LAST WEEK’S ELECTION news that Boston and 10 other cities and towns had adopted the Community Preservation Act was a bright sail on a mournful sea. From Springfield to Chelsea to Holyoke to Pittsfield, residents voted to raise their own taxes to pay for more housing, open space, or historic preservation. In Boston, the measure carried by 74 percent, greater than any of the other ballot questions save for the pro-chicken Question 3.
Thanks to the passage of the initiative, Boston will be able to tap into some $20 million per year in new revenue, including about $4 million in matching funds from the state. It will help make a dent in the huge unmet need for new housing in Boston — a city where more than half the residents now pay more than 30 percent of their incomes just for rent. It will restore aging historic structures that give Boston its distinctive character. And it will enhance the public realm with green spaces that encourage mobility, connection, and health.
Beyond specific program advantages, the votes last week also signaled a willingness by Massachusetts residents to look beyond their individual interests for the benefit of something larger. On a day when voters nationwide howled their personal grievances, harshly repudiating government as a vehicle to serve society’s needs, thousands in Massachusetts reaffirmed the bedrock agreement of democracy: that everyone’s shared contribution builds to a greater good.
“It’s a big statement of who we are as a city,” said Mayor Martin Walsh of Boston in an interview on Wednesday. “With all the anger and the rhetoric of the presidential campaign, over here people were willing to pay a little more to help out others who don’t have it.”
The Community Preservation Act is an important tool to mitigate the widening income gap that plagues Massachusetts. Because seniors and low-income residents will enjoy exemptions from the property tax surcharge, most of the additional burden will fall on large commercial properties. In the 15 years since the program was available to local communities, Boston has left an estimated $300 million on the table by failing to join the 160 other communities that participate. By and large, voters recognized that an average $24 tax increase is a small price to pay for healthier, more stable, more livable neighborhoods.
The coalition behind passage of the CPA in Boston included not just the expected supporters — housing advocates, construction unions, environmentalists — but also sports leagues, artists, and religious groups. Organizers claim they had more volunteers covering the polls than any of the candidates. The question’s passage was doubtless aided by the lack of organized opposition, and by the fact that any citizen can access a hyper-local public database to see exactly where the CPA funds are being spent. So, for example, in 2014 the city of Beverly spent $450,000 to purchase a 12-acre former Girl Scout camp for public use.
It’s a political truism that even when voters are disaffected with Washington, they often give high ratings to their own congressmen. So too, working with local causes can be gratifying when national politics are going off the rails. The lacerating 2016 presidential campaign was one of the most dislocating experiences the nation has ever endured. Many people are panicky, or despondent, or both. It’s natural to want to tend to your own garden. Whatever issue you’re worried aboutd — climate change, immigration, women’s rights — there’s a group right here at home doing important work. We affect the things we can.
In the midst of an unsteady period of malice and estrangement, thousands of Massachusetts voters stood up for their shared values. It turns out that “community preservation” means more than we knew.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.