Trump budget figures set off alarms in Boston

Local commercial groups and some of Boston’s most vulnerable populations would be hit hardest by President Trump’s proposed budget, Mayor Martin Walsh said at a press conference last week. His words were echoed by community leaders who asserted that their programs would be devastated if the guidelines in the sweeping proposal were to take effect.

The president’s plan, which was unveiled last Thursday and has a long way to go before anything is signed into law, sets out $54 billion in cuts to major government departments and assistance programs while it reallocates increased funding for three departments –  Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.

Flanked by city officials, activists, and representatives of Main Streets organizations, the mayor excoriated the spending proposal.  

“This is not a responsible budget,” he said. “This is a reckless budget and it’s a heartless budget.”
Speakers at the session singled out the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program, one of the initiatives on the president’s chopping block, as a particularly cruel cut for locals. Funded under the Department of Health and Human Services, which the president proposes cutting by 16.2 percent ($5.8 billion), the block grants fund accounted for $24 million of Boston’s budget in last fiscal year, Walsh said.

The money supports the 20 Main Streets organizations around the city, offers first-time homeowners assistance in acquiring and renovating rundown houses, assists the city’s efforts to clean polluted sites and develop vacant lots, funds the senior food delivery program Meals on Wheels, and provides after-school programs and job-training classes for young people, among other programming.

Leaders of Main Streets programs advocated for the commercial organizations’ critical roles within the fabric of their communities. “The effect on the small businesses and the livelihood of the residents is going to be tremendous,” said Nicole Purvis, of Four Corners Main Streets. “A mom who is a single mom raising two or three kids is going to struggle with rent, she’s going to struggle with food. And the smaller businesses, the mom and pop stores, they come into these communities because they live here. And some don’t, but they come into these communities because it’s convenient for them, and to give them hope and funding is huge.”

Community funding helps these small stores buy signage and give their facades a once-over. Guided by the Main Streets groups, block funding “helps the businesses, helps the residents, helps us fix up empty lots,” Purvis said. “It’s me and other people going around and trying to make these neighborhoods feel like homes.”

Presidential budgets operate largely as statements of purpose, clarifying the commander-in-chief’s priorities. The documents are the opening pitches in the months-long negotiations as the US House and US Senate set spending levels for various agencies, ultimately finalizing the federal budget for the president’s signature.

But local municipalities that rely on federal funding are striking out vigorously, and early, against some of the goals laid out in the Trump proposal.

Walsh highlighted the housing component of the community block grants at the press conference. “We all know we have a crisis. We have a housing crisis,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can in our city to encourage, to train, to educate, to help somebody to buy a home. It allows us to preserve neighborhoods.”

Janetha Busby, of Mattapan, said she would not have been able to purchase and renovate a three-decker in Mattapan last year without the block grant program. “I wanted to buy a home and I couldn’t afford it,” she said, wearing the apron from her Stop & Shop cashier post at the press conference.  The Boston Home Center was able to offer her assistance through the grant program, she said. “The federal funding didn’t just help me to buy my first home; it also helped me to stay there.”

And she can keep her three-decker in good condition with the same resources, she said, noting that foundation repairs, porch reconstruction, and other home maintenance costs that would otherwise have made homeownership unsustainable are made possible through the block grant program.

“That means my family and I will be able to stay there for many years,” she said, warning that if the program were cut, “people like me who want to purchase into the American Dream will now find that dream is out of reach.”