What role should Somerville’s young renters – who may not spend more than a few years at a time in the city – play in local politics?
That’s the question a city-affiliated summit this week seeks to address.
The meeting at Workbar Union on Wednesday night, called “Where’s our representation? (And is it our fault?),” is among the first events being offered by a newly rebooted mayor’s advisory group called Young Somerville, which aims to boost involvement of people ages 21-35, who’ve been less-than-active in city politics. Nearly everyone in Somerville elective office is a homeowner.
“The people who are here, even if they’re only here 5-10 years, that’s a good amount of time but they’re not engaged in the political process,” said Emily Hopkins, managing editor at the local magazine Scout Somerville, in an interview. “That’s the issue for me.”
Hopkins, who lives in Allston, wrote a January article on the issue after incumbents dominated the local election in 2015. Her story “inspired” the meeting, according to an event listing.
Ben Echevarria, executive director for the Somerville-based The Welcome Project, was featured in Hopkins’ story. He’s also among speakers for the Young Somerville meet-up, though he said someone else from Welcome Project will be standing in for him due to a conflict.
Echevarria, who is 41, told Metro he wants to tap Somerville’s young population, many of them passionate about issues and possibly engaged on college campuses. He wants to dispel the idea that just because someone doesn’t have roots in the city, they shouldn’t have a role in shaping it.
Voting for a candidate, or helping them get elected, could propel that person to higher office, or could lead to policy changes that slow the rising cost of rent, or improves schools, he said. Even voting for a candidate who doesn’t win or a cause that doesn’t lead to new policies can change the conversation, or put more pressure on the city to act in the future, he said.
The first step, he said, is to get more millenials to volunteer and see how city services impact people’s lives.
“In the couple years you’re here you can make some significant changes,” he said. “Your impact will be felt.”
The Scout Somerville story also chronicled an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the city’s Board of Aldermen by candidate Elizabeth Weinbloom.
Weinbloom ran on a platform of representing renters and millennial issues. She didn’t win, but captured 35 percent of the vote in her ward.
During her door-knocking campaign, she said, she found an alarming number of people who rent apartments know nothing about local politics.
“Most didn’t know we had a Board of Aldermen,” she told Metro.
It isn’t just a case of voter apathy, she said.
“There’s a really strong institutional bias against renters,” she said. “There is this sense that a transient population is not going to care about or be involved in the community.”
She called on Somerville to increase voter registration efforts and to seek out and educate renters about the local political process. She did, however, applaud Mayor Joseph Curtatone for his social media presence.
Weinbloom said young renters may be among the most important voices to hear in a city where rents are climbing rapidly.
After all, she said, many leave the city after a few years not because they want to, but because they can’t afford to stay.
“So many of us – particularly millennial renters – want to be building our home in Somerville and we don’t know if we’ll be able to because of the soaring rental costs,” she said
Metro set out to hear from young Somerville residents in Union Square on Monday.
Maurice Foundas, 35, said he plans to stay in the city at least for now, until he can buy a home of his own.
Even though he said he’ll probably leave eventually, he’s been following issues that matter to him, like housing and gentrification and the redevelopment of Union Square.
Many of his peers, though, don’t think as long-term.
“For most people who rent in any city, they’re not going to be as involved because they don’t think they’re going to be here long enough to see any results from anything they’re involved in,” he said, walking a flannel-jacketed dog through Union Square.
He suggested the city hold more of its meetings at night, so they don’t conflict with young professionals’ work schedules.
Susanna Ronalds-Hannon, 27, said if making young people more politically active is going to happen, it’s probably going to happen on social media.
“As long as it’s engaging in a way that young people can lead it themselves,” she said, adding that she registered to vote in the city when she moved there in October. “Having, like, a social media office tweeting or something isn’t necessarily going to do anything.”
Nicole Chininis, 28, said she also plans on staying in Somerville for the foreseeable future.
She said she follows politics, but not in the city. No one has asked her to get involved, she said.
“I haven’t really been into that, paying attention to what’s going on around here, which is probably bad of me,” she said, adding, “I haven’t really seen active people, so I guess it’s not really making me want to be more active.”