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Under Wu, residency waivers for Boston municipal jobs have spiked. Does it matter?

The high cost of living in Boston has brought more questions about the residency policy for city workers.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Under Mayor Michelle Wu, the number of waivers allowing prospective city workers to live outside the city has skyrocketed, allowing her administration to effectively bypass decades-old requirements as it scrambles to fill essential jobs.

There were 357 positions in 2022 for which the residency requirement was waived. During the previous year, which featured three mayors at City Hall and a still-raging COVID-19 pandemic, there were 68, all of which were linked to the lifeguard shortage, a well-documented problem that prompted the closure of some public pools last year.

In 2022, the waivers spanned 13 job titles, including those lifeguard posts, various camp counseling positions, registered nurses, food access monitors, bus monitors, 911 dispatchers, a conservation officer, and arborists. Additionally, 50 new police officer positions were granted waivers, allocated for officers who transferred from other agencies to BPD, according to figures from Wu’s office. Such hirings would be allowed to circumvent the initial residency requirement, through waivers that would give the transfers six months to move into the city.

Such moves took place amid a tight job market and a shrinking labor pool. The Wu administration has insisted it “narrowly targeted” residency waivers “to specific positions and critical services where job vacancies have been especially pressing on the city.”

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“The Wu Administration stands firmly behind the Residency Ordinance,” a city statement read.

The residency requirements have long been a hallmark of many municipal jobs in Boston, as an effort to keep jobs for people who are from or currently live in the city. But increasingly, workers and politicians are acknowledging that parts of the policy are outdated, with critics saying it handcuffs some employees to a city they can no longer afford.

Emma, a thirty-something preschool administrator whose wife works as a city librarian, has been tied to living in Boston because of the requirements.

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Years ago, a burst hose in their washing machine rotted the floorboards of their Brighton apartment, and the landlord would not fix them until the couple moved, Emma said. They had discussed starting a family, but a child needs a better place to call home. Since they couldn’t afford to move anywhere else at the time, Emma said, they remained in the apartment for another year-and-a-half until they were able to leave.

”Trapped is a bad word, but we’ve been really trapped by the residency requirement,” said Emma, who asked to be identified by only her first name and for her spouse to not be identified because she is a city employee not cleared to speak with the media.

Although the couple have since moved into another Brighton home, they are still tied to the city for the foreseeable future. As a librarian, Emma’s wife must maintain city residency for 10 years, but she’s only had the job less than five.

“It needs to be each person’s individual choice, not the city government saying we’re only going to pay you this much but you have to stay in the city,” she said.

The uptick in waivers for taxpayer-funded city jobs under the Wu administration raises the question: How much should residency for municipal jobs matter in a city where housing prices continue to soar, a cost-of-living crunch squeezes the working and middle classes, and native Bostonians are continually priced out of neighborhoods in which they grew up?

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The ordinance plainly states that new employees “shall be a resident of the City of Boston, and shall not cease to be a resident of the City of Boston during his employment by the City.”

It also allows the mayor to grant a waiver if a post requires a “unique set of skills” that would make it difficult to fill. Waivers have to be ratified by a majority of the Residency Compliance Commission, the board in charge of making findings on residency compliance, according to the ordinance.

However, there are exceptions and nuances to the ordinance, with different residency rules for different departments. Wu’s administration said employees must comply with the residency requirements in their respective collective bargaining agreement. For instance, police and fire union members are allowed to move out of Boston after 10 years. Currently, more than 70 percent of both police and fire personnel call the city home.

Last year’s waivers for the various posts ran the gamut of the city’s pay scale. Police are often the most well-compensated city employees, with some earning hundreds of thousands of dollars annually thanks to overtime, detail pay, and other stipends, while lifeguards can make about $50,000 a year, according to a review of payroll records.

The 350-plus waivers represent a small fraction of the 19,000-strong municipal workforce. All told, almost 79 percent of non-school-district city workers live in Boston, according to the Wu administration. State law actually prohibits requiring educators to live in a specific school district, so all Boston Public Schools teachers are exempt from the residency requirement, according to a BPS spokesperson. Even with that caveat, nearly 58 percent of BPS personnel live in Boston, according to Wu’s office.

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John Nucci, a former city councilor who voted for residency requirements while on the council, said, “It’s long been a vote I wished I had back.”

“Particularly in these days, it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “The cost of housing, the cost of living, it makes it impossible for the people on the lower end of the pay scale to live in the city.”

Wu’s waivers, he said, “shows flexibility, an awareness that certain positions are hard to fill, and it shows she’s looking for the best person for the job.”

Cambridge has no such requirements for its municipal workers. Somerville is effectively in the same boat, because it is not enforcing any residency requirements for its workers.

In Worcester, police and firefighters are required to live within 15 miles of the city, and new employees in one government union that represents 425 city workers must establish residency in the city within a year of being hired, according to a city spokesman. So, too, must the city’s executive managers. The city manager has the discretion to waive a residency requirement under extenuating circumstances.

Boston City Council President Ed Flynn said the Wu administration “allowed some waivers for positions in critical services that were difficult to fill last year.”

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“I support doing this in these specific cases to make sure residents get the city services they need and deserve,” he said.

Still, city elected officials such as Councilor Erin Murphy stand by the oft-repeated mantra, “city jobs for city kids.”

“I understand that there may be many factors in play, like staffing shortages and high cost of living and many city jobs are low paying,” she said in a statement. “But we should still be committed to doing everything possible to hire city residents first.”

However, some like Councilor Frank Baker said the issue became more complex in recent years.

Baker said historically he has supported residency requirements. But now he wonders, “How are we asking people making 45 grand to live in the city, when the cost of living is totally insane?”

But for higher end earners, “people that are decision makers, the cabinets, the chiefs, they should live in the city,” he said.

Sam Tyler, the former president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city watchdog group, said the residency requirement never made sense.

“It never was a good government initiative or better management initiative, it basically required people to live in the city so they would vote in the city,” he said. “It’s really an out-of-date policy that hurts the city — it doesn’t help the city in any way that I can tell.”



Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald.