Opinion

RENÉE LOTH

Boston is losing out by not adopting the Community Preservation Act

Gloucester residents have used Community Preservation Act funds to restore Depression-era WPA murals like Charles Allan Winter's "Poetry" (1936), installed around the city clerk's door.
Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe
Gloucester residents have used Community Preservation Act funds to restore Depression-era WPA murals like Charles Allan Winter's "Poetry" (1936), installed around the city clerk's door.

Those lucky folks in Acton. Over the past several years, they have purchased more than 30 acres of farmland and open space, created a wildflower garden and accessible boardwalk at the Acton Arboretum, and started work on their section of a 22-mile rail trail from Lowell to Framingham. In Gloucester, residents have leveraged funding for 80 units of affordable elderly housing in an old grammar school, replaced historic lead glass windows at the Cape Ann museum, and restored Depression-era WPA murals at City Hall. In Cambridge, they have preserved hundreds of affordable rental units that were about to expire, stabilized an eroding slope at Fresh Pond to protect drinking water, and transferred millions of dollars into a housing trust fund.

All these communities – and 157 others – recognize the value of protecting their economic, environmental, and cultural assets through the state’s Community Preservation Act. So what’s the matter with Boston?

Fifteen years after then-governor Paul Cellucci signed the law allowing individual communities to add a small surcharge to their property taxes — to be used for affordable housing, open space acquisition, or historic preservation — Boston still has not joined. There’s been plenty of time to overcome initial misgivings that the law would chill the real estate market or harm large corporate property owners. Because the CPA also provides for a 30 percent state match for every dollar raised by local communities, some estimate that Boston has forgone as much as $300 million over the years. Indeed, in 2012 the Legislature sweetened incentives for big cities to join by allowing money for related purposes, such as housing linkage fees assessed on developers, to be eligible for the state match.

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Now the Boston City Council can offer residents a chance to get in on a good thing. At a hearing Tuesday, councilors will consider an ordinance that would place the question of Boston’s participation in the CPA on the November ballot. “The city is looking for creative ways to generate more funding,” said Councilor Andrea Campbell, who along with Councilor Michael Flaherty is a cosponsor of the measure. “If we truly want to address the affordable housing crisis, for example, we need to look for more tools.”

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If approved by voters, Boston’s version of the CPA would assess a tiny surcharge — one percent — on all property tax bills, with exemptions for seniors and low-income homeowners. The average tax increase for a residential property would be about $23. Unlike other revenues, voters can trace exactly where their money is going, through a database maintained by the Community Preservation Coalition, a group of nonprofit advocates. The hyperlocal specificity of the law is a big reason for its popularity. No community that has signed on to the CPA in the past 15 years has even considered repealing it.

In 2001, Boston voters defeated a similar proposal to join the CPA with a 2 percent surcharge. That vote came weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, in a low-turnout municipal election, and the law was still brand new. Now, with 160 cities and towns as diverse as Needham and New Bedford participating, some of the initial opposition has melted away. Of course, the Council’s actions would be only the start of a long education campaign to explain to Boston residents what the CPA will cost — and to understand its benefits.

Boston is undergoing the greatest development boom in at least 30 years, with the multimillion dollar condos glistening on the waterfront and rents in the stratosphere. Longtime residents in the neighborhoods can’t keep up. The CPA is a chance to leverage some of this growth to counterbalance the baleful trend toward increasing disparities in the city. It’s a simple tool, and a crucial one.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.