courtesy of Ruthzee Louijeune's campaign.
Ruthzee Louijeune, an attorney and housing advocate from Mattapan, is running for Boston City Council at-large seat.
Michael Flaherty, Julia Mejia, David Halbert, Kelly Bates, Alexander Gray, Erin Murphy, Carla Monteiro, Jon Spillane, Domingos DaRosa, Said Abdikarim, Nicholas Vance, Munim Khan, James Colimon and Bridget Nee-Walsh are also running for an at-large seat. Councilors at large Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi-George are running for Boston mayor.
A daughter of Haitian immigrants, 34 year-old Louijeune was born and raised in Mattapan and Hyde Park. She went to Boston Public Schools and went on to attend Columbia University, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School.
Louijeune has been a member and volunteer attorney with the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance (MAHA) in its initiative to expand homeownership opportunities in the city for first-generation homebuyers. She was previously senior counsel for US Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.
“Growing up in the city, having seen and observed from my parents how difficult life can be for immigrants, for English language learners, for Black communities,” she said. “That has really shaped my advocacy and wanting to be someone who has a voice for folks who are often not at the table when making decisions about where development is happening, how development is happening, how we allocate our city budget to make sure that it reflects our values.”
Housing, homeownership and making city contracts more accessible to small, minority business owners, Louijeune said, are her top issues running for the at-large seat. “That comes from my background as an attorney working in housing court, seeing the toll evictions have had on families,” she said. “We need to think about how we create affordable rental opportunities for folks…how do we make sure we’re engaging in responsible planning and development so that families can create stabilized communities.”
Education, Louijeune said, is also among the priorities because of how it opened up opportunities in her life. “Doors that were bolted shut for [my parents] were then open for me when I heeded their call to go to school and take that seriously,” she said. “I know that there’s a lot more that we can do for kids whose parents are working three jobs and may not be able to be as plugged in to their education process…I’m willing to look at everything that we need to do to ensure that our kids have what they need to succeed.”
The Scope spoke with Louijeune about her campaign’s top issues and her plans to address them if elected city councilor at-large. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to run for the at-large seat? What should voters know about you?
So I’m running for this city councilor at-large seat because I have a unique set of skills that will serve the people in Boston really well. I was born and raised here, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, grew up in Mattapan, working class neighborhoods of all backgrounds. We have our white families, our Vietnamese families, our immigrant and Caribbean families. And so from early on, I sort of had an understanding of what it meant to be a Bostonian and that richness of who we are.
But I also understood, being the daughter of Haitian immigrants, how a lot of folks often face barriers when it comes to making Boston their home, either through discrimination or job loss, and things of that nature. And so I am uniquely qualified because I had this lens of growing up in the city that is home, [the city] where I went to public schools.
But I also know that there’s so much more that we can do. And I know that because I’ve been steeped in community, working with the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance on how do we expand [homeownership opportunities] for first generation homebuyers. I’m working with the Guild Works, an organization in Dorchester that has transformed into a food pantry and COVID relief. So on the weekends, on Saturday, I deliver food to folks who are shut in with COVID and who are suffering from food insecurity.
I’m also a lawyer and advocate, most recently as a top attorney for Liz Warren on her presidential and senate campaigns. So I think I bring a whirlwind of experience that will serve the people of Boston well.
I have a passion for the city. I have a desire for us to really be thinking about what are the needs of working class Bostonians. And I think that way because that’s who I am and how I grew up. That’s what surrounds me.
At the center of my concern is how do we make city services work better for the average Bostonian, how do we deal with issues such as pedestrian safety, those issues that may fall under the bucket of constituent services but also how do we close the racial homeownership wealth gap. That is major. We have one of the worst in the country — really rooted in the city’s historic practices — that really prevented black families from gaining wealth. So how do we right that wrong and make affordable homeownership a reality for so many families here in Boston.
I’m excited to make our public contracting process with the city of Boston more open and inclusive to small businesses especially to local businesses, especially to Black, brown, and Latinx-owned businesses. So I’m really excited to run for city council at-large to really be someone who is listening to the community because I’m there, I’m on the ground with them, but also to be someone who’s using my negotiation skills to make sure that I am accurately and to the best of my ability, representing the needs of Bostonians.
You are a lawyer and an advocate for issues like housing equalities and education access. How has your experience living in Boston influenced your drive to advocate for these issues?
I have this sort of like aggressive love for the city, for Boston. And when you love a place you also want to see it do better right? So my love for this city also includes a love for it to be better.
Growing up in the city, as I said, having seen and observed from my parents how difficult life can be for immigrants, for English language learners, for Black communities. That has really shaped my advocacy and wanting to be someone who has a voice for folks who are often not at the table when making decisions about where development is happening, about how development is happening, about how we allocate our city budget to make sure that it reflects our values.
So if we say that we care about people not being evicted, if we say that we care about creating stabilized communities, then we need to make sure that we are allocating resources to ensure that folks have the money, resources they need to make their rent payments in the era of Coronavirus, or that folks have the resources they need in order to build nonprofits in their communities.
We know from studies that there’s a correlation between an increase of nonprofits in a neighborhood and a decrease of crime. So if we know that to be true, how are we investing in and partnering with our nonprofit leaders today who are really the most effective mechanisms of crime reduction.
And as a young person growing up in the city of Boston, I know that there’s a lot we can do. I’ve had the experience of waiting for 40 minutes to an hour for a bus when I’m trying to get to school and I have the experience of wondering why it’s taking so long for them to collect trash in my neighborhood, and what if I lived in a more affluent neighborhood, certainly they would have picked up the trash much quicker, right?
And so I know how systems work and I know that our systems have this default to catering towards the needs of those who are already entrenched in power and who already had a lot of wealth. But what about those who are not? And so, as someone who is the daughter of working class Haitian immigrants, as someone who has friends and family of all backgrounds, I sort of know and have my ear to the ground at what folks are complaining about when it comes to transportation, when it comes to affordability for homeownership and housing, when it comes to creating quality schools for our students.
I went to Boston Public Schools my entire life. And I went to Charles H. Taylor elementary school in Mattapan and I had a great education and I ended up at the Boston Latin School. But I also know that it’s very important for kids to see the possibilities that exist so I have, two or three times now, gone back to my elementary school and I’ve given the graduation speech to these young students who, a lot of them, look like me. Because too often, you can’t be what you can’t see.
So to the extent that I am a story of success of graduating from the Boston Public Schools, attending Columbia then graduating from Harvard’s Kennedy School and Law School and working for people like Elizabeth Warren, I want young kids who look like me to know that that’s possible.
Now I’m ready to take on this next exciting step, if I can earn the people of Boston’s vote to really be their representative as a city council member at-large. I’m talking about caring about people who live in East Boston, people who live in Southie, people who live in Mission Hill, people who live in Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park. I’m talking about the entire city.
What issues will you prioritize if elected to office?
The issues that I will prioritize are housing and homeownership. That comes from my background as an attorney working in housing court, seeing the toll evictions have had on families, in terms of creating and then further community displacement. So we need to think about how do we create affordable rental opportunities for folks, and when we’re thinking about development, how do we make sure we’re engaging in responsible planning and development so that families can create stabilized communities.
I also [focus on] homeownership because I think homeownership is an opportunity for folks to build wealth, to create something to pass on to their children. And I think that this city has just become way too unaffordable for your average Bostonian who just wants to make the place that they’ve called home for many years an actual place that they have equity, a home in which they’re building equity and wealth. And there are a number of ways that we can do [that], when we’re looking at the city’s budget and how we’re allocating resources. So, that is a priority to me.
Education is a priority to me. I went to [Charles H. Taylor] school and have the benefit of a really good education and continued on to Boston Latin School, how do we make sure that we have more schools that can guarantee someone a quality education, regardless of whether they’re going to an exam school or to another public school. My parents always focused on education because [they were] doors that were bolted shut for them, [but] were then open for me when I heeded their call to go to school and take that seriously.
I know that there’s a lot more that we can do for kids whose parents are working three jobs and may not be able to be as plugged in to their education process. I think there are different ideas out there for the Boston School Committee in terms of how can we make the Boston School Committee more responsive to the needs and desires and issues that parents raise, that voters raise. So, I’m willing to look at everything that we need to do to ensure that our kids have what they need to succeed.
One of the most important things is the budget allocation to schools, making sure that Beacon Hill is giving us more money every year so that we can effectively target schools with students — especially after this pandemic we’ve seen that the hardest hit populations are Black and Latinx communities, English language learner communities, communities where students are disabled — and so we need to be able to infuse our schools with those populations, with the resources they need to make up for a lot of the loss that has been caused by the pandemic, but that also existed prior to the pandemic.
With housing, homeownership and education being your top issues, can you share with us the plans you have to tackle these issues?
On housing, on the rental side, there’s a lot that we can do with the IDP [Inclusionary Development Policy] that requires residential developers, that requires a variance when they’re building properties to set aside 13% of their units for affordable housing. We know that for affordable rental housing, when we look at Cambridge and Somerville and other cities, they are at 20%. That’s something that we can do pretty easily. Now, we can raise that number, and we can perhaps even go higher, but we want to do so in a way that is thoughtful. That is one quick thing that we can do on the rental side.
We can also ensure, on the housing side, that the city has already started looking at and adopted the model of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance — how do we help homeowners who are trying to do the right thing but who don’t have the bank of mom and dad for a down payment and for closing costs, to assist them with down payment costs and closing costs and things of that nature once they’ve completed a homeownership class and a savings course.
We can also think more strategically about how we’re using public city land to build affordable homeownership opportunities that you can sell to folks … with a small margin of profit on top of that. City officials can work in partnership with developers to make that a reality.
I care a lot about community stabilization when it comes to education, so [I would work] with the office in Boston Public Schools called HERN [the Homeless Education Resource Network] that deals with students who are experiencing homelessness [to] continue to provide the financial and emotional support, to provide resources to our students experiencing homelessness.
[Something] I didn’t mention is on public contracts as well. We need to make sure that the city is contracting with local, small businesses. When you have a focus on local businesses and who you’re contracting with the city, you are giving back more to the city and to the residents because they are more likely to hire folks who live in the city.
Small businesses — compared to national businesses — are also more likely than not to be owned by local Black and Latinx business owners. And so when we’re thinking about expanding the pie and making city contracts more accessible to your small business owners, local business owners, to your Black and and Latinx business owners, we need to be very intentional about how easy we are making the proposal process for contracts. Is there a way that we can break down the contracting process to make it easier for small businesses for Black and Latinx businesses to access these contracts? Only 2% less than 2% of the city’s contracts are going to Black and Latinx-owned businesses. That’s unacceptable. And that number really should really force us into action.
Those are the issues that I will focus on. I think my background as a lawyer will help me. Sometimes, people place artificial constraints on what they can and cannot do and I’m excited to push through those.
What do you think is working in the city of Boston and what would you like to change?
I think one of the things that’s working is libraries. I do think they are trying to do a really great job of responding to the issues that are happening. Libraries are a public resource, right? And libraries are doing the best that they can at trying to reach out to English language learning communities, at trying … to make their learning opportunities and books friendlier during the pandemic.
I am someone who I would not be here if it was not for the Lower Mills Public Library where, when I was growing up, that was the library that my parents would drop us off at and pick us up when they were working their crazy work schedules, and where I really found my love for books and for reading. Same is true for the Hyde Park Library. The libraries have been doing a good job at centering the community needs like responding to the Black Lives Matter movement, responding to stop AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] hate.
I think there’s a lot more that the city can do to use the libraries to be our pillars of public spaces during the pandemic. We’ve seen a spike in mental health issues, especially among our young people and as we are beginning to think about how we gather again in the community, [we should think about] how do we make this wonderful public resource that is sometimes overlooked the center of what we are doing.
It’s a free resource. It is one of the few places that does not care about how much money you have in your bank account. How often can you say that? I think it’s very rare.
Is there anything that you want it to share that I didn’t ask you?
I’ll just say that I’ve just been overwhelmed by the grassroots support for our campaign this early on. We launched on Tuesday [Mar. 16] and within 24 hours there’s just been incredible excitement. We raised $50,000 which is an incredible thing because I received warm wishes and contributions from folks I went to elementary school with, folks in my high school, people who have known me for years, who know that I speak with passion and I work with skill.
I think that combination is why I’ve had so much of a groundswell of support from folks who know me and even from folks who don’t know me who have heard an interview or who has seen what I’m about and who can tell that I had the passion and the drive and the conviction to know that we can be better, to do better for everyone. This campaign is for all of us. It’s to make life better for all of us and that’s what my commitment is and so I’ve just been so grateful for the support that I’ve received, and so I’m excited to keep on talking to folks. I’m at my happiest when I’m talking to folks about how we can make the city better.