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Support builds for tax hike in Boston to boost housing

Mayor Walsh and others rallied in support of the Community Preservation Act for Boston on Thursday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In 2001, when community groups in Boston rallied to champion a new funding mechanism for affordable housing, they were met with skepticism from Mayor Thomas Menino and cynicism from some financial institutions.

The Community Preservation Act — which adds a nominal surcharge to property taxes to create revenue for housing, environmental protections, and historical preservation — was handily defeated. It was just months after September 11, when urban life seemed to teeter on a knife’s edge, and business groups opposed any tax increase in a faltering economy.

What a difference 15 years can make. As the measure returns in November to the Boston ballot for a second attempt at passage, the naysayers have been notably silent. And while it remains unclear whether voters will approve the tax increase, there’s widespread support for it among city leaders.


Mayor Martin J. Walsh, all but one member of the Boston City Council, and more than a dozen state legislators from Boston support the act. Some of those most likely to protest the measure — prominent business groups, taxpayer advocates, investment firms, and real estate boards — many of which derided it as ill-timed in 2001, have declined to publicly oppose the ballot question on Nov. 8.

Some believe the referendum has flown under the political radar because gobs of money, time, and political capital are being spent on the first four statewide ballot questions, which cover controversial topics such as marijuana legalization and charter school expansion.

Walsh attributed the shift to something simpler: a growing consciousness of the need for more moderate and low-income homes and rental units.

“For a 1 percent surcharge, the CPA will unlock tens of millions of dollars for housing every year, while protecting open space and historic buildings,” Walsh recently told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. At a “Yes on 5” rally in Dorchester on Thursday, Walsh said he’s “all about” using the act to build more affordable homes and rental units.


Walsh has an easier sell compared to supporters of the last attempt, in part because Boston has arrived fashionably late to the party. More than 160 cities and towns across Massachusetts have already adopted the tax, which was first made available to municipalities in 2000.

This election cycle, Boston is among at least one dozen communities statewide that are voting on a CPA tax increase, including Pittsfield, Holyoke, and Billerica.

The specifics can differ throughout the state, but in Boston, the 1 percent tax is expected to cost the average homeowner about $24 per year while generating an estimated $20 million annually in additional revenue, advocates said.

Thadine Brown, the treasurer of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance and a lifelong Bostonian, said voters should not only consider what the act would cost, but how much money could be lost if the housing crisis is not addressed.

“We want to keep young people and young professionals in the city,” Brown said. “To do that they have to be able to afford to live there.”

Brown and others stressed that the measure, which will be listed as Question 5 on the ballot, specifies that lower-income homeowners and seniors would be exempted from the tax.

In other cities and towns where the act is on the November ballot, some pro-business organizations have also expressed concern on the grounds of limiting additional taxes. City Councilor Bill Linehan opposes the measure, saying that although he supports the cause in spirit, he is against additional property taxes.


Fifteen years ago, many of these arguments helped defeat the act. Now, as the Greater Boston housing crisis has deepened and the average apartment rent has soared to $2,050 per month, these positions have been pushed to the background.

These days, grass-roots organizations such as Brown’s affordable housing alliance and the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization are undertaking a disciplined outreach effort to educate Boston residents on the measure’s potential impact, according to organizers.

Almost 30 church groups from across the region are holding themselves to a strict pledge. At a rally in September, each participating congregation promised to secure roughly 3,000 “yes” votes from Boston residents, and before Election Day, supporters plan to hold a rally on City Hall Plaza.

“We can’t just diagnose the problems with housing over and over again,” said Jeanette Callahan, a doctor who lives in Dudley Square and is organizing through her church to pass the November measure. “We keep thinking we’ve done something and we’ve done nothing. It’s time to look at a treatment plan.”

The motivation to organize, even without immediate opposition and widespread support from local politicians, comes from two places, leaders of the community groups said.

Some, like Thomas Callahan, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, cannot shake the disappointment of the 2001 defeat.

Back then, when the act was so new, “people were skeptical and there was discomfort with the law,” Callahan said. Now, “the housing crisis has deepened and worsened dramatically, and there’s an understanding on business leaders that the city needs to address the housing affordability crisis on all fronts.”


Others activists, such as clergyman John Edgerton of Old South Church, see the act as the first battle in a long-term war for Boston’s affordable housing.

Leaders characterized their effort as the beginning of a movement in which community groups would be better positioned to challenge powerful developers, politicians, and realty firms looking to build within Boston’s neighborhoods.

“We’re building a power base for affordable housing,” Edgerton said at a rally last month. “We need to turn out votes, so that when we say something regarding affordable housing, these politicians can take that to the bank.”

Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH..