A trio of Boston city councilors are pushing for hundreds more liquor licenses in the city, specifically in neighborhoods of color where there is a paucity of restaurants that can legally serve booze.
Specifically, the councilors want the state to give the city the ability to grant up to an additional 200 nontransferable all-alcohol licenses over a three-year period; all of these would be distributed in Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, and Hyde Park. Their proposed home rule petition, which needs Beacon Hill approval, also calls for the number of licenses in Boston to increase 10 percent over a decade’s time.
Framing the issue as one of equity, Councilor Brian Worrell, one of the measure’s sponsors, said the move is necessary because of neighborhoods such as Mattapan. It’s the most diverse neighborhood in the city but has just 10 liquor licenses, he said, out of the city’s 1,400-plus licenses.
Of those 10, he said, only two licenses are currently in use at restaurants in the neighborhood, where more than 90 percent of residents are people of color. And those pair of licenses actually represent an improvement; there was a time not long ago when Mattapan did not have a single restaurant that served alcohol.
“We definitely need equity in liquor licenses in the city of Boston,” said Worrell during an interview in his City Hall office earlier this week.
Worrell also pointed out that Blue Hill Avenue, a street that cuts from Mattapan Square through Dorchester, into Grove Hall, and toward Nubian Square in Roxbury, only has six restaurant liquor licenses along its entire 4-mile stretch. The thoroughfare is considered to be one of Boston’s most historic corridors but also one of its most neglected.
The proposal is part of an effort to help spur local restaurants and small business growth, particularly in areas that somewhat missed out on Boston’s pre-pandemic restaurant boom. The measure stipulates that the additional licenses should go to establishments that have a capacity of fewer than 50 people.
Boston has long been frustrated by state law that dictates how many liquor licenses there are in the city, and by opposition from some of the restaurant industry’s power players to any effort to change those laws. Some industry insiders worry that flooding the market with new licenses will devalue existing ones, which can fetch six figures on the open market. But the home rule petition’s backers say that such a price tag can be a barrier to entry for many prospective restaurateurs, particularly Black and brown entrepreneurs.
The additional licenses would be nontransferable, meaning they would be given to restaurant owners at no cost, but would revert back to city authorities if the original receiving restaurant closed down. Transferable, nonrestricted licenses can be bought and sold by restaurant owners on the open market.
A breakdown of the number of restricted versus nonrestricted liquor licenses currently in the city was not immediately available Wednesday. As of spring 2020, there were more than eight times the number of nonrestricted licenses in the city versus restricted ones, according to city authorities.
“We want to be targeted and intentional,” said Worrell this week.
City leaders have advocated for more licenses, and other reforms in that sector, for years. As a city councilor, Representative Ayanna Pressley pushed through reforms that created 75 new licenses. Former mayor Martin J. Walsh and current Councilor Frank Baker have also pressed for more licenses in years past. In 2020, Councilor Lydia Edwards broached liquor licensing reform, raising the prospect of the city buying liquor licenses from struggling establishments and leasing such licenses back to establishment operators.
Before Wednesday’s meeting, another sponsor of the petition, Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune said there are barriers to capital for many small business, particularly ones that are Black or brown-owned. Her proposal is “an attempt to be creative about the types of liquor licenses we can offer to businesses that are just starting out,” said Louijeune.
“We do think there is a need,” she said.
Since 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the city has granted exactly one nontransferable liquor license, for the Charles River Speedway in Brighton.
Louijeune said that having nontransferable licenses available but underutilized in certain neighborhoods would constitute a “better problem to have” than simply not having enough licenses.
A third sponsor of the measure, Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, said during Wednesday’s meeting, “Frankly, the liquor license process is a little arcane and I don’t really believe beneficial to business in the city, period.”
“Other cities that have different liquor license processes, have healthier restaurant industries,” he said.
On Wednesday, the matter was referred to the council’s government operations committee, where language of the petition could be changed in working sessions. The proposal would need City Council and mayoral approval before it would head to the state Legislature for consideration.
Restaurants were among the industries hardest-hit by COVID-19, and, as Boston emerges from the pandemic, there have been local controversies in that sector. For instance, there was recently uproar among some North End restaurateurs over a $7,500 outdoor dining fee. Other establishments across the city said they found new outdoor seating guidelines to be confusing and burdensome.
Milton J. Valencia and Jon Chesto of Globe staff contributed to this report.