State Rep. Liz Malia, D-Jamaica Plain, sat down with Jamaica Plain News and tackled questions about what she's working on, development, gentrification, transportation and more. This is Part I of the interview, check back tomorrow for Part II.
Q: How would you describe yourself as a legislator?
A: I’m somebody who is a citizen legislator. I have a very different background. I don’t quite know how I ended up here sometimes. My interest in politics developed while living in JP. I worked on different issues… (including) on gay rights in the 1980s. I was on the first neighborhood council in JP, which was an appointed one. Then I got involved with local politics. There was a generation change in the 80s where a lot more politically active, progressive people got involved and moved to JP, partly because of the affordability.
There was a group that called themselves JP80. There were some people who were forward thinking, and some from the older school, and newer people. The JP80 people came from Ward 11 and 18 committees, which gradually become hotbeds of activism. I really ended up in politics because of my connection to John McDonough and when he first ran for rep… As an aide (for McDonough), it was 70 hours a week, I knew it wasn’t great pay, but I got over that real fast and then stayed with him for the rest of his tenure.
Then I ended up running because he left midterm to teach. I was elected in 1998 and learned this job from the ground up. I’ve done a lot of work and know a lot of different parts of my district, and [State Rep.] Jeff [Sanchez] and I share JP. I also have a considerable part of Roslindale and Roxbury. I’m kind of split, I don’t necessarily spend as much time in JP as I would like because there’s a lot more. I try to stay connected.
Q: What issues are most important to you?
A: District wide in general terms -- in JP it's the development revolution. I visited some friends in California where the gold rush happened. I have this metaphor right now with development -- reminds you of the story of the gold rush. Whoever got there first drove a stake in the ground and claimed it. In terms of development, we’re not seeing a purposeful planning process, but grab-it-when-you-can. We’ve lost a considerable capacity for affordable housing in the community. That’s one thing that drew me to JP and it’s disturbing, but also a reflection of the society at-large.
How do we serve people’s needs? Transportation is a major, major issue for all us. It’s a little daunting from my perspective. We haven’t seen the amount of work on maintaining transportation infrastructure that we need. We hear from people about the Orange Line being backed up at Forest Hills. I wonder how that will evolve as we get more and more into in-depth projects on the Washington Street corridor. We need a more robust system and we don’t have the equipment they need. It’s old and breaks down a lot. And we haven’t been able to successfully address how to put money into the transportation infrastructure. Roads are getting more and more backed up. The 39 bus is the busiest bus in the city. The Orange Line is incredibly busy. We are a hub for folks coming in from West Roxbury, Dedham and Hyde Park to use the Orange Line.
Q: And how have you gone about addressing those issues legislatively?
A: I have a reputation for being a broken record on this. When you go back 15 and 20 years we made a decision to cut back our income tax in Massachusetts. It’s cost us three billion a year for transportation, education and human services in general. Every year we come back to the same issues and then we redistribute money, kind of like patching holes. We’ve done good work on healthcare access, but costs are increasing a lot. We come back to the same problems. How do we get something from nothing?
Q: Would you want to see the income tax go up?
A: Yes. Absolutely. It’s not going to go anywhere. Democrats or Republicans don’t want to talk about it. No one wants to say the T-word. But I think there’s a constant state of denial.
I think this governor has done a great job of bringing in people who can manage a lot of infrastructural needs. But how are we going to pay for it? Behavioral health is incredibly underfunded. We’re going to have to spend some money on the state lab or refurbish the one we got. The Shattuck Hospital -- Governor [Michael] Dukakis remembers working on that when he was in college. A lot of essential services are there. Parts of the Shattuck are falling apart. Where’s the money going to come from to maintain it and keep it going? We haven’t discussed maintaining the structures that we’ve got. Not just in our area. It’s the constant tension between what you can work on, what you can do, what you can accomplish and what you should be accomplishing.
Q: What are some of your accomplishments you're most proud of?
A: As the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, I’m most pleased with the legislation we passed in 2014 (Ch. 258) that requires insurers to cover up to 14 days of medical detox and step-down services. Building off of that legislation, I’m also proud of the recent substance abuse legislation unanimously passed on January 13 by the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Some highlights of the legislation, currently in conference committee, include: limitations on initial opioid prescriptions to a seven-day supply for adults and a seven-day limit for all prescriptions for minors, with appropriate exceptions for chronic pain management, cancer, and palliative care; updates to our state’s civil commitment law, commonly referred to as Section 35, and removal of language permitting women civilly committed to be held at the MCI-Framingham correctional facility, ensuring women will be placed in a treatment bed not a prison bed; the creation of a new standard in acute care settings for patients who present in emergency rooms with an apparent overdose and mandates insurance coverage of a substance abuse evaluation, ensuring the proper assessment and discharge of patients who seek voluntary treatment; updates to provider training guidelines and the requirement that practitioners must check the prescription monitoring program each time they prescribe any opiate and correspondingly note that in the patient’s medical records; and improvements to the state’s education standards by requiring all schools have substance use education policies and report their plans to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and that all education materials relative to opiate misuse and abuse be provided at the mandatory head injury safety training program --mandatory for all public schools subject to MIAA rules -- and to all student athletes.
Additionally, one of my priority bills this session -- An Act relative to motor vehicle license suspension -- is also progressing through the legislature. On January 6, we voted to repeal a 26-year-old state law that automatically suspends the driver’s license of anyone convicted of a non-profit drug offense for up to five years and a license reinstatement fee of $500, even if the offense does not involve motor vehicles in any way. Too often have I heard from individuals who are in recovery and unable to get a job or support family members because they cannot obtain a driver’s license. Fixing this outdated law removes the barrier and burden faced by thousands of Massachusetts residents who have served their time and are working hard to rebuild their lives. Thirty-four states, including every other New England state, have already taken action to repeal similar laws.
Around the district, I’m proud of many efforts. One recent success is around the Shattuck Child Care Center, a unique public-private partnership that for 46 years has provided high quality, affordable childcare and early education to Commonwealth families, including Shattuck Hospital employees, and members of the surrounding community. After a three-year effort, I secured the legislative authority that allows the Shattuck Child Care Center to install a modular facility on Lemuel Shattuck Hospital property and continue to operate its childcare center there. Another positive piece I’m proud of is around maintaining affordable housing in my district. After years of discord between City Realty, City Life/Vida Urbana and the Chinese Progressive Association relative to evictions and rent hikes, in collaboration with some of my elected officials at the city, I hosted a series of negotiation sessions that led to significant breakthroughs on rent affordability for vulnerable, low-income tenants who rely on the Section 8 program. An agreement was reached in May 2015 ensuring housing will remain affordable for hundreds of Boston-area families, and thousands more stand to benefit as other property owners hopefully follow suit.
Q: You’ve been a state rep for Jamaica Plain since 1998 how has the district and Jamaica Plain changed?
A: We went through a lot of years with not a lot of resources and a lot of social problems. Gradually people have moved in, the economy has gotten better and we’re looked in a different light in terms of property. Basic needs haven’t changed. We do pretty well when you think about access to healthcare. We’re blessed in Massachusetts because we have a community health centers -- numerous health centers in the district -- those are great resources that people saw, valued and held onto. Some people don’t have access to the quality of care that some of our residents do. Our public housing stock is getting older. Some people never looked at it as a resource, but it is.
We’ve had a lot of good development proposals come through JP that have been positive and creative. But how do you sustain it? One of my key issues I’ve been working on for years is the Arborway Yard... The reality is acres on the Arboway Yard are abandoned and underutilized since around 1986 and we can’t get the city and state to partner to do something substantial. We almost got there. At one point the mayor and state transportation department said that the T would build a bus yard on a percentage of the space and seven or eight other acres would go to the city for affordable housing and that never got off the ground. What we have now is a temporary bus yard that is going on at least 10 years. And there is no resolution of that and there is work on it again to get money for the T to put money in the capital budget to do a permanent bus yard so the state can cede the rest of land to the city to be used. But I’m not real hopeful that can happen. You look at the need for new resources and look at the Arborway Yard you see lost opportunities.
Q: Have your legislative goals changed as JP has changed?
A: I think in a lot of ways my goals are pretty consistent every year. In the budget I’m advocating for some basic programs for my district -- after school programs for kids, the zoo budget -- it’s in my district and I carry it every year. I’ve done a lot around access to services. I’ve done some work around LGBT issues, the most recent one is trying to maintain funding for the LGBT Aging Project, which is a program that Ethos really birthed years ago trying to train care providers around unique needs of the LGBT community. There’s a real need to do outreach to that community.
Also funding for HIV/Hepatitis C – that’s going to pick up more. We’re starting to see more problems with Hepatitis C and the opiate epidemic that have rolled out with issues with clean needles and a lack of control with Hepatitis C.
Q: Development is a huge issue in JP, particularly affordable housing. What are your thoughts on those topics?
A: One of the things that drives the problem for us and across the country is federal commitment to housing has really dropped off the agenda. When you start dealing with issues of physical issues at public housing and there are less and less resources every year. Who’s going to pay for it? If not public housing, who is going to pay for affordable housing to be built? As the market gets crazier, it’s even getting more difficult for smaller developers to come up with amount of money to do smaller building projects and multi-unit projects. We’re seeing a bigger push for housing that is not affordable. I don’t know if I could afford my house now. I bought my house in 1980. And JP wasn’t considered a destination. People would ask you why you live in JP. I didn’t have a lot of money and I could afford to live here. The nature of what’s available has changed. There is going to be positives to that, but when the housing mortgage crisis hit, a lot of people in JP really got hurt with evictions. I got arrested a few years ago [for protesting] because in the Egleston Square area there was a female constituent. She moved into a house that was a former crack house and she restored it and lived there with her mother. She worked and developed health issues and couldn’t work anymore and when the push started for foreclosures she got caught in it and we tried everything we could… I’m older and maybe when younger I wouldn’t have gotten involved. There was nothing else I could do, so a bunch of community residents and myself got arrested and the people who bought it tore it down, her two-unit house and built a four-unit house.
Q: Gentrification is a word that is thrown around a lot. Is gentrification good or bad, or somewhere in between?
A: First of all it’s with us. We live with it. One of the best descriptions I heard about it -- working in Egleston Square -- it’s a double-edged sword. It’s a sign that the value is appreciated and being recognized, but if there’s no balance to it -- it kills the beast, that is its host.
We have a lot of nice restaurants in JP. Will we have an economy that can support them? The old Oil Hughes lot that is being developed, will those people spend the money to get in there and live across from a decrepit bus yard that the state hasn’t spent money on? It’s going to be hard to tell… At some point there will be a crisis in terms of transportation. There were days in Boston where people were fleeing the city and now people are coming back. It’s going to change the nature of the city.