Community Groups File Civil Rights Complaint To Halt Suffolk Downs Approval

Housing, Immigrant Rights, Race and Climate, Racial Justice

Complaint Alleges Review Process Is Inaccessible To Non-English Speakers, In Violation Of Federal Law

Today, Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), charging that the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) has violated federal civil rights law by failing to make the Suffolk Downs review process accessible to non-English speakers.  The complaint is filed on behalf of GreenRoots, Inc. and City Life/Vida Urbana, two community-based groups pressing for the project to include more affordable housing and climate resiliency measures. Complainants ask HUD to halt the project until the BPDA comes into full compliance with federal laws, and urge the City of Boston to voluntarily conduct an independent language access audit of all city agencies.

Sprawling over one hundred acres, Suffolk Downs is one of the largest proposed development projects in Boston’s history.  If approved, the project will create an entirely new neighborhood in the heart of East Boston, a historically working-class community with a significant non-English speaking population. The City of Boston itself has determined that 46% of East Boston residents have limited English proficiency, with most of these residents speaking Spanish, Arabic, or Portuguese/Cape Verdean Creole.

The BPDA’s failure to provide language accessibility stifles and suppresses the voice of the community that is directly affected by the project, and that is crying out for more affordable housing and for protection from the ravages of climate change. By denying non-English speakers access to the review process with inadequate interpretation and translation of core information, the BPDA has precluded residents, community-based organizations, and the developers themselves from hearing from those most impacted by Suffolk Downs, thereby rendering the entire process tainted, incomplete, and ill-informed.

“We are not anti-development. We are pro-growth—smart and equitable growth,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, Executive Director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. “The BPDA was well aware that a significant percentage of East Boston residents speak primarily Spanish or Arabic. By failing to hire interpreters versed in the language of planning or zoning, or to translate key documents, the BPDA is effectively excluding immigrant residents of East Boston from the development process. Under well-settled federal law, this exclusion constitutes national origin discrimination.”

“We have been shocked by the BPDA’s half-hearted attempts to fulfill their obligations under federal law,” said Lisa Owens, Executive Director of City Life/Vida Urbana. “Spanish-speaking residents and their families have turned out for public meetings expecting to be able to hear the developer’s presentations, but the language access has been anemic at best. How are community members supposed to make their affordable housing needs known and participate in local planning if those processes are set up to exclude them?” 

“The BPDA needs to hear the lived experiences of East Boston residents,” said Noemy Rodriguez, Waterfront Initiative Organizer at GreenRoots. “Many of these families have migrated here after experiencing ecological disasters in their home countries. They can speak to the importance of resiliency in a neighborhood threatened by sea level rise and challenge the BPDA to adhere to the climate resiliency standards Boston has set for its future.”

“In a rapidly diversifying city, it is completely unacceptable that the agency responsible for shaping the neighborhoods in which we live would exclude residents from the planning and zoning process, which should encourage resident participation,” said Lauren Sampson, Staff Attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights. “Particularly on the key issues of affordable housing commitments and climate resiliency, it is essential that everyone be allowed to have a voice in the process.”

In light of this filing, it is incumbent upon the BPDA to halt the Suffolk Downs approval process pending a HUD investigation into its practices and procedures for providing language access to non-English speaking individuals. LCR also urges the City of Boston to voluntarily conduct an independent language access audit of all city departments, including the BPDA, in order to ensure full compliance with federal civil rights laws.

The complaint is available here. Suffolk Downs is on the agenda for the BPDA’s February 13 meeting.