Engineering Social Change: Elijah Romulus

We are featuring AHMA Board Member Elijah Romulus as the first story feature during Black History Month. We want to be intentional in highlighting unsung heroes in the AHMA network across planning, place-making, urbanism and housing advocacy spaces. Our framing of storytelling as a radical form of advocacy starts internally. Our network is filled with people creating, inventing, and breaking unspoken barriers. Elijah is a great example of pushing the needle and bringing light to the housing advocacy space. In this Question and Answer formatted interview, you will find key takeaways ranging from upbringing to the importance of affinity groups to his meaning of home. We hope his housing story and journey intrigues you to engage in public discourse around pro-housing reform! 

*Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for readability, brevity, and clarity. 

{Cheryl – Interviewer} Thank you Elijah for joining me today to talk about your housing story.  Could you start by telling me about yourself and your housing story? 

“I grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts. I guess what would be considered a low income household. I never felt that way growing up, but still, looking back, you can see, there was some struggle. But either way, I went through it.

I ended up going to school and kind of went the engineering route. At first I ended up getting a bachelor’s in engineering. I was working at an engineering firm for a little while, but that really wasn’t fulfilling to me. At the same time, I started volunteering in Brockton for a little while.

There were a few nonprofits I was involved in. One was an interfaith organization that did work a lot on things like housing, economic justice, things of that nature. And I think that really got me, I guess it connected my already feeling for civil rights and things of that nature.”

Transitioning from engineering to a more social justice space is very noble and outright bold! Would you say that volunteering with the non-profits you mentioned helped spur this major transition?


“It really connected me to what’s actually happening on the ground in my community and I think that really changed what I wanted to do with my career or my profession. So that led me to looking into urban planning. I ended up going to Tufts for school there, and I focused mostly on environmental issues, but also I had land use and how that affects the environment.

So that led me to work at several municipalities, Chelsea being the first one. And in the city of Chelsea, like, I really could feel that my work was doing a difference in the community. You see things being built or if people were having a difficult time in actually applying for certain permits and whatnot.”

Where are you working now? 

“So now I’m the town planner for the town of Westwood. I staff their planning board. So like site plan review, special permit reviews, commercial businesses, institutions that need permits for their buildings, and larger residential homes. I do the reviews for those and then I also I’m tasked with a climate action plan for the town of Westwood.

As a town planner, I am working with the planning board, alongside my colleagues, showing them what we’ve proposed as different warrant articles to be adopted into bylaws. We’re actually working with the expansion of the MBTA communities bylaw in our town and making sure that we meet all of the requirements of the law. A lot of it’s been an educational piece to the general public, but also making sure our planning board understands what the needs are, how do we kind of reach those requirements and make sure that we’re providing the ability for more housing to be built in the town.”

Would you say your upbringing helped inform your work? 

“I mean, I think my upbringing definitely does inform some of my work. You know, even when I had ended up going to college, during the years of the foreclosure crisis.  My mom kept it from me while I was in college. But, there she was fighting for our home from being foreclosed. And so when I came back, I just made sure that I, helped out as much as I could. And I think that really did kind of give me that lens of wanting to work in the public sphere.”

As a town planner, you must see lots of projects come through. What would you consider to be your most notable accomplishment working as town planner?

“So with Westwood, we got 160 units permitted.  Out of those 160, there’s a requirement that 15% need to be affordable. Usually it would just be 80% AMI. So, I proposed we get at least a couple of units that were 60% {AMI} and in that 60%, that’s the first time in the town’s history that we’ve been able to get something of a lower threshold to allow for more affordability. I’m definitely proud of that.”

How can people support you or your work?

“I think trying to get more involved, if you can. I think a lot of times there are things that are happening on the municipal level, wherever you’re living: they have a government, they have public meetings. There’s already a public discourse happening. And a lot of times the loudest voices aren’t necessarily the voices for change or for progress.

And so people need to hear more diverse voices in the public sector and in public conversations. A lot of times progressive bills that different governments propose,, the folks that are in favor of it don’t necessarily always show up and say, hey, this is a great  law or this is a great proposal. It’s always the negative ones like that don’t want it. So I think people should definitely be a little more aware and try to get involved where they can.”

This work can also be very siloed for people of color. As a black woman myself, I often walk into pro-housing spaces and can’t help but notice that I am the only one. How were you able to create a network of folks that gave you a sense of community? 

“I would say probably in 2018, I just finished grad school. In grad school, I was also the one {only black man}, in the cohort. So I always wanted to try to find more folks that were from where I was. The same background or at least, share in some cultural diversity.

And that led me to some other folks that were kind of thinking along the same lines. We ended up kind of finding each other through different events and we ended up actually creating the Planners of Color Network. 

I put in a lot of work in the beginning, just kind of like meeting with people and going to different events. I spoke at different conferences at the time, just kind of getting the word out that, ‘Hey, we are people of color working in a majority white, area and And so there are  challenges we face, but also the expertise we bring is something that should be thought of in a different lens and should be considered.

I think that that helped finding a place where folks that were kind of thinking around the same lines, gave me a little more confidence in my own work, just knowing that there were other folks out there as well.”

This interview has been amazing and I hope everyone can learn or leverage everything that you have noted. My last question for you is simple. What does home mean to you?

Home? Okay. So I mean, I’ve been married for like five years now. I have a young son. So home is definitely family being able to be somewhere where you feel welcomed, where you can be yourself. You don’t have to put up all these masked versions of yourself to just be able to move through life. So your home is definitely that, that feeling of being welcomed with your family.


About storytelling series : 

Storytelling is a radical form of advocacy. Being vulnerable and truthful about your lived experiences around housing is a powerful tool to convey the need for holistic pro-housing reform. Our storytelling series emphasizes that lived experiences in housing are just as important as the technical experience we bring to our housing advocacy.

Through this series, AHMA will highlight a wide range of narratives to help folks engage in public discourse around housing reform with non-technical vocabulary- our own stories. Our goal is to create brave  spaces for dialogue and connection building and amplify the work happening across our network. 

Are you interested in sharing your story? We encourage everyone in our network  to share their stories in working towards an inclusive, affordable Massachusetts. Share your story with us!