Is a property tax surcharge coming to Boston?
The push to boost property taxes in Boston to fund housing, parks, and historic preservation will face a key test Tuesday when City Council members hold a public hearing.
Housing advocates are leading a campaign to create a Community Preservation Act in Boston, with a 1 percent surcharge on property tax bills. It would generate as much as $20 million a year. They’re aiming for a spot on November’s ballot, saying the funding could help to ease Boston’s housing crunch while paying for new parks and historic rehabilitation work.
“We think this is a great opportunity to make this city a better place for everyone,” said Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Council of Community Development Corporations, who is leading the effort. “We have a broad, inclusive coalition working on this.”
To get on the ballot, the measure needs the City Council’s blessing. Backers say they have broad support, and even skeptics expect a citywide vote.
However, Boston voters have been asked before to adopt such a tax and have said no, turning down a 2 percent surcharge in 2001. This time, the proposed surcharge is smaller. The 1 percent tax bump would apply after exempting the first $100,000 of a house’s assessed value. Kriesberg said the average homeowner would pay $23 a year. That would raise an estimated $13 million.
State matching funds could supply as much as $7 million more.
The 2001 vote also came just a year after the preservation act was adopted. Today, more than 160 cities and towns across the state have implemented it, generating more than $1.6 billion for some 8,000 projects, according to the Community Preservation Coalition.
The money, for example, has financed the Assabet River Rail Trail in Acton, restoration of light fixtures at Thomas Crane Library in Quincy, and more than 9,400 units of affordable housing. It’s being used to fund housing in ways that less-flexible federal programs can’t, Kriesberg said, such as for a program in Somerville that helps community development groups acquire rental housing.
“I don’t mean to suggest the CPA is a panacea that will solve all our housing challenges,” Kriesberg said. “But it is a step in the right direction.”
At this point, though, it’s not clear how much would go to housing.
State law sets broad guidelines, saying only that at least 10 percent of each year’s funds must go toward each category. The balance would be determined by a city committee that would be created if the act is approved.
That uncertainty gives skeptics pause.
David Begelfer, chief executive of the real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts, wants specifics.
“What are you going to do with the money?” Begelfer said. “If you’re going to come up with new taxes I’d like to hear someone sit down and say, ‘We’re going to do the following things.’ ”
And while developers are quick to support the broad goals, they note that real estate interests are already being asked to fund many other initiatives in Boston.
A new property tax would come on the heels of increased set-asides for affordable housing required in new apartment buildings, which took effect in January. The city is also mulling a higher fee on commercial development to fund housing and job-training programs. And Boston’s property tax structure is tilted toward taxing commercial real estate at a higher rate than residential.
It all adds up, said Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.
“It’s a cumulative effect that we really have to look at. What does this all mean for people living and doing business in Boston?” he said. “You can’t just keep coming back to the trough.”
Still, even the critics say they expect the City Council to push the plan forward. All they’re being asked to do, Vasil said, is put the matter on the ballot. Saying no sounds anti-democratic.
“It’s a vote to let the people decide,” he said. “That’s an easy pass for them.”