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Mayor’s Op-ed: Holyoke, we punch above our weight

Posted on April 26, 2024

I would like to offer both detail and context to the depiction of Holyoke in Boston Globe reporter Katie Johnston’s April 18 news profile (“In Holyoke, a home of her own: One woman’s struggle to build a life in the state’s poorest place”).

The Globe report suggests that Holyoke is a low-opportunity city. Not so. Not at all. It may appear so to an outsider, but that’s not the case. The services and amenities here are the envy of neighboring “high-opportunity” cities. We have a community college, the International Volleyball Hall of Fame, cultural amenities including two museums, a multi-modal downtown transportation center, an Amtrak station, a network of community-level health care agencies, historic parks that are walkable from almost all neighborhoods, a Boys & Girls Club, YMCA, Girls Inc., services for youth, and internationally known public art.

It is true, as the Globe reported, that Holyoke’s Puerto Rican population has weathered a history of economic misfortune. Recruited to work in the tobacco fields and mills, many ended up jobless when Holyoke’s manufacturing industries — no longer dependent on Connecticut River hydropower — moved south or overseas. But that same hydropower, which continues to generate most of the electricity in our city, is back in demand. Industries seeking clean, green, inexpensive power are turning their attention to Holyoke. Example: Sublime Systems, developers of an environmentally friendly, fossil-free, fully electrified cement-making process, has acquired 16 acres in our “Flats” neighborhood for its first commercial manufacturing facility.

Holyoke already is reaping benefits from cannabis cultivators who have brought new life to the enormous mill buildings that fell into disuse when the original industries left town. Again, inexpensive hydropower was the draw.

The article states that our Latino community is concentrated in undesirable neighborhoods and “held in place by poverty and prejudice.” It cites a previous mayor’s statement that there was insufficient investment “in the lower wards.”

Ironically, just as much as part of the problem has been disinvestment, the problem is also investment with unintended consequences! For decades, state and federal programs have invested in housing for Holyoke’s low-income households. This investment often comes with 99-year affordability and income restrictions that create entire blocks where only those with the lowest income are eligible to live. The well-intentioned government programs, intended to provide homes and revive aging housing stock, have created a microcosm housing market in which only the lowest-income households can reside. Subsequent generations with greater economic mobility are forced to leave their neighborhoods because of a lack of diverse housing choices. Between government-subsidized units and tenant subsidies, approximately 40+ percent of our city’s rental housing stock is dedicated to low and moderate income households. According to the Massachusetts Chapter 40B Subsidized Housing Inventory (June 2023), Holyoke has the highest percentage of subsidized units (rental and owner-occupied) anywhere in the Commonwealth at 19.34%; the state average is 9.68%. And we plan to do more. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing considering how expensive it is becoming for people to live and raise a family in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. To reduce the concentration of poverty in Holyoke’s downtown however, where the median household income is currently roughly $19,000 annually, I have been encouraging state and federal agencies to consider significant public investment in new, non-subsidized housing in Gateway Cities such as Holyoke so that we are building mixed-income neighborhoods. That way, as circumstances improve for a person or family living in subsidized housing downtown, they can choose to invest in downtown and not necessarily feel they need to leave the city, or move “up the hill”. The demand for new diversified housing is there – intended for downsizing retirees, public employees, health care workers, and other working professionals. Those job sectors present in our community and growing would bring new life to the downtown area, support the base of small businesses, and ensure that no current downtown resident is displaced.

Additionally, just as much as these state and federal agencies have been investing in government programs in Holyoke, I have also been encouraging state and federal agencies to invest these programs in other non-gateway cities and towns. Holyoke, which has always supported programs and services to take care of our most vulnerable people, is doing its fair share. The data of our housing stock coupled with the fact that our school district is number three in the whole Commonwealth of Massachusetts with children enrolled in our district that are experiencing some form of homelessness. Per capita, we have more homeless school children than the three largest cities in our Commonwealth.

Growing up in Holyoke, I benefited from the city’s compassion just as much as Nereida Badillo, the woman highlighted in the Boston Globe article. So many other families did as well, like the Irish and French who came here seeking the same opportunities we did, working hard and building an economic engine that has contributed to Holyoke, our neighboring communities and all of Massachusetts. Statewide problems however require state-wide solutions. Cities and towns across the Commonwealth need to share the burden of taking care of our most vulnerable populations and stop placing the burden only on gateway cities.

My administration is focused on unwinding generational poverty and helping families build wealth, enabling homeownership, and improving neighborhood conditions. We created a Flex Squad to step up code enforcement and foster improved living and housing conditions. We’ve beefed up our Board of Health and Building Department to ensure that housing and living conditions are decent and safe, and ensured consistent enforcement across the city no matter who the owner is or what neighborhood the establishment is in. We have directed $2 million of Covid recovery funds to create 20 new home ownership opportunities in a neighborhood that has fewer than 50 owner-occupied houses.

We would do more — we want to do more — but here, again, we bump up against other well-intentioned government initiatives. Example: the Dover Amendment (M.G.L. Ch. 40A, Sec. 3) and public health programs have resulted in the ongoing placement of the neediest residents from throughout New England in cities like Holyoke and the state is supporting it with contracts from their different departments. Large, single-family houses, once home to property tax paying mill owners, foremen, and professionals, are purchased by state contractors to serve these needy clients. These properties are routinely removed from the real estate tax rolls, reducing property tax revenue which is the City’s single largest income source. The effect of this steady erosion of our primary revenue stream is less money to invest in quality-of-life improvements for our citizens.

There is no question that past racial prejudice has been a setback for Holyoke’s Hispanic community. Growing up in a single-parent household in South Holyoke, I experienced the injustice of systemic racism. This was largely due to the lack of representation of our community in government positions. During our last local elections, for the first time in our city’s history, the City Council and the School Board reflect the population and together, we have been making the necessary investments to keep up with the most basic services our community deserves. First however, we have been doing a lot of catch up. As Mayor, one of my priorities has been to dismantle nepotism and informal practices in hiring and appointments so we can be sure our majority Latino community can get a fair shot. We have more Latinos in City government, City jobs and City commissions than we have seen before but it’s not because we tilted the playing field…we leveled it.

And even with all our challenges, Holyoke somehow manages to continue to stay on its feet and in most cases, we punch above our weight. This is largely due to our resiliency and our community pride. Holyoke celebrates its many cultures with official events for the Irish, Polish, Colombian, Sikh, and Puerto Rican communities, among others. We host observances at Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Pride Month. And just as we embrace our Irish roots with ceremonies and a legendary parade that hosts people from all around the world, we also affirm the traditions of our majority-minority Latino community with such events as the Fiestas Patronales de Holyoke, which brings in thousands of people over a long weekend in August. One of the locals dancing in the street at last year’s Fiestas Patronales, as the article noted, was Nereida Badillo, the focus of the Boston Globe’s investigative piece. The photo of Nereida — joyous, all smiles — is Holyoke’s untold story. It’s a story of pride, love, and joy. All that I share here about greatness and goodness of Holyoke and our people, probably is not understandable in Boston where the Globe recently reported on parking spots selling for $500,000.

Holyoke is what it has always been — a destination for immigrants and migrants looking for a better life. All are welcome, all are respected, opportunities abound.

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