Michael Nichols is touting his experience working on Mission Hill issues as the Boston City Council’s research director as a big reason why he should replace outgoing Councilor Mike Ross in the local District 8 seat.
Mission Hill is “a dynamic neighborhood that’s clearly a microcosm of the city,” Nichols said in an interview last month at the Gazette office. But, he added, it also needs better access to jobs at local institutions.
“I think Mission Hill needs an advocate to connect people with all the opportunities around Mission Hill,” he said.
Nichols, a resident of Audubon Circle in the Fenway, said his neighborhood perspective and policy experience make him the best candidate for the council seat. As the council’s research director, he helps all the councilors vet and write new ordinances. He has been a legal counsel in state government as well, including for former state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry.
“I’m the only candidate in the race who has both state and local [government] experience. I think that’s crucial,” Nichols said.
At the same time, “I’m a neighborhood guy,” he said. “I understand the impact that any decision, particularly development, has on the neighborhood.”
One of those big impacts is institutional expansion, which Nichols calls one of the four main issues facing the district. He is familiar with the issue from serving on the Audubon Circle Neighborhood Association and from working with Ross on a housing impact study that claimed that off-campus Northeastern University student housing is artificially inflating the Mission Hill real estate market. He said he agrees with Ross’s conclusion that NU is not fulfilling its promises to house more students on-campus.
“The issues that Mission Hill faces with Northeastern are no different from Audubon Circle and BU [Boston University],” Nichols said. “I don’t oppose any of our institutions getting better and better. [But] it has to be done in a way that respects the neighborhood.”
Nichols has college connections himself, teaching undergrad law and political science at Lesley University and Bay State College. He is a non-practicing attorney and also operates a small real estate firm specializing in connecting people with little-known affordable apartments sold through a Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) program. He moved to Boston from his native Connecticut six years ago, in part because his mother long worked in the federal immigration department here, with a sense of public service related to his sharing a birthday with the late President John F. Kennedy.
In short, Nichols is the sort of young professional Boston wants to keep, but often loses to the suburbs or other states. His campaign is focused on four issues that, he said, make it difficult or impossible for people to plant roots in Boston.
Institutional expansion is one. The others are public education, affordable housing and an interrelated combination of transportation, nightlife and public safety.
On education, Nichols criticized Boston Public Schools’ recent assignment plan for shifting to neighborhood schools while leaving many neighborhoods with few or none. That includes Mission Hill, which controversially lost the Mission Hill K-8 School and the Farragut Elementary.
“The school assignment plan is inadequate until we rethink geographic locations of the schools,” said Nichols. “The whole district has essentially been deprived of walking to school. Mission Hill’s had [walk-zone schools], and now it’s getting it ripped away.”
While much housing marketed as “affordable” in Boston is actually priced for upper-middle-class residents, Nichols said more needs to be done.
“‘Affordable’ to me is low- to middle-income—to afford to live in Boston at any income,” he said.
His proposals to do that are modest. He wants to raise the required number of affordable units in large developments from 13 to 15 percent, and to make it tougher for developers to buy out of that requirement. He also is considering a possible proposal to have the government offer income-based mortgages—the kind of idea he would hold a City Council hearing about, he said.
Nichols added that he would keep the controversial BRA intact, but that it must get more community input and do more master planning of neighborhoods.
“If the neighborhood was more included in the planning process, the BRA would have an easier job,” he said.
With Boston a city that essentially goes to bed by 2 a.m., Nichols said more needs to be done to boost the nightlife economy and do it safely. Right now, bars all close relatively early at a time when the T has stopped running and when cabs are few and expensive. He called that situation a “public safety disaster.”
He said he would push for better T service, and that he worked with Ross on proposals to put taxi companies under the supervision of the Boston Transportation Department rather than the police for better policy planning.
While every candidate has favored issues, Nichols is in the unusual position of already knowing all of the current councilors well and having worked directly with them. He was careful to note that he only examines the councilors’ ideas rather than coming up with them himself, and compares them with best practices of other cities. But he also expressed personal agreement with some recent council proposals he worked on.
Those include Ayanna Pressley’s plan to lift the cap on Boston liquor licenses and Felix Arroyo’s “Invest in Boston” proposal to require banks to prove community benefits before the City deposits money in them.
In fact, Nichols said, Arroyo’s plan inspired him to shop carefully for a responsible community-oriented bank in which to deposit his campaign funds, settling on Eastern Bank. (He still does his personal banking online through Capital One, but is considering moving those accounts as well.)
“I’m the policy guy in this race,” he said.