fb-pixelBoston goes begging on Beacon Hill for more liquor licenses - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Boston goes begging on Beacon Hill for more liquor licenses

Key economic generator is held captive to an ancient system with a sad history.

Mayor Michelle Wu and members of the Boston City Council have vowed to change current liquor license scarcity — to allow all corners of this city to benefit from the prosperity and the lively street life that something as simple as a restaurant can bring.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

A last gasp of summer this week — just made for an outdoor patio and a glass of chilled rose — was a timely reminder that in this city of neighborhoods, not all neighborhoods are equal. Not all neighborhoods can boast of blocks filled with lively restaurants or cafes. And even when the cute little neighborhood place exists, that glass of rose may prove elusive.

Mayor Michelle Wu and members of the Boston City Council have vowed to change that — to allow all corners of this city to benefit from the prosperity and the lively street life that something as simple as a restaurant can bring.


But liquor licenses are a scarce commodity in Boston — a commodity tightly controlled by the Massachusetts Legislature — and, as any economist can tell you, scarce means expensive. With the going price of a liquor license now in the stratospheric range of around $600,000, that puts it out of reach for that little neighborhood joint.

“As someone born and raised in Mattapan, I am disheartened every time someone asks me, ‘Where can I go sit down in Mattapan and have dinner and a drink,’ ” Boston City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune told a legislative committee Monday. “Because the answer is nowhere.”

Louijeune was among those testifying in favor of Boston’s home rule petition to increase the number of liquor licenses by 250 over a five-year period, making those new licenses available only in 10 ZIP codes that include such currently underserved neighborhoods as Mattapan, Hyde Park, Roxbury, Roslindale, Dorchester, and East Boston, and making those licenses nontransferable. In the event a licensed business closes, its license will revert back to the city — and cannot be sold on the open market. So that new license granted to a restaurant in Hyde Park won’t end up being bought up by a big-bucks super chef who wants a new Seaport location.


“We are, I believe, in such dire need of licenses across the board that we very well may be coming back to you in the future as we see where things go,” Wu told the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure. “Very likely we will need more as the success grows.”

That the mayor of Boston has to go hat in hand to members of the Massachusetts Legislature each time the city wants to grow its restaurant industry or spiff up its nightlife by issuing new liquor licenses is itself something of a disgrace. The system goes back to post-prohibition days when the Yankee-dominated power brokers on Beacon Hill didn’t trust the Irish-dominated city government to do the job themselves.

The dominant power brokers on the Hill have changed, but the desire of lawmakers to be the ones who hand out such largesse as a new round of liquor licenses has not abated. Each year the Legislature deals with dozens of similar home rule petitions from communities looking generally for a handful of new licenses.

Boston’s request is of a whole other order of magnitude, but then Boston’s allotment of licenses has grown only modestly since that original 1933 number. Today the city has some 1,400 liquor licenses, including 75 restricted licenses reserved for specific neighborhoods, granted as part of legislation passed in 2014.


It was those more recently granted licenses that lawmakers on the committee, such as Representative Joan Meschino of Hull, zeroed in on, suggesting they were going unused. Boston Licensing Board Chair Kathleen Joyce pushed back, insisting if any licenses remained from that group it would be in the “single digits.”

What Meschino did succeed in underscoring is the inherent unfairness of having a representative from Hull weighing in on how many licenses are available — and therefore how many new restaurants can open — in Boston’s neighborhoods.

But no one gives up power willingly — certainly not on Beacon Hill. So Boston is stuck with the state’s nearly century-old system and a license cap that has hardly budged during those years. Its only recourse at the moment is to try to convince lawmakers of the inherent inequity of the current distribution of liquor licenses — a system that favors wealthy neighborhoods and, according to a recent study, largely white neighborhoods.

Offsite, a restaurant training and development firm in Boston, last year found that in four of Boston’s “whitest” neighborhoods (75 percent white or more) there was one license issued for every 309 residents. But in the city’s eight majority-minority neighborhoods that number fell to one license for every 1,393 residents.

That study also attempts to counter the myth that new restricted licenses will lower the value of existing unrestricted ones — an issue that seemed to concern some legislators. Nick Korn, a partner at Offsite, told the committee that the price of unrestricted licenses continued to rise even after those 75 restricted licenses were released after 2014.


The 50 new restricted licenses a year “will not have a demonstrable impact” on the value of existing ones, he told the committee. But it can hardly be emphasized enough that it’s not the Legislature’s job to protect the value of a speculative investment. Even if creating new licenses did dilute the value of existing licenses, that can’t possibly be more important to Beacon Hill than making the Commonwealth’s communities more lively and livable.

Lawmakers, including committee cochair Representative Tackey Chan of Quincy, have hardly been in a rush to deal with the Boston bill, which was filed in early April. The capital city deserves more respect than it gets on Beacon Hill — especially on an issue it has identified as important to its economic growth and to achieving equity for its diverse neighborhoods.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.