Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced his comprehensive housing security and economic mobility legislative package on Jan. 7. The 14 bills are the first of four legislative packages that the City of Boston will be submitting to the Massachusetts Legislature.
The six housing bills concern programs and issues such as the Linkage Program, the Community Preservation Act, inclusionary development and tenants’ rights.
One act, a home rule petition, would allow the City of Boston to change its Linkage Program, which helps build affordable housing in Boston, on an annual basis, as opposed to the state-required three years. Since 2014, according to the Boston Planning and Development Agency, $31.4 million in housing linkages have contributed to 39 developments, creating 1,268 affordable units, preserving 548 existing affordable units and helping 2,300 low and moderate income residents access job training.
Another act seeks to increase funding for the Community Preservation Act (CPA), which would increase the fees for recording deeds to return the state match to closer to 50 percent, as the match was just 19 percent when Boston joined the coalition of cities and towns that receive CPA funds.
The CPA requires at least one percent of residential and business property tax bills to go into the Community Preservation Fund (CPF), which 170 cities and towns draw from to fund affordable housing, open space and historic preservation. In June of 2018, Walsh recommended 35 projects requiring less than $500,000 to begin construction with CPF funds in the fall of 2018.
The mayor also included an act that provides low-income tenants facing eviction with a court-appointed attorney for representation, and creates a public task force “to create an implementation plan.”
Another act would prohibit no-fault eviction of tenants aged 75 and older in properties with six or more rental units. Eviction would be permitted only in cases where tenants fail to pay rent, damage the property or use of the premises for illegal activities. In addition, the act would limit rent increase for tenants aged 75 and older to five percent per year, to prevent landlords from using large rent increases to create justification to permit eviction.
Also being presented to the legislature is an act that would “memorialize” Boston’s Inclusionary Development Program (IDP) into the Zoning Code.
The IDP requires property developers to set aside income restricted affordable housing units when they propose residential projects of ten units or more, if they are financed by the City of Boston or Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) or built on their property. Property developers have the choice to include the affordable unit on-site, off-site, or make an equivalent cash contribution towards the creation of a unit. This proposal would require all residential projects of 10 or more units to follow IDP obligations, regardless of petitions for zoning relief.
Some residents believe that the government should do a better job monitoring compliance. According to a DigBoston article, in 2017, developer Leah Popielarski of Cohasset sold two condo units (135 Athens Street / 160 West Broadway) designated for affordable housing, at market prices by purchasing them through Seaport Residential, a company she had formed. Likewise, developers will have incentives not to comply, if they are still able to gain a profit even after paying penalties. In Popielarski’s case even with the $600,000 BPDA fine, she was still left with $732,000 by selling the two IDP required units for $664,000 each.
The final local option bill would provide tenant associations of residential rental properties with more than five rental units with the right of first refusal to collectively purchase properties at fair market value, the right to purchase to a non-profit acting on their behalf, and the right to match any bona fide offer to sell property.
Property owners have strongly opposed giving tenants the right to first refusal. A bill in Washington DC ran into trouble, and a similar bill was struck down in Cambridge. When Cambridge City Council rejected City Councillor Dennis J. Carlone’s proposal, Hasson J. Rashid, a low income tenant advocate, wrote a letter in response, noting it was “a shame… to trashing rights of the most vulnerable segments of the population”
Included in the eight economic mobility bills is a bill to replicate Boston’s Tuition-Free Community College (TFCC) Initiative and implement it statewide. Launched in June 2016, TFCC serves 295 students at Bunker Hill Community College, Roxbury Community College and MassBay Community College. According to the Walsh’s office, students in the program have a graduation rate of 70 percent over three years.
Another home rule petition would expand the number of liquor licenses in Boston, targeting neighborhoods that were historically disadvantaged by the liquor license process and would benefit from restaurants, which the mayor’s office refers to as the “lifeblood of neighborhood business districts.”
In 2017, a government task force, convened by State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg and made up of seven lawyers and state officials with no connections to the alcohol business, recommended relaxing limits on the number of alcohol licenses grocery store chains can hold and other rules such as allowing pubs to sell beer through other retailers. Many of these rules are remnants of the Prohibition era, preventing restaurant owners from establishing businesses as permits could cost up to 450,000$.
In addition to expanding licenses, the Boston Globe reports that reform is needed to fund the Alcohol Beverages Control Commission (ABCC). The commission is understaffed with just 15 investigators – one for every 800 alcohol retailer – and underfunded.
There are also two bills concerning workers’ rights in the package. The first would require state contracting officers to consider an employer’s record of workplace law compliance, including health and safety standards, wage laws and civil rights laws, before awarding the employer a contract. The goal is to protect workers from wage abuse, workplace discrimination, and unsafe working conditions.
The other act would mandate all companies with more than 100 employees to report the gender and race of employees holding specific management titles, and require the Office of Labor and Workforce Development to post the data. It would also establish a fund to provide professional development services to employees who observe a disparity between the total number and their employer’s total, in order to help improve their employer’s ratio.
Also in this legislative package is an act that would remove the cap on assets for families receiving temporary cash assistance. The current policy discourages families from saving money, and makes it more difficult for them to access resources. Eight other states have enacted similar changes.
Another act would repeal a policy that denies critical resources to children conceived while, or soon after, a family is receiving benefits. Massachusetts is one of only 17 states that have a “cap on kids” or similar policy.
Walsh is also pushing for legislation to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to 50 percent, and return money directly to more than 400,000 eligible low-and moderate-income individuals and families. In 2015, Governor Charlie Baker successfully passed a similar act, which increased the EITC from 15 percent to 23 percent, an equivalent of $500 additional support for each eligible individual.
There was also a bill to explore ways to raise for sustained investment in the tourism and arts and culture sector.
Joe Kreisberg, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, noted in an interview with the mayor’s office that “we’re very pleased with the interlocking package of Housing Security bills that Mayor Walsh is submitting to the legislature. Strengthening tools like the Inclusionary Development Program and Linkage to ensure that Boston will be able to build income-restricted housing in the future represents great forward-thinking. We’d like to see more cities and towns utilize these tools to build more affordable housing in their communities, and to adopt the needed tenant protections the package offers to the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable households.”
Public responses, such as facebook comments on Boston publications like the Globe and Herald, have been mixed between warm support and criticism. The main question remains, whether the State Legislature will approve these proposed bills.