In vacant storefront and lot hearing, councillors highlight inequities and possible solutions

City Councillors Andrea Campbell, Ed Flynn, and Matt O'Malley at the housing hearing.

While Boston is seeing a decrease in commercial vacancies, city councillors worry progress is not moving quickly enough to energize potentially vital storefronts across the city. And, rhyming with other inequities across Boston, most disused, vacant, or blighted lots are disproportionately concentrated in historically underrepresented neighborhoods with large communities of color.

The Boston City Council tackled the topic of vacant storefronts, lots, and residential units throughout the city at a hearing Tuesday afternoon.

City Council President Andrea Campbell and Councillor Matt O’Malley cosponsored the four-hour hearing. O’Malley, who represents West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and parts of Roslindale, Mission Hill, and Roxbury, pointed to a wealth of potential occupants and a surplus of empty storefronts -- both a problem and an opportunity for the city.

“We should not have vacant storefronts when we have entrepreneurs ready to fill them. Boston should not have people without homes when we have some homes without people,” O’Malley said.

“We’ve seen a decline in vacancy overall,” said Chief of Economic Development, John Barros, who testified at the hearing. It is now 6.7 percent in overall office vacancies, down from 11 percent in 2014, Barros said.

But all vacancies are not distributed evenly throughout the city, and, both commercial and residential, were disproportionately concentrated in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury--making up a large part of Campbell’s district.

“We do see more vacancy in different parts of the city than others,” Barros said, pointing to data collected by individual Main Street organizations. They found that Grove Hall Main Streets had a 15.2 percent commercial vacancy— the highest rate in the city by far.

Ed Gaskin, the executive director of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets, collected the data Barros cited. He said that in Grove Hall there is high turnover of commercial spaces.

Gaskin pointed to “the wonder block” on Blue Hill Avenue that was recently renovated.

“The building went out to auction— kicking out all existing tenants so that they could renovate the entire building. So during that time that would have all been considered vacant— over the period of years. The landlord was in no particular rush,” he said.

Even after the building was renovated, it stood empty for a year because the rent was too expensive for the former tenants, Gaskin said. After months of vacancy, national chains such as Cricket moved into the space.

Gaskin thinks that Grove Hall’s reputation as a more crime-prone area keeps business owners from openings in the neighborhood.

The second highest rate is Mattapan, with 8.9 percent vacancy. In contrast, some neighborhoods such as Chinatown and Jamaica Plain have roughly 1 percent vacancy. And some neighborhoods without a Main Street organization lack data entirely aside from brokerage counts, with no plan specified for how to improve that statistical assessment.

“The reality is that there are buildings that have sat there for long periods of time and they impact our local economies. They impact the quality of life,” Barros said.

If the city is wading into how people manage their own property with services such as Airbnb, Campbell said, residential vacancies should also be on the table.

“I think this is timely given the fact that we're having a conversation right now on short-term rentals,” Campbell said at the hearing, “and the short-term rentals conversation is clearly regulating privately owned properties for a particular need and purpose. I think we need to be having a similar conversation for those properties that are privately owned but are intentionally being left vacant, abandoned, and served sometimes as a problem property because they are vacant and abandoned. ”

The impact of these types of properties on a community has been studied, Campbell noted.

“Not only do they create eyesores,” she said, “they create public safety hazards, they are crime magnets. Abandoned houses represent a real financial drain on both the neighbors and the city at large. It creates neighborhood fragmentation and community isolation and this idea, and I thought this was really critical, the sense no one cares and things aren’t getting better.”

The city could potentially tackle some commercial vacancies by incentivizing pop-up short-term spaces by streamlining the onerous permitting and licensing process. O’Malley pointed to a beer garden pop-up in Roslindale that was wildly popular and brought the community together in an otherwise vacant space. He reasoned that the model could work in other neighborhoods as well if the city were to make the permitting and bureaucratic processes a bit easier.

Some councillors were open to the idea of a potential fee levied on long-term vacant properties to incentivize landlords. Campbell suggested testing a pilot program in a specific area and gleaning information from that.

Sheila Dillon, Boston’s chief of housing and director of the Department of Neighborhood Development, cited preliminary data from the 2017 survey of vacant and distressed properties throughout the city.

The survey found 22 in Roxbury, 26 in Dorchester, and 14 in Mattapan as of 2017. All other neighborhoods combined had 39 “distressed” lots, with none in Charlestown, Beacon Hill, or the Back Bay.

Of the 405 distressed or vacant properties, Dillon said, 265 owners provided evidence that they were taking some action in the “very near future” to renovate the properties.

“Those are the ones that will go on our website, and we’re just completing that list and that’ll be available very soon. We do this every year,” she said. “So for cities our size, it’s a good number. It’s a reasonable number. But if you’re living next to that building, it doesn’t feel good if you’re living on that street.”

Still, 140 property owners did not respond to the city’s request.

Adding to the problem: the city has failed to enforce a 2008 ordinance that requires all residential property owners, including lenders, trustees, and service companies, to register and properly maintain vacant or foreclosing properties. This is in addition to maintaining sanitary and building codes, as well as visible maintenance.

Dillon noted that the city does not have good data on non-distressed residential vacancies, referring to them as “ghost units.” It is difficult for the city to collect data on vacant units that are not on the market. Dillon said many properties that have no full-time tenants might be in used as a full-time AirBNB, taking them off the market. The city council voted to block "investor" property owners from renting out an entire unit full-time in an 11 to 2 vote on Wednesday.

In addition to the vacant storefronts and residential units, there are more than 1,000 vacant lots in the city. The vast majority of those are under review or active disposition, while 268 are inactive.

Roughly 100 lots have been classified as “urban wilds.”

“If you do a cursory glance through that list it largely looks like Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury,” Campbell said. “And that bothers me. And so I think, how can we make sure, when we’re addressing this issue, we are also honest about where this has taken place and the importance of addressing it for those residents?”

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