The Boston City Council on Wednesday approved a spending plan for $367 million in federal pandemic relief funds, making an unprecedented one-time investment in housing and laying a foundation for Mayor Michelle Wu’s most ambitious priorities, including a municipal Green New Deal.
Those allocations, which were approved without opposition despite hours of debate in recent weeks, draw from the 2021 American Rescue Plan, a federal recovery effort that gave local and state governments enormous sums of money — and enormous flexibility on how to spend them.
While many large US cities have directed most or all of the relief funds toward closing COVID-related budget shortfalls, Boston is using the balance for housing, public and behavioral health, child care, the arts, and the environment. That’s an indication, analysts say, both of the city’s financial health and its leaders’ priorities; Wu, a mayor who says she is intent on transforming the city, entered office just after the city received a potentially transformative sum of money.
“We are extraordinarily lucky that we get to have a conversation in the city of Boston about how to spend this money,” said councilor Kenzie Bok, who led legislative efforts on the plan. “Every one of these things is something that’s urgent, something that needed to be done yesterday. And normally, frankly, we would not have the opportunity to spend $367 million on all of those things.”
The largest chunk of the funds, just over $200 million, will be spent on housing efforts, including developing affordable units on city-owned land and assisting first-time homebuyers. Other investments marry the city’s housing program with its environmental priorities. The funds will be used to upgrade public housing units to improve air quality and energy efficiency, for example.
Those investments lay the groundwork for the Green New Deal Wu has proposed, said Mariama White-Hammond, the city’s environment chief, referring to a wide-ranging package of policies that aim to tackle the climate crisis alongside issues of economic inequality and environmental racism.
White-Hammond heralded city efforts such as the electrification of school buses and investments in farmers’ markets and rooftop gardens. The spending plan also funds a new green jobs initiative for youth, tree maintenance, a composting program, and bike lane infrastructure.
“ARPA has created this sort of fund for the big things that you just probably couldn’t have pulled off on your own,” White-Hammond said. Without the federal funds, she said, some Green New Deal efforts would have been deployed at a smaller scale or put off for years.
“Having that resource to dream bigger — it’s invaluable,” she said.
The spending plan also includes tens of millions of dollars for the arts, child care, and the public health response to COVID-19, including vaccination, testing efforts, and the distribution of personal protective equipment.
Wu praised the council for backing the plan “to create lasting, transformational impact.”
“Our federal recovery funds are a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move urgently on community needs and invest in making Boston a Green New Deal city,” she said in a statement. “From funding for mental health to small businesses, early education to climate resiliency, we will deliver on the possibilities for our families today and for generations to come.”
Twelve of the 13 councilors voted for the proposal, but one, Tania Fernandes Anderson, walked out of the chamber before the vote after an impassioned speech criticizing the package. She argued the plan does not do enough for the people of color she represents in neighborhoods such as Roxbury and Dorchester.
“How is it that ARPA dollars that are supposed to be for Black and brown people... are not going to help Black and brown people?” she asked, arguing that the plan’s affordable housing investments would not help her constituents. “I think that we can do better and we should do better.”
Several other councilors gave brief speeches praising aspects of the plan.
The package approved Wednesday closely resembles the $349.5 million proposal Wu laid out in April, with roughly $12 million reshuffled and about $18 million added to reflect city councilors’ priorities. Those include $2 million for a neighborhood arts project in Roxbury and $5 million for a fieldhouse in Dorchester, a project Councilor Frank Baker fought for aggressively.
When the council considered the proposal late last month, Baker’s advocacy for the field house delayed the vote. Bok warned that Wu will veto that item, but it was included in the version that the council passed this week.