Community Preservation Act weighed for November ballot

As City Councillors heard testimony on Boston’s proposed adoption of the Community Preservation Act at a council hearing Tuesday, the community members packed into the council chambers sounded off largely in support of the 1 percent property tax surcharge.

The CPA, which has been adopted by 160 cities and towns across the commonwealth since its passage in 2000, leverages a property tax surcharge toward historic preservation, housing, and parks. Communities that adopt the CPA receive 30 percent in matching grants from the state, funded through a statewide registry of deeds surcharge.

City Councillor at-large Michael Flaherty and District 4 City Councillor Andrea Campbell co-sponsored the measure, which would place the CPA before voters on the November ballot. The council cannot independently instate the act, which District 7 City Councillor Tito Jackson characterized as “a no brainer.”

Jackson added, “Our vote on this is not going to be on the CPA. Our vote on this is actually going to be on democracy, and whether or not we allow people to participate in direct democracy in the City of Boston.”

Boston voters shot down a version of the CPA in 2001 that would have leveraged a 2 percent surcharge. Councillor Flaherty said the city has lost out on approximately $300 million in available funds that would have accumulated if the CPA had been adopted 15 years ago. The amount proposed in the current Boston referendum is 1 percent, which advocates say will result in an average $23 annual hike for Boston taxpayers and no increase at all for most.

Council President Michelle Wu noted the CPA could help address “the gap between what we have and what we’re trying to do, as city government is asked to do more and more.” Wu seemed supportive but non-committal, and councillors Matt O’Malley and Salvatore LaMattina joined Campbell, Flaherty, and Jackson in throwing their support behind putting the act on the ballot.

Numerous exemptions are built into the act, including the first $100,000 of assessed property value and complete exemptions for families earning under $78,800 annually. Medium income in Boston was $54,485 in 2015. “Our priority was to protect low and moderate income families and seniors who are struggling as it is,” said Joe Kriesberg, President & CEO of the Massachusetts Coalition for Community Development Coalitions. “We’re exempting a lot of people.”

The City expressed interest in the CPA as a source of revenue toward meeting its housing and environmental goals.

“I hear from residents every single day, how they want to establish a consistent and sustainable form of revenue, not only for affordable housing, but for historical preservation projects, for recreational spaces, and open spaces,” Campbell said. She said the CPA is another in a series of creative tools at the city’s disposal to combat the dearth of affordable housing.

Boston is rapidly approaching 700,000 residents, testified Sheila Dillon, the city’s housing chief. The Walsh administration’s housing plan includes constructing 53,000 units of new housing by the year 2030, Dillon said, 8,000 of which will be affordable housing. They hope to preserve 97 percent of the existing affordable housing stock.

“In order to meet these housing goals, we have determined that we will need to increase our housing budget,” Dillon said. “It’s become very clear to use that were going to have to increase these resources alone, if you will, because of the budget cuts of the federal government,” she added.

Councillor Campbell said her constituents worry that the funds would be, in effect, a “blank check” to the city, with little control over their distribution in historically underserved areas like Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan.

“I don’t know what government program has more transparency than this one,” Kriesberg said. All CPA-funded projects and community statistics are publicly posted and updated on the Community Preservation Coalition website, and the City COuncil could later establish a mechanism for determining funding priority within Boston.

Concerns raised around the CPA in Boston identify the act as a potential cause of increased wealth disparity and increasing burdens on business owners. Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and 11-year chair of the Holliston Community Preservation Committee, noted that property tax is already the largest source of Boston’s revenue, 67 percent of the total revenue and bringing in $1.9 billion in 2015.

“Rather than focusing on diversifying the city’s revenue source, we’re talking about an option that would add to it, and increase the property tax reliance,” he said. Business properties pay about 61 percent of the city’s property value, though accounting for 35 percent of its tax levy, Tyler said.

The hearing and approval of the CPA are a first step in the conversation, as the council moves to clarify the parameters of the act for residents before it moves to the ballot in the fall.