a few committees. Somerville is a pretty unique community and it looks like the City Council could have a leftist majority in this upcoming cycle: what would it mean to have a left-wing majority on the Council?

Ben Ewen-Campen (BEC): Somerville is an interesting place, because we have—I think—a well-deserved reputation as being a really progressive, kind of left-wing city, and yet—until quite recently—the local government did not really reflect that. I always think about our state representatives versus the City Council. Our state reps—for a long time—have been really, really outspoken left-wing leaders at the State House: people like Denise Provost, Mike Connolly—Denise Provost was a member of DSA years before it was cool. Then if you were to look at the City Council, before our election, it was not like that. I think the difference is that the elections are in opposite years and it has to do with turnout. Where, when you get high turnout, the electorate in Somerville is very clear about where their values are and then when you have super-low turnout elections, it’s quite different. 

In 2017, when I was elected along with a number of other people, it really was kind of the first time that there had been—not just a majority of progressive, left-wing city councilors, but also the fact that we were really explicitly all elected on a mandate around more affordable housing, more government transparency, more economic justice, more public transportation justice, you know. I think that kind of reset the realm of the possible in local politics here.

I think another thing that is kind of underappreciated in Somerville is that our City Council works really well together. Even where we don’t agree. I would say to a remarkable extent, there is very little sabotage between members of the Council—anything like that. It’s not like there’s two wings of the Council and this wing will never agree with that. It’s kind of like on any given issue, we work in good faith and the votes fall where they may. That’s something that I don’t take for granted; it means that we’ve been able to make a ton of progress really quickly because there hasn’t been a lot of…

ST: Partisanship and politicking?

BEC: Yeah, pointless infighting for the sake of egos. You know, we’re all politicians, we all like to give speeches and have our issues, absolutely. But at different times, I’ve been really strong allies with almost everyone on the Council, and at other times I’ve been on opposite sides of the vote with almost everyone on the Council. Because we all work together professionally and respectfully, it’s meant that we’ve been able to make progress on stuff that I think in other cities might have been much, much more contentious.

ST: Right. What sort of progress has been made?

BEC: I’d say the number one issue that I was running on, that I think if you were to ask anyone in the streets they’d say, is housing affordability. Somerville has probably passed the most aggressive combination of municipal housing bills probably anywhere in the state. But a lot of what we really want to do requires state approval. Those are what we call Home Rule Petitions. Somerville has passed Home Rule Petitions for a real estate transfer fee that would generate tens of millions of dollars for affordable housing, where developers and real estate speculators would be paying into our affordable housing trust fund. We’ve passed a Home Rule Petition for a tenant’s right to purchase. We’ve also unanimously passed resolutions in support of rent control—which would obviously be an enormous win for Somerville—which is another thing that we need state approval for. So those were all things that we were—I believe—the first in the state to pass. But we also have not just been doing these as messaging bills to prove how much we care about this.

Like when it comes to the transfer fee, we also worked with the Mayor’s Office to start what’s called the Office of Housing Stability, which is an entirely new branch of the local government that is run by a lifelong tenant’s rights lawyer named Ellen Schachter, who is fully staffed up. Among the kinds of work that they’ve been doing in Somerville is a lot of different direct services for people, but they’ve also been leading this huge inter-city task force to try to make legislative progress on the transfer fee. At this point there are seven or eight cities that have passed their own Home Rule Petitions and we’re all working together to lobby the state house, basically. To say, “If you don’t want to do this state-wide, you have to let us. Give us the tools to address the serious problems in our own communities.”

That’s just the state stuff. At the local level, I could go on and on. Passing the Office of Housing Stability was one of the huge changes, and I really can’t emphasize enough how much this has made a difference in Somerville. This is an office where, even before the pandemic, they were helping hundreds of families a year that, before, wouldn’t know who to call. All of a sudden struggling families have an office to call that can put them in touch with legal help, can help them fill out whatever kind of assistance they might need, get them whatever resources are available. Now there’s one number for people to call. In addition to that, they do a lot of policy advising. These folks, they have so much on-the-ground, frontline experience and they really know what policies are going to make a huge difference.

At the local level, one of the big changes that we made was a revision to what’s called the Condo Conversion Ordinance. This was something that the details are quite legalistic, but the gist of it is that now, if you want to take apartments off the market and turn them into condos forever and displace the tenants, there is a minimum of a one-year wait period and there are substantial relocation payments to the tenants. If the tenants are elderly, disabled, or low-income, there can be up to a five-year waiting period and much more significant relocation expenses. Those relocation expenses, they still don’t even come close to actually covering the real cost, but it’s much, much more than it used to be. I think what we’re seeing is that it’s made it much, much, much less profitable for developers to look at a house full of tenants and say, “Yeah yeah, let’s just kick those folks out and flip this thing.” That’s something that was within our local power, that took a long time, that was a really hard lift, and immediately, we’ve been sued by the development community—there’s kind of ongoing litigation—which is a sign that it’s powerful.

Most recently, we passed something called the Housing Notification Act. Now, in a number of cities including Boston—which just followed in our lead, which is very exciting—any time a landlord is evicting someone, they are now legally required to give them a list of all their rights and a list of local organizations that can help them enforce those rights. Of course you could look at this and say, “Sure, but they’re still getting evicted.” Which is very true, but this is within the power of the municipality. Now, there’s kind of a legal requirement that people have to be informed of these rights. It’s a bare minimum, but it seems to be making a difference already.

We passed the strongest Airbnb regulation. This is something where it’s so profitable to put an apartment on Airbnb that we were seeing just hundreds of what should have been rental units being instead turned into cash cows for landlords. That’s something where it was really, really, really important that we stepped in and put in regulations to say, “Listen, if you want to rent a room in your house—your basement or your top floor—that’s fine, for a little bit of extra income.” But the idea of buying up properties for the sole purpose of basically running unregulated hotels is just totally off the table now. All these things together, hopefully, will start to make a difference. 

Then most recently we passed the affordable housing overlay district. This is something that I’ve been working on for basically the year, although COVID put everything into slow motion for a few months. I was the chair of land use this last term, which is where we do zoning stuff, and this is a tool that basically says, “If you want to build affordable housing in Somerville, go for it.” We’re going to remove as much of the red tape as possible and we’re going to incentivize it by allowing affordable buildings to be bigger than they otherwise would be. This is something that in a lot of communities would have hit a ton of friction, but one of the things that is so great about Somerville is that, because we have sort of earned the trust of the community that we’re going to be fighting for affordable housing and we’re going to push for policies that make a difference on this, it wound up actually being a unanimous vote relatively quickly, when it comes to legislation. I think that’s kind of a testament to the fact that most elected officials here in Somerville feel like we were put here to do affordable housing stuff.

 ST: It seems like a lot of the policies—even the ones that have improved lives in Somerville—are still constricted by the authority of the state over the municipality.

BEC: Let me just be clear, the issue in fact is that our Home Rule Petitions, we pass them locally, but then they don’t go into effect unless the state house votes for them. The State House does not vote for these things, and has not voted for any of them, which is sort of outrageous to think about.

Here we are, we’re a city, we want—just in Somerville—to have a one- to two-percent fee on developers and speculators that goes towards affordable housing. It passed unanimously. The Mayor supports it. Should be non-controversial, and yet the State House—it’s been blocked for years. You can speculate for years why, but I think the real estate industry has a ton of influence at the State House and for them, it’s a slippery slope: any new tax on the real estate industry. We’ve done studies out the wazoo that show this will not hurt the real estate market, and in fact, if anything, this will kind of be a boon to the real estate market. Because it means your affordable housing advocates are now going to be supporting more development. That said, it’s gone nowhere. Despite the fact that multiple cities just say, “This is just for our city. We’re not trying to tell other cities what to do, this is just for us. We have a crisis and we’re trying to address it.”

That’s kind of the nature of politics in Massachusetts that the state has very, very, very strong control over what cities can and cannot do, and it really limits what we can put in effect. This is not just in housing: we can’t raise the minimum wage in Somerville. We can’t pass a net-zero zoning code to make buildings use less carbon. We can’t pass our own speed limits. Lots and lots of things that you would think a city should be able to do—and in other states cities do have this right, it’s just in Massachusetts—it’s called State Preemption. Basically, cities can’t pass laws that are stricter than what the state does on a whole host of issues.

ST: State preemption sounds like a major challenge. Are there any other challenges to enacting change on the municipal level?

BEC: Oh yes. On the one hand, I think there’s a general perception that there are these obvious, easy solutions for our big problems and they’re just sitting there if only we could get the votes. My experience in Somerville has not been that in many cases. It is genuinely hard to create effective, implementable, policy.

To bring it back to affordable housing: the root cause, as with so many other things, is income and wealth inequality. Right? You have people making an ungodly amount of money, and you have people who haven’t seen a wage increase in twenty years, and they’re both trying to live in the same city. When you have a situation like that you can talk all day about exactly how to solve it, but the basic fact is that this wealth and income inequality, it just creates a situation where you will have a housing crisis. It’s not like there’s some easy knob we can pull at the municipal level that’s going to address that.

There are obstacles at every level to improving working class people’s lives. It is really hard to come up with answers that are legal—that won’t get knocked down in court—that are implementable—that we actually have the resources and wherewithal to put in place—and that really make a difference in people’s lives. It’s incredibly challenging. The way that I look at local politics, I think the Somerville local government is just working triple time. We are working unbelievably hard and unbelievably ambitiously, in my opinion, to push things forward. And yet, it’s almost like it’s just to keep our heads above water.

Despite how hard we’ve all been working, and how active our community is, and how tuned-in people are to these issues, we still have a housing crisis. It’s completely out of control. We’re still constantly seeing people get evicted, businesses shut down, it’s really like a “best of times, worst of times” situation. I think we’re starting to address these issues with the political energy they deserve, and at the same time hypercapitalism rolls on. It’s incredibly challenging and frustrating.

ST: It’s like when the roads are icy—you’ve got to push on the gas just to not fall backwards right?

BEC: Yeah, exactly. And I do think that some of what we are putting in place will really make a difference in the long run.

One of the issues cities deal with constantly is traffic and everything that comes with it, meaning pollution, meaning pedestrians getting killed by cars. In Somerville we’ve had I want to say four pedestrians that were killed in the last year. We’re a small city: that’s a lot. It’s probably our number one public safety threat: we don’t have a lot of violent crime in Somerville. I don’t want to say there’s none, there have been shootings over the last years which are complete tragedies.

So the question is, “How do you address these traffic issues?” It is not easy. It’s not like there’s a law that you can pass that just says, “Get rid of traffic.” One of the things that we did is we basically said “for all new development in Somerville—new buildings—you can no longer get an on-street parking pass.” That sounds like a tiny, little technocratic tweak, but what it means is that over time, I think ten, twenty years from now when we look at this, we will have made a major dent in traffic. Because, instead of putting up a new apartment building and there’s a hundred new cars on the street, now you put up a new apartment building and they’re going to attract folks who either don’t have a car—of which there are a lot: take the train, bike, walk—or I guess if you really need a car you could pay to garage it somewhere, or a developer might build some amount of parking on-site.

Over time, if you want to address huge, regional issues, like traffic and pedestrian safety—it’s hard to think of really quick fixes. It’s stuff like major street changes that make the streets safer for pedestrians and bikes, and that stuff is so hard and expensive. Somerville is not in a position where we can just make huge road improvements whenever we want. These are kind of like generational shifts. Then, policies like this that just take a hard look at our parking policies and say, “On-street parking is something that we’ve treated as a freebie, and unfortunately it’s actually a really valuable and scarce resource.” Every parking spot on a street is a place where we don’t have extra-wide sidewalks that are safer for wheelchairs, or a bike lane, or more trees.

ST: It’s definitely tough because when you’re trying to solve a problem, they’re all interconnected, and when housing and pollution and affordability and being able to commute to your job are all connected, that’s a really tangled knot that a quick fix can’t fix right?

BEC: Yeah. Absolutely.

ST: And housing and labor are pretty closely connected, because most everyone’s income, the majority of it goes to rent.

BEC: Yeah, I think it’s the single biggest expense for most people.

ST: I was wondering if you could speak to how labor practices—making sure everyone is being paid fairly—how that ties into housing solutions.

BEC: Absolutely. The root cause of the housing crisis is income and wealth inequality, and that is fundamentally, a labor issue. The fact that wages haven’t increased in decades for so many people, that is because of the steady, methodical devaluation of workers. I think that in municipal politics you have labor issues around public-sector unions—teachers, public employees, public safety—those are issues that as the City Council, we’re not directly involved. Those are negotiations between the Mayor’s Office and the various unions. But we certainly get involved as kind of public advocates.

Last year in Somerville, one of the main fights was for the paraprofessionals—in-class education workers who weren’t even making twenty thousand dollars a year. The Somerville Educators Union, formerly the Somerville Teachers Association, took this on as one of their main issues. That was something where there wasn’t a vote that the City Council could take to say yes or no. This was a negotiation between the Mayor’s Office and the education union, but I and several of my colleagues were at the rallies. We made it clear that we were not going to be supporting other big ticket items in the Somerville budget until the people who are educating our kids got a fair wage. That’s one way that city councilors get involved in like, public sector unions.

More broadly, we try—I try to work as closely as I possibly can with the labor organizers in Somerville.

The things that the labor movement pushed for—two big things in the last couple years—one of them is to set up what’s called the jobs linkage fee. Whenever there’s commercial development in Somerville—new office buildings, new lab buildings, whatever, of which there is now a lot—some amount of money per square foot goes into a jobs fund. This was a years-long fight, and there is now money pouring into this fund. We’ve appointed what’s called the Jobs Creation and Retention Trust Fund. They decide how to spend this money, and there are a lot of really strong labor advocates that were appointed to that role. One of the main things they’re doing now is setting up a worker’s center in Somerville. Which is, I think, a huge and wonderful victory, and this is something they’re doing in collaboration with The Welcome Project. That’s something where we’re trying to take some of the wealth that is pouring into Somerville and use it to build up the capacity for working people to get organized.

Another big one is called the Wage Theft Ordinance. This was a huge, huge legislative project with a huge coalition that came together. JT Scott and Mary Jo Rossetti—two City Councilors—worked for just under a thousand hours in meetings on this. It’s a way for the city to get directly involved when there are credible allegations that a business is stealing wages from workers, which is all too common. Historically the way that this gets dealt with is you make a complaint to the Attorney General’s Office. A lot of local labor activists felt like that was not nearly enough of a stick, and that there was still far too much of this going on. So now, the city has a Wage Theft Advisory Committee—we’ve appointed a lot of labor leaders to this thing—that can look at these complaints and put bad employers on notice. Like, “You will have a hard time doing business in Somerville if you practice wage theft.” Those have been kind of the big two priorities that the labor community has been pushing for here.

There’s still tons of issues, I’m sad to say, especially around construction. Quite recently there’s been a lot of unrest, protest, in Assembly Square where a number of labor trades have been picketing some of the large construction projects there. It’s really frustrating to see and it’s especially frustrating because the City Council doesn’t have a direct role. The construction in Assembly Square, a lot of it was approved a long time ago when the zoning and planning boards have the say-so, and labor has often not been a priority. We’re continuing to see a ton of new development coming into Somerville and we’re trying to get the message out there that these projects are going to run into a lot of friction if workers are not treated right.

ST: It sounds like there might not be direct interaction or things that the City Council can do alongside unions, but it sounds like there’s an incredible amount of solidarity that can happen and standing with folks, and trying to make sure that they’re heard and they’re being seen. Is that about right?

BEC: Oh no question, yeah. I try to let these conversations be led by workers themselves. So one of the things, for example, that we’ve heard over the last couple years is for recycling and trash workers in Somerville, through a kind of long, twisted history, these are workers who were somehow exempt from what’s called our Living Wage Ordinance, which says if you are a contractor with the city you have to be paid a living wage. We can’t set the minimum wage for the private market: if you work at a restaurant we can’t tell the restaurants what to set their wage at, as a municipality. We can say, for our own contractors, we’re going to set the standard. But for some screwed-up reason, recycling and trash were exempted from this.

This is something that I don’t think a lot of members of our public are aware of, I was not aware of, but if you talk to people who work with MassCOSH or are part of Somerville Stands Together, this has been a huge fight. Again, this is something where it comes down to a negotiation between the Mayor’s Office and the contractor, but we can be there to say we’re paying attention to this. This is clearly a violation, maybe not in the letter of the law, but absolutely in the spirit of the law. Sorting recycling is dangerous, hard work, and these people should not be treated like temps with no rights: they should be paid a living wage, they’re contracting with the city. We certainly try to do everything we can to bring attention to ways that the city needs to live up to our own standards.

ST: When people on the street and people in the unions interact with City Council there’s an opportunity for each party to kind of fill in the blanks of the other party’s knowledge.

BEC: Yeah, I don’t know that I’m able to teach the unions anything, but I learn constantly. Who knows more of the conditions than the people who actually are doing the work? Government officials are regularly educated by organized labor.

ST: In that case, what are some ways that folks in organized labor can help you?

BEC: I’ll focus on Somerville in particular. In Somerville, we have what’s called a strong mayor system, where the City Council, we do not have staff, we do not have offices, we don’t have our own lawyers. All of those folks work for the Mayor’s Office. To put it frankly, I think the City Council is limited in what we can do by our capacity to do organizing, and to do legal research, and to do public outreach. There is a huge, huge, huge advantage when we can partner with community organizations. All of the big legislation that Somerville has passed has been the result of leadership from the community. I think the City Council then steps up to do the nitty gritty, crafting the legal language and moving it forward. All of the energy, the public education, the research, comes from the community.

I would say, at all times, my door is open. The idea that city councilors lead on these issues is not true. Politicians, we are necessary but we’re not sufficient. We are very much limited by our capacity to craft effective legislation and public campaigns. We will only ever be strengthened by labor, by community organizations partnering with us and seeing us as kind of allies to identify issues and to come up with ways to actually address them. The door is always open. All of us. In Somerville right now, getting the votes is not hard. If we have a good policy that helps people, it will pass. The problem is crafting those policies and it is truly not trivial.

ST: You’ve spoken before about how change has to come from the bottom up and how organizing is particularly important to that. How do you think that getting organized with Boston DSA can  bring about change?

BEC: That’s a big question. As a simple example, let’s say the City Council passes a law called the Housing Stability Notification Act, which we did, which says that landlords have to provide this information to the tenants. In and of itself I think that’s great that we did that, and yet, lots of landlords probably are still in violation of this. They’re willing to take the risk of not informing their tenants of rights, and tenants are not organized in Somerville, right? We don’t have a large, city-wide tenant’s union at this point. The effects of that law are limited. One of the things that the Housing Working Group of DSA has done that’s extremely inspiring is tenant organizing. Tenants aren’t necessarily aware of the fact that their landlord might own properties all over the city, and their power is diluted because of that. I just cannot express how important that is: if you have a tenant organization with ten people in it, or two hundred people in it, that is a huge political force in Somerville.

You can not only take direct action, of course, and work directly to enforce your rights—you can also lead the passage of laws. If these landlords are trying to get additional permits for a new development and yet they have a history of mistreating their tenants, you can really make a difference. That concept is true across the board. What we do in law is necessary but it’s not sufficient. If you were to walk down the street in Somerville and ask a random person on the street, “Do you know who your city councilor is, can you name a law they’ve passed in the last five years?” I think most people don’t know us. This is not a criticism of the public, this is just a general fact that what we do at city hall has limited power, but it gains power through community organizing. Through networks of people that work in solidarity with one another to enforce this stuff, to make sure that people don’t feel so alone when they’re fighting a struggle whether it’s with a landlord or an employer. I view the work that we do—that I do on the City Council—as kind of part of that larger movement to build community power. We’re not the ultimate end goal: you can’t just do community organizing to pass a law and then it’s over. No, it all plays off itself. I think the really good laws are ones that actually contribute to continuing to build community power. You can get a feedback loop.

Ben Ewen-Campen can be contacted at BenForWard3@gmail.com and by phone at (617) 702-2613. Follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/BenForWard3 and visit his website at https://www.benforward3.com to sign up for his newsletter.

Leave a Reply