Legislature gets 14-bill package
Increasing the number of liquor licenses, upping fees derived from commercial developments, and moving toward better tenant protections are among the priorities that Mayor Martin Walsh laid out in the 14-bill legislative package he announced on Monday.
The collection of bills, focused on “economic mobility and housing security,” is the first of four that the administration plans to send up to the State House during this legislative session.
Several of the bills seek greater flexibility for Boston’s control of its economic assets, like the pricey and increasingly scarce land in the city and the still-nascent full-service restaurant businesses in underserved neighborhoods.
Two home rule petitions put before the city council on Monday— a first step before they can go to the Legislature — address liquor licenses and an increase in linkage fees.
“From the last time we did this, we learned that some of our neighborhoods are not as ready as other neighborhoods to take advantage of the opportunity to increase full-service restaurants on their main streets,” said John Barros, the city’s economic development chief. “And we had certain neighborhoods that we were frankly targeting did not even apply.” Mattapan, for instance, had zero applications for the neighborhood-restricted licenses.
Boston has 1,188 active liquor licenses, 812 of them all-alcohol, and 376 in the beer and wine category. The administration’s “Act to Create Economic Vitality in Boston Neighborhoods” asks for an increase in the number of reduced-cost licenses targeted at specific neighborhoods in need of an economic boost that can come from a robust restaurant scene.
Among the dozens of new licenses that could come from the bill would be bundles of three all-alcohol and two wine and beer licenses that could be specifically designated for certain neighborhoods, including Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, and Hyde Park. If an area does not have an active application, the licenses would remain allotted to the designated neighborhood until the demand rises, rather than being left to be picked off by other neighborhoods.
“For instance, Mattapan would be allotted five licenses a year for three years, and if no one applied for those liquor licenses, they will remain on the shelf,” Barros told reporters during a briefing at City Hall last Friday. “And as we worked with entrepreneurs and businesses in Mattapan and other neighborhoods, the liquor licenses would be there so when you build capacity and you have business that are ready to apply, they could then apply.”
In cases like Dorchester’s South Bay Town Center, prospective home to multiple restaurants, the city is planning to create pricier and restricted umbrella licenses for developments with a combined 700,000 square feet or more and at least 125,000 square feet of commercial/retail space. This would stop the businesses from applying for neighborhood or city-wide licenses in bulk and taking them away from individual local restaurants.
The other bill before the council would allow Boston to adjust its linkage formula for developments annually instead of once every three years. New 100,000-square-foot-plus commercial developments that need zoning relief require fees of $9.03 per square foot.
“This would, very basically, allow the city to make its own adjustments,” rather than being tied to state standards, city housing chief Sheila Dillon said.
Boston’s Inclusionary Development Policy (IDP), which sets requirements for affordable housing production, would be “safeguarded,” Dillon said, in another bill. They will later reassess the actual standards of the policy, but for now the administration is focused on applying it more broadly.
This bill would also entrench the IDP in the zoning codes to allow the city to secure affordable housing obligations from residential projects even if they technically fall under “as of right” designations.
“As the [Boston Planning and Development Agency] does more planning in the city and more and more residential developments become as-of-right, we are worried that IDP — well, not worried, because it won’t — would not apply to those projects,” Dillon said. “So, this change would require all developments over 10 units to comply with the IDP requirements.”
Tom Callahan, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance (MAHA), praised the proposed bills this week. “It’s a strong package,” he said. “It’s well-balanced between revenue and tenant protections, ‘expand the pie’-type legislation.”
Some future sources of funding could also come from regulating short-term rentals like Airbnb, Callahan said, where new state legislation now allows municipalities to set a special impact fee for such rentals. The “real work” he said, is figuring out what home rule petition comes out of the city council, which is already considering a linkage bill. And tenant protections are taking a more piece-by-piece track after the defeat in the State House last year of the Jim Brooks Act, a home-rule effort meant to allow the city to monitor ongoing eviction proceedings and to alert the tenants facing removal of their rights.
“Housing and economic mobility are linked: a stable home allows residents to pursue opportunities,” Walsh said in a statement. “In Boston, we’ve increased our affordable housing goals and worked to ensure that everyone has a home in our city. We are doubling down on economic mobility by supporting small businesses, many of them owned by women, immigrants, and people of color, reforming parts of the system that create barriers that keep people in poverty, and providing new pathways to good jobs.”
The mayor’s office says the housing security bills build on the work the city is already doing, and would provide some new tools. A bill would allow tenant organizations in a building with five or more units the right to either buy the building for fair market value or assign the purchasing right to a non-profit on their behalf.
Another would ensure a right to legal counsel for low-income households facing eviction. A third would add in protections for elderly tenants, including and prohibiting no-fault eviction for those over 75 years old and limiting rent increases to five percent annually.
“We’re seeing many elders lose their homes, the homes they have been able to enjoy for decades, so we feel very strongly that this is a very, very vulnerable population that needs to be protected,” Dillon said.
Callahan added that tenant protections are a vital step forward in ensuring housing stability. “The senior protection bill is innovative and important,” he said, “and I know it’s going to get severe criticism from a portion of the landlord lobby, but it feels like that’s a bold move to try to say, ‘We understand those types of protections are necessary.’”
Although the Community Preservation Act passed in 2016 has been a boon, raising millions through a one percent property tax surcharge, officials said state matching funds declined after Boston joined the roughly 170 other cities and towns who had signed on to a version of the CPA.
The 19 percent, Dillon said, is “not a good enough match from the state.” She added, “We would certainly like to get the match up closer to 50 percent.”
Another of the proposed bills would increase the surcharge on fees for recording deeds to boost the funds available for a state match. That bill, to be filed by the Community Preservation Coalition with Walsh’s support, is one of several with a statewide bent that the mayor hopes will be considered this session.
Others include legislation to expand Boston‘s tuition-free community college program; expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to 50 percent, which city officials say would return more than $420 million to state households; and a proposal to establish a statewide Commission on Tourism and Arts and Culture Investment.