As Boston Proposes CPA, Issues to Consider

The Boston City Council’s Committee on Government Operations scheduled a public hearing for Tuesday, March 29 to discuss the city’s adoption of the Massachusetts Community Preservation Act (CPA). If approved by the City Council to move forward, the question would be put to the voters of Boston on this November’s ballot. This would result in a 1% property tax surcharge on commercial and residential properties starting in fiscal year 2018 (with the first $100,000 in value exempt as well as a 100% exemption for those who qualify for low-income housing or low or moderate income senior housing). Communities that adopt the CPA can decide on the distribution of funds across the three areas covered under the CPA, as long as each area – open space, historic preservation and affordable housing – receives at least 10 percent of the total available.

The Mayor has released a comprehensive housing plan for Boston, including objectives to produce 53,000 new units of housing. The report, Housing a Changing City – Boston 2030, estimates the CPA would generate $20 million annually, including state matching funds, of which 50% or $10 million would be dedicated to new housing funds. There is no question that Mayor Walsh and his team are very committed to providing affordable and middle income housing, as confirmed by the various initiatives the Administration has advanced in recent months.

The business community is also concerned about the lack of workforce housing.  Without housing that can be affordable to working individuals, couples and families, the region will not be able to maintain the exceptional economic growth it is currently experiencing. However, as City Council considers putting this on the ballot, a few questions should be asked and answered:

  • How much of these funds will end up supporting middle income housing? With a statutory requirement that housing produced under the CPA be for persons and families whose income is less than 100% of the AMI, it is unclear how middle income housing would be created. Furthermore, the independent CPA committee that will oversee the use of CPA funds is free to spend these funds in any of the three prescribed uses (beyond the 10% statutory requirement).
  • There is no requirement for the City to detail exactly how the CPA funds will be used to attain its goals. One would think that the days of throwing money at a problem and hoping for a good outcome are in the past. The MBTA operated like that for years, and we are seeing the results very clearly. What exactly is the plan to produce more affordable and workforce housing with this additional revenue?
  • How much of an impact will the CPA make? Preliminary estimates show that if half of the CPA funds ($10 million) were used for traditional affordable housing, there would only be 40-50 units built in a year. That is helpful, but is it worth it to impose new taxes on residential and commercial properties? The last time the CPA was proposed in Boston, it was estimated that the business community would be paying 81% of the total, as a consequence of real estate tax classification and the residential exemption. In addition, the City has also increased the requirements for new developments under the Inclusionary Development Policy and higher linkage payments for new commercial development are coming.

As a result of the recent building boom, the city’s revenue from real estate taxes is the largest in history. While having more money from the CPA for the City sounds great, the costs and benefits must be weighed before making this decision.

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