Ray Ewing


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State Senator Julian Cyr has seen the effects of the housing crisis. Time, he says, is running out.

State Senator Julian Cyr has represented the Cape and Islands since first running for office in 2016. Only thirty-one at the time, Senator Cyr has been active in community organizing since he was a teenager, and later worked on campaigns for former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and President Barack Obama. Now in his third term, Cyr serves as the Senate assistant majority whip, chairs the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use, and Recovery, and is the vice chair of the Joint Committee on Racial Equity, Civil Rights, and Inclusion.

Here, the senator talks to Martha’s Vineyard Magazine about the housing crisis, the power of showing up, and why – despite being at the periphery of his district – the Island feels so much like home.

MVM: You grew up in Truro, on the outer Cape. Before getting involved in politics, how much time had you spent on Martha’s Vineyard?

Julian Cyr: My family owned a restaurant when I was growing up, and I spent every summer of my life waiting tables. At the end of the season my parents would do a staff party, and one time we took the ferry over, got in a bus, and went up to Aquinnah. We drove all over the Island. That was one of really only a few times I visited the Island growing up.

In 2010, I fell into working on Deval Patrick’s campaign as an organizer for the Cape and Islands, and that’s when I started visiting more regularly. I remember going to Howes House [in West Tisbury] at twenty-four, meeting amazing Island folks like [senior care advocate] Paddy Moore…

While Martha’s Vineyard is probably the farthest part of our region from Truro, the ethos of the people of the Vineyard reminds me of the outer Cape. You’ve got idiosyncratic people living in a hard-to-reach place. People are nontraditional; you’ve got artists, writers, hippies – when I started getting to know the people on the Island, I realized they reminded me of the community I grew up in on the outer Cape.

MVM: You’ve been working in government in one way or another for most of your adult life, starting as a community organizer at the age of sixteen. What empowered you to get involved in issues that mattered to you at such a young age?

JC: I didn’t come from a political family. Truro is a small community, and I went to a regional middle school in Orleans. This was the nineties, a pretty homophobic time to be in school, and I really retreated into academia. I stayed away from theater and singing and performing, and then when I was a junior in high school, the choir teacher recruited me to audition. It was a small group, and a really affirming, transformational experience. Through that choir was when I started coming out to people and really got to know myself.

That year there were some pretty hefty budget cuts, which translated into a $1.8 million gap in the budget for our school system. The school district pink-slipped forty teachers and staff, including my choir teacher.

I knew enough to realize that the voters in town needed to vote to raise the school’s budget. A group of students pulled together a newsletter that we mailed to the districts explaining what would be lost if there wasn’t an override. And that was a part of what ended up getting the override passed. For me, it was the first time I realized I could step out into my community and create change, and I’ve been riffing on that theme ever since.

MVM: Did you know then that you’d have a career in politics?

JC: I never thought I’d run for office then. I wanted to work in arts advocacy or public health. It wasn’t until working in the Patrick administration that I got to know the legislature and thought, “Wait a minute. I could do this. It’s not rocket science!”

MVM: One of the issues you’ve worked hard in support of recently is the transfer fee legislation, which would provide a new funding mechanism for communities to use to address the housing crisis.
Why is housing such an important issue for you? 

JC: Much of my motivation in running for state senate in 2016 was the realization that if Cape Codders and Islanders aren’t involved in the future of these places, they won’t be sustainable. I ran for office saying, “We have to solve housing.” I know seventeen people who left the outer Cape last summer because they couldn’t find housing. As a state senator I lost a year-round apartment that the landlord decided to rent for the summer. If a state senator is experiencing the housing crisis at that level…

We have become profoundly unaffordable – and we now have a housing crisis on steroids because of the pandemic. It means we have to take big, bold steps to solve the housing crisis.

MVM: Last year, all six towns voted to create a housing bank on the Island, understanding that it would be dependent on the passage of the transfer fee legislation at the state level. What can Islanders expect from this legislative process? What needs to happen before a housing bank can be a reality on the Island?

JC: The six towns have adopted the housing bank, which now has been filed as legislation by [state representative Dylan] Fernandes and me. It’s now going through the legislative process. Multiple communities statewide want a transfer fee – Boston, Somerville, Cambridge – and all of this means that we’re building momentum. Governor [Maura] Healey is on record supporting the transfer fee.

But it takes time, and we don’t have time. I wish we did this twenty years ago. I look across the region and I do worry that these years of inaction will be near-fatal. The acuity of the crisis we face is severe.

MVM: That doesn’t sound great.

JC: We need to be honest that we’re going to have to solve the problem ourselves in many ways. It will be difficult to get a significant infusion of state or federal money. The housing bank makes for an artful solution for the need to increase housing production and housing preservation.

I am confident we will get this done, but it may take several more years. I am keenly aware that we don’t have that time.

MVM: What do you wish more people understood about getting involved in politics – particularly at the local level?

JC: In town meeting government, showing up is half the battle. I think there’s a bit of parochialism involved, often because only a small subset of people actually show up – but I find that showing up is really half of it.

So, people need to be reminded of that power. Also, that you don’t have to have all of the answers – I often hear from women, from folks of color, or people who are queer like me, they’ll say, “I don’t want to go to that meeting or serve on that board until I have all the answers.”

Many of the people already there don’t have the answers! It’s crucially important that people understand how much power they have, particularly in that local space.