Imagine this: You’re pulling into the driveway of your home after a long drive on top of a rough day. “Home at last,” you think to yourself as you turn the key and open the front door only to hear your wife call out, “Honey, we’re eating out tonight, okay?”
You mentally shriek at the idea of getting back in the car, and you know that the local burger joint is not what your wife has in mind when she suggested eating out. Your only choice is to drive another 25 minutes just to enjoy a nice dinner with her.
The above is a typical scenario for many residents who live in Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park, and surrounding areas, and it’s all due to the disparity among liquor licenses for full-service restaurants and diners. The current state limit on alcohol licenses for restaurants is the reason for the shortage in these neighborhoods of good places to eat and have a drink while doing so. The status quo is a major disservice to these Boston residents who have to leave their neighborhoods to enjoy eating out.
Changing the ratio of fine dining establishments in Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park to those licensed elsewhere in the city will bring balance to the economic disparity throughout Boston and expand the dining experiences available to those who live in disadvantaged communities.
The state’s tight control over the number of municipal liquor licenses, in particular the city of Boston, dates back more than 100 years when, the story goes, the Protestant-Yankee-dominated Legislature saw fit to limit the citizenry of Boston, where the Irish were coming to dominate municipal affairs, to a certain number of licenses to serve alcohol. Today, the numbers are 650 licenses for full-service establishments and 320 permits for the sale of beer and wine. If the number 650 sounds big enough, don’t be fooled. The way the licenses are spread out in Boston is highly disproportionate from neighborhood to neighborhood. Between them, the Back Bay and the North End hold some 20 percent of the city’s license allotment while Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury together hold 12 percent.
But this is 2014, not 1914, and we have come to expect our fine-dining opportunities to be conveniently accessible. If the current home rule law is not amended, that accessibility will not be available to residents of Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.
That offers one reason to support state Rep. Russell Holmes of the Sixth Suffolk District, which includes parts of the above neighborhoods, as he presses for a changing the wording in the home rule law.
If approved, House Bill 3913 will change the licensing disparities and set a new balance of opportunities with regard to full liquor licenses. The reform language in the modified bill calls for expanding the licensing board from three members to five, releasing new liquor license owners from the inconvenience of having their permits tethered to one location, and enlarging the cap on the number of liquor licenses for restaurants in underserved neighborhoods. Additionally, the legislation will change the process of approving licenses by empowering the mayor, with City Council assent, to appoint the members of the licensing board members, an authority that currently resides in the governor’s office.
The bill, which is scheduled for a hearing later this month, is sitting now with the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection & Professional Licensure and is expected to be acted upon before the 2013-2014 legislative session ends on July 31.
If this modification of a century-old law is to become a reality the residents of Boston neighborhoods have to show there is a need for the change. I urge them to look around their neighborhoods and ask themselves: “If we want to enjoy fine dining, will we able to easily obtain fine dining within the confines of our town or will we need to travel out of my area to obtain the level of service we want?
After you all make that determination, I ask you to contact your legislators at the State House and also reach out to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Majority Leader Ron Mariano to express your preference on this legislation. We the people get what we need when we speak with one voice – E Pluribus Unum.
Stefanie A. Smith is a native of Boston who is living in New York while pursuing a master’s degree in public administration as a member of the National Urban Fellow Class of 2015 at Baruch College.