Proposal could charge landlords for empty storefronts, luxury units
Call them the luxury eyesores, or “high-end blight,” as City Councilor Matthew O’Malley describes these vacant units in otherwise bustling neighborhoods.
Think of the Hyde Square building on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain that used to house the Bella Luna & the Milky Way restaurant and bowling facility — it’s been vacant since high rents forced the business to relocate.
According to city officials and housing advocates, landlords looking to bank off a booming real estate market are keeping storefronts in business districts and luxury apartments in residential units vacant as they await tenants willing to pay higher rents.
This has created forms of blight that have taken over neighborhoods, O’Malley says, and the city should address it.
“What we’re seeing in increased frequency and severity is that vacant storefronts and buildings are staying vacant for longer and longer periods of time,” said O’Malley, whose district includes Jamaica Plain. “It’s having an obviously detrimental impact to the rest of shopping and residential district.”
O’Malley has requested a council hearing to examine how the city can collect data on how many storefronts and luxury apartments over 50,000-square-feet remain vacant, for how long, and whether the city can issue a fee for landlords who choose to keep properties empty.
The fee could help fund housing affordability initiatives for business owners and renters, or could help reduce property taxes for occupied properties, O’Malley said.
“I do think there are certain tools that we can use when these buildings and these storefronts remain vacant for longer than they [should],” he said. The full council will consider the request at a meeting Wednesday.
The request comes as concerns continue to grow about the long-term effects of the city’s booming real estate market.
After a year of stagnation, Boston’s rents are once again beginning to rise.
The council held a separate meeting Tuesday on speculation of the housing market — or when landlords force out tenants because they know they can charge higher rents.
City officials say such data can be difficult to track and regulate.
Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief of housing, told councilors in prepared remarks that “the city is very concerned when real estate speculation and more generally real estate activity . . . is associated with the displacement of Boston’s residents.”
O’Malley said his hearing would focus on vacant storefronts.
Cities such as Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco have recently explored or implemented similar disincentives, such as fees for landlords who keep storefronts vacant, he said.
In Cambridge, councilors have asked the city manager to look into requiring property owners to give written notice when a storefront becomes vacant, including plans for finding a new tenant and keeping the premises safe.
“A stronger economy would [typically] mean fewer vacancies, when in fact prices are so untenable for people it creates these vacancies,” O’Malley said.
“You drive down any business district in Boston, you’re going to see increased vacancies . . . you see places that remain empty years and years and years, and it has a detrimental affect on the neighborhood,” he added.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s Office of Economic Development said in a statement: “We look forward to reviewing the proposal and any opportunities that strengthen Boston’s small business economy.”