In 1976, I was working as special assistant and speechwriter to Boston Mayor Kevin White when we adopted a change to the municipal code to require every employee of the city to be a resident. At the time, Boston had been hemorrhaging people at an alarming rate, down by 200,000 over 20 years. Our thinking was that if we could keep city employees within Boston’s borders, it would maintain population and slow neighborhood deterioration. It would also recycle the wages paid to employees back into Boston’s own economy.
The thriving Boston of 2015 is an entirely different animal. Our population is growing, not declining; neighborhoods once in free fall are enviable places to live; housing prices are in the stratosphere and still climbing; we enjoy a reputation as one of the world centers of innovation. In such a city, a residency requirement makes no sense. In fact, it represents a self-inflicted wound in our necessary efforts to attract the best possible talent to city government.
Even without a residency requirement, attracting talent to city government is extremely difficult. There was a big wage gap between the public and private sectors back in 1976, but it has widened considerably since then.
Since the conditions that called for the original residency requirement have disappeared, it is just another impediment to obtaining the best possible talent with no real rationale or payoff. And to believe, as some apparently do, that living in the city will make workers more committed is an insult to the professionalism of the many in the public workforce who have been exempted from the requirement right along.
This raises another defect: the roughly 40-year history of the requirement reveals that it has been impossible to administer fairly and that even long-time city officials are “confused” about who is really subject to it.
Finally, a Globe story this week makes it clear that some senior members of the Walsh administration are disrupting their personal lives in order to comply, at least technically, with the residency requirement.
This Boston resident would like to free them to concentrate on their jobs.
Mayor Walsh was right to seek an overhaul of the residency requirement. But what we really should do is recognize it for the relic that it is. Junk it.
Paul S. Grogan is president and CEO of the Boston Foundation.