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In first budget, Wu prioritizes affordable housing

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu's proposed budget would spend $380 million in city and federal funds to build new affordable housing units, to preserve existing public housing stock, and to help low-and-middle-income residents purchase their first homes.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Mayor Michelle Wu’s first city budget features a substantial commitment to affordable housing programs, a plan that includes using a considerable chunk of Boston’s share of federal COVID relief money on housing priorities, drawing praise from affordable housing advocates.

Wu’s proposal would spend $380 million in city and federal funds to build new affordable housing units, preserve existing public housing stock, and help low- and middle-income residents purchase their first homes. That total includes a one-time investment of $206 million in federal COVID relief funds, a significant portion of the available federal money.

“It’s the signal that this sends, as far as priorities go, to make such a significant investment in improving the affordability and availability of housing in this city, in every neighborhood,” said Josh Zakim, a former city councilor who now runs Housing Forward-MA, an organization that researches and studies housing policies in the state.

He noted that housing costs often rank as the top concern among city residents in public surveys and polls, and Wu has proposed spending on a range of programs, from preserving public housing stock to supporting the construction of new affordable housing units. He said the availability of federal COVID relief funds, even though they are a one-time funding source, presents a prime opportunity for a swift investment in housing.

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“That’s exactly what one-time money should be used for, these things that will pay dividends over time,” he said. “If we’re going to build wealth and stability in our communities, helping folks buy their homes in the city of Boston is incredibly important.”

Wu’s budget also follows through on a promise she made during last year’s competitive race for mayor to focus on ways to combat the city’s housing crunch, recognizing that too many Bostonians are getting priced out of the city.

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“Probably in all of the city’s history, there has never been this kind of investment … in housing issues,” Sheila Dillon, the city’s longtime chief of housing, told reporters Wednesday. “These investments are not going to solve all of our housing issues, even with that level of investment. But I believe they will have an impact ... we’re going to look back and point to real change, and real accomplishment.”

The mayor’s proposed budget would invest in new housing as well as programs that help people stay in their homes. It includes a proposed $1.2 million in new spending for housing and case management services to help more people experiencing homelessness find places to live; and $644,000 to expand services such as legal assistance for renters facing eviction proceedings.

Wu also proposed an additional $2.5 million on a housing voucher program, expanding existing rental support for those most in need, including elderly and disabled residents.

Overall, the city’s housing cabinet would grow by $6.5 million, or 18.3 percent above fiscal 2022 levels, with new staff to run expanded programs.

Of the federal funding, the Wu administration proposed spending at least $173 million on support for homebuyers and to improve conditions in public housing, as well as to maintain temporary shelters. Within that total, Wu proposed the following:

  • $60 million to promote homeownership for low- and moderate-income residents;
  • $57 million to use city owned land and to acquire properties on the private market that could then be sold or rented as affordable housing;
  • $20 million to retrofit affordable housing units to reduce greenhouse gas emissions;
  • $20 million on rapidly developing new permanent supportive housing with specialized services for people struggling with substance use disorder;
  • $16 million to maintain temporary low-threshold shelter sites in response to the humanitarian crisis in the Mass. and Cass area, the center of the city’s opioid and homelessness epidemic.

Meredith Levy, executive director of the Boston Neighborhood Community Land Trust, praised the mayor’s commitment to housing programs, specifically the proposed spending on property acquisition, though she was waiting to hear more details. Community land trusts such as Levy’s organization work to buy properties to make them available in ways that benefit the community, such as as affordable housing, and she welcomed any effort by the mayor to keep property from private investors who would rather capitalize on Boston’s booming real estate market.

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“We’ve got to get ahead of this situation right now, and we’re behind it,” Levy said. “But what better investment to make than investing in property and land, and being able to take that land off the speculative market.”

She added, “Right now, every single day, we’re competing against cash buyers who are flipping buildings and then removing them from the reach of people who are living in our neighborhoods. ... This literally takes those properties out of harm’s way.”

The mayor also proposed new spending on public housing, the housing available for Boston’s residents with the lowest incomes, including $52 million preserve the Mildred C. Hailey apartments in Jamaica Plain, one of the city’s largest public housing complexes. Another $10 million would support partial redevelopment of the Mary Ellen McCormack complex in South Boston.

Lydia Agro, chief of staff at the Boston Housing Authority, which runs the city’s public housing stock, called the investment a “substantial commitment” and “really a game changer for preservation of public housing in the city.”

“It will secure housing for our very low income households, for generations to come,” she said. “It demonstrates a real commitment to public housing communities in our city.”

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Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.