Walsh backs tax hike for community works
The bid to boost property tax bills in Boston by 1 percent to raise money for housing and parks gained a big ally Wednesday: the mayor.
At a boisterous news conference on sunny City Hall Plaza, Mayor Martin J. Walsh gave his full-throated support to the measure, which appears headed toward a citywide vote in November.
“I’m all in. We’re all in,” Walsh, surrounded by city officials, told a crowd of supporters of the ballot campaign and curious passersby. “And we’re not in this to lose on the ballot in November.”
The plan would establish a Community Preservation Act in Boston, levying a 1 percent property tax surcharge to fund programs for housing, open space, and historic preservation. The city estimates it could raise $16.5 million and bring matching state funds of at least $5 million or more.
That money would be split among the three categories, in amounts to be determined by a city committee. While Walsh said he supports all three needs, he spoke Wednesday with greatest urgency about the need to fund more housing, which has become a top priority of his. The preservation act, he said, is a way to harness surging real estate values to help everyday Bostonians.
“It really comes down to building more housing,” he said. “We can not have a city just of haves and have-nots. We have to do better than that.”
Walsh stayed on the sidelines when a coalition of community groups first proposed the preservation act earlier this year and watched as it garnered strong support on the City Council — which must vote to put the measure on the ballot. But after studying it, Walsh jumped on board. And he did so much earlier in the process than then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino did in 2001, when he waited until a few days before Election Day to endorse a 2 percent preservation surcharge, which voters rejected.
Walsh’s early, enthusiastic support could be a difference-maker, said Councilor Michael Flaherty, who proposed the measure in 2001 and has been leading City Council efforts this time around. The council will discuss the plan next week and a vote to put it on the ballot could come soon thereafter.
“Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and start this campaign,” Flaherty said.
It’s no slam dunk. While 160 cities and towns across Massachusetts have voted to adopt such a surcharge, voters have rejected it 113 times, according to data from the Community Preservation Coalition, including 15 years ago in Boston,
But this time supporters have built a broad coalition, and the measure faces no organized opposition so far. While a few commercial real estate groups — whose members pay significantly higher tax rates than homeowners in Boston — have raised some questions about the plan, they’ve ultimately decided to remain neutral between now and November.
“If the voters want to tax themselves, so be it,” said Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.
Supporters note the Community Preservation Act will only cost the average Boston homeowner $28 a year. And they say the housing it will fund could help more working-class Bostonians stay in the city. Carlos Vargas, an insurance agent in Dorchester, said he sees many of his clients being squeezed out by high housing prices.
“People can’t afford to buy a home,” he said. “Our customers want to stay here and build a life here. I think [this] will help more of them do that.”
While no decisions have been made on how the funding might be allocated if the act is passed, Walsh’s housing chief Sheila Dillon said she’d push to use some on homeownership programs and housing for middle-income residents. The city money would have fewer strings attached to it than federal housing funding, which is in some ways harder to use. That gives these funds the potential to be extra valuable, said Vanessa Calderon-Rosado, chief executive of Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion, a community development group in the South End.
“It could mean a lot of additional units,” she said. “This is a great time for affordable housing in the city.”