Can the Boston business community rescue the city’s vanishing middle class?
That’s essentially the challenge that Mayor Marty Walsh put to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. His annual speeches to the chamber typically include requests of the executives in the room. This ask was a particularly big one.
Walsh called on the business community for help with respect to transportation, schools, and local hiring. But housing was emphasized the most. Boston has had no problem attracting luxury condo developers, and Walsh boasted about the city’s success with income-restricted affordable housing.
Homes that work for the middle class? That’s another story entirely.
First, Walsh urged the roughly 700 people in the room to support Governor Charlie Baker’s “Housing Choice” bill, in part to help the mayor’s colleagues in nearby communities shepherd projects through city council and town meeting votes. This legislation would reduce the voting threshold needed to pass housing-related zoning changes to a simple majority, from a two-thirds majority. Baker and his team have been touring the state to promote the bill. But Baker’s Housing Choice Palooza tour hasn’t yet dislodged it from its State House morass. (Interesting side note: It would apply to all cities and towns except Boston.)
Then, Walsh urged developers to build more middle-income housing. As a former union leader in the construction trades, Walsh knows as much as anyone about the litany of costs that go into building in this city. Walsh said he understands that developers need to make a profit, but it should be balanced with community impact.
Walsh committed his aides to helping anyone who tries to meet the crying need for more middle-income homes. But he didn’t offer much, by way of specifics, in terms of the carrots and sticks to make that happen. He knows the concoction of public subsidies behind one building of mid-priced units, The Beverly — a Related Beal-developed complex near the TD Garden largely devoted to “workforce housing” — could be hard to replicate. Perhaps the private-sector partnerships that are remaking some of the city’s public housing campuses might be good vehicles. But simply asking developers to take a haircut could be a tough sell, particularly when big out-of-town investors often call the shots.
Walsh’s call to action was also aimed at the city’s major employers. While Walsh didn’t provide substantive details about what he wanted from the big companies in the room, possible solutions could resemble the approaches that some West Coast tech companies are taking.
Microsoft, for example, unveiled plans in January to commit $500 million to housing in the Puget Sound region, primarily by making loans to developers. A week later, a group of businesses and philanthropies pledged a similar amount for affordable housing in the San Francisco Bay area.
And Google chief executive Sundar Pichai announced in June that his company will invest $1 billion in housing efforts in the Bay area, mostly through the rezoning of commercial land it owns. While Boston lacks a marquee company equal in size and might to Microsoft and Google, these ideas might be replicated on a smaller scale here.
Walsh says he will work with Greater Boston Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney to bring chamber members together with city officials, to brainstorm potential solutions. Rooney expects those discussions will begin later this fall.
Let’s hope this works out better than the pitch Walsh made to the chamber four years ago for Boston Public Schools. The call to build stronger school-company ties sounded good at the time, but the concept quickly petered out. With new schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius on board, Walsh hopes to revive those discussions. In fact, Rooney and other businesspeople plan to meet with Cassellius on Wednesday to do exactly that.
All this talk about saving the middle class isn’t just altruism.
Income inequality is a perennial issue in Boston’s elections, and the housing dilemma has vexed the business community as employers strain to find the best and brightest to fill open positions. Rooney likes to say that employers shouldn’t just sit around waiting for government to solve their problems. Now, the chamber gets its shot at tackling this one.