CPA funds must leverage strategy on displacement

Boston residents looking for a rare bright spot in last week’s election results can find it in a few places. One is that city voters overwhelmingly supported the passage of the Community Preservation Act, agreeing to a one-percent surcharge on their annual property taxes in the interest of funding improvements to open space, preserving historic structures, and building affordable housing.

It speaks well of our electorate to know that the overwhelming majority— 74 percent, in fact— don’t mind handing over a little bit more in tax money for the greater good. That’s a significant shift from 2001, when voters were asked to support a two-percent surcharge and said ‘no’—by 57 percent to 43 percent.

What will its adoption actually mean for our neighborhoods? That will depend largely on how aggressively advocates make their case for priorities — and how much money in state “matching” funds will be made available.

In 2015, according to the State House News Service, 156 cities and towns in the state divvied up $36.29 million in state dollars from the trust fund, an amount that was less than 30 percent of what each municipality raised from its own surcharge collections. The state figure is expected to dip down to 19 percent, according to the most recent estimate.

Still, Boston will have a new pot of money — as much as $20 million by many reads— to make available for projects that might not happen— or that wouldn’t be able to maximize their potential— otherwise.

Two days after the vote, Mayor Walsh— the measure’s most vocal political champion in the city— celebrated its passage at an event in Dudley Square.

Walsh will play the pivotal role in determining how the CPA funds will get distributed. His administration will appoint members to a committee that will decide how to split up the pot of money collected— and determine which projects get grants.

In a thoughtful essay published in last week’s Reporter, contributor Mike Prokosch outlined several specific models for how to leverage the bulk of the CPA infusion into creative and truly affordable housing models. It’s particularly important to disrupt a troubling trend in home-buying over the last two years. As Mass Affordable Housing Alliance director Tom Callahan told Prokosch: “Of all the mortgages that went to buy homes in Boston over the past two years, only 10.5 percent went to black and Latino buyers. Continue that pattern for a decade and it’ll change the city.”

This weekend, the Walsh administration is launching an initiative aimed at talking about race relations in the city with a day-long event planned at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. The contours of this effort aren’t fully clear, but one of the “goals” outlined in a city document obtained by the Reporter specifically mentions adapting “our housing policies to ensure safe, affordable, stable housing for all Bostonians.”

Any such conversation about race in Boston in 2016 had better deal bluntly with the fact that Bostonians of color are slowly but surely being pushed out of city neighborhoods— and it’s happening now, not in some bygone era of Jim Crow-style redlining.

The modest sums that will be generated by the CPA surcharge won’t be anywhere near enough to halt that displacement. But if used wisely they can help to leverage larger, more complex efforts— like community land trusts and subsidies —to encourage generational home ownership and stabilization of diverse neighborhoods. We hope that’s exactly what will happen next with the full weight of the Walsh administration focused on that goal.

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