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Housing activists react to mayor’s plans

Kenneal Patterson

Mayor Martin Walsh announced transformative new plans for housing on Tuesday night, pledging $500 million over the course of five years to ensure liveability and curb inequity.       

Along with the construction of subsidized and income-restricted housing units, Walsh has devised a pilot program in which vulnerable populations can obtain city-funded rental vouchers. The program will likely be permanent, said cabinet officials. This would set a striking precedent: very few cities have established a similar program. 

Boston’s bustling streets are teeming with new residents, yet many longtime Boston residents must shoulder the crushing financial burden of sky-high rents. As the city explodes with a flurry of developments, prices continue to rise. Families are left with little means to cope with the incessant expansion.

Tom Callahan, director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, said that there were a few plans that the mayor neglected to mention. One proposal includes an increased linkage fee on downtown construction projects. Currently, developers of major projects must pay $10.81 per square foot of development into the city’s housing and job training fund. The new bill hopes to raise the cost to $24, more than double the previous expense.

“It’s no secret that Boston has a very deep housing crisis,” said Callahan.

Low-income residents are not the only ones getting pushed out of the city; Callahan said that middle-income Bostonians are looking elsewhere for places to settle. The ONE Mortgage program previously provided about 300 mortgages per year to these middle-income families. Now, due to a recent mass exodus, the program only provides 100 mortgages per year. This drastic decrease is because homeowners are moving to Boston’s suburbs. 

“Brockton’s gain is Boston’s loss,” said Callahan.

The ONE+ program, set to be launched in March, sets ambitious goals to keep the middle-class in Boston. In an effort to preserve this demographic, the program is offering lower interest rates — 2.5 percent instead of 3.5 percent — and extended opportunities to qualify for enhanced down-payment assistance. This assistance may be as much as $20,000-$25,000.

Callahan commended City Councilor Kim Janey’s eagerness to establish a PILOT committee to examine area nonprofit institutions’ adherence to payment in lieu of taxes expectations.

“Harvard, BC, BU, and Northeastern are underpaying what they should be in terms of payment in lieu of taxes,” said Callahan.

Solving the housing crisis won’t be simple. Callahan said that there needs to be “aggressive action” on all fronts.

“We need to have a multiple-pronged approach,” he said.

Councilor Julia Mejia said that the mayor’s plan was a good step in the right direction. Nevertheless, she wished the mayor spoke more about impoverished people struggling with low economic statuses.

“I think that Mayor Walsh should consider being publically more aggressive about issues around rent control,” she said.

Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville recently called on the State House to lift the Massachusetts ban on rent control, something that Mejia agreed may put pressure on Boston.

Walsh’s new strategies obviously will not solve the whole housing crisis, said Kathy Brown, coordinator for the Boston Tenant Coalition. She was, however, happy with what she heard.

Introducing the transfer tax proposal during the address was “a challenge to him, and to all of us, to pass it,” said Brown.

Brown also commended the mayor’s commitment around the city subsidy program, calling it a “bold move.” It demonstrates the mayor’s commitment to the city, she said, despite his initial resistance.

Brown said that Walsh has advanced concrete goals on decreasing eviction, but that many evictions still go unreported.

She hopes that the mayor will take stronger stances on matters like rent control, stabilization, and eviction protection. Brown said that protection should exist for tenants “across the board,” not just for seniors over 80.

“Regulating rents and regulating evictions is just another key tool in the toolbox,” she said.

Additional next steps include advancements of the Inclusionary Development Policy (IDP), which mandates that housing developments requiring zoning relief include a certain amount of income-restricted housing. Developments of 10 or more units must either incorporate income-restricted units, build them nearby or contribute to the IDP fund. Brown also supports raising the linkage fee.

“There’s a lot going on,” she said, “But there’s a lot of great needs.”

Darnell Johnson, regional coordinator for Right to the City Vote Boston, further expressed gratitude for the mayor addressing the problem. He also acknowledged the issue’s sheer magnitude. 

“Some of the levers that he [the mayor] has chosen to push forward, like the transfer fee and also rent control for seniors, is one small step in a larger picture of what we need to do,” he said. “We hope that the state Legislature will recognize that this is an urgent and immediate need and will get us through.”

The mayor also touched on transportation obstacles that face the city. He plans to initiate a Transportation Action Committee in East Boston. Despite last year’s achievements — including building bus lanes and protecting seniors from increased fares, issues with the MBTA persist due to state-wide regulations. Boston residents contribute the most money to the agency, yet are not represented within the organization. Walsh urged Massachusetts to recognize Boston by granting the city a seat on the MBTA board.

“This is Boston. We’ve never been big fans of ‘taxation without representation,’” Walsh said. “You deserve a voice.”

Nevertheless, Walsh expressed pride over Boston’s achievements. These include a lower crime rate and arrest rate — both down by 30 percent or more — as well as an elimination of almost 5,000 guns.

“This is a pivotal year in American history,” The mayor concluded. “It’s never been more important to stand up and say who we are, what we believe, and what we fight for.”

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