Housing fixes, ID cards top to-do list for GBIO at forum in Ashmont

Dorchester resident Danny Santana spoke at last week’s GBIO-sponsored meeting at the First Baptist Church on Ashmont Street as Rep. Brandy Fluker-Oakley, right, looked on. Justin Martin (GBIO) photo

Last Thursday at First Baptist Church on Ashmont Street in Dorchester, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) began its campaign for “housing justice” with call and response, testimonies, and a scorecard for state legislators.

To explain why new spending was needed to develop or preserve affordable housing, a series of “storytellers” went up to a lectern before a crowd of 110 attendees, with each one describing unmet needs in lengths of time.

• For Dorchester resident Danny Santana, there were 14 years of homelessness and being on a waiting list for housing. After release from incarceration, he said, he was ready to begin work at a McDonald’s in three days, but it took another two months to get a state identification from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Even then, he needed help from Justice 4 Housing, a grassroots reentry support group. He currently heads the gang mentoring and violence intervention group, “Inspiring Today’s Youth.”

• More than two months after asking for doors to be repaired in her apartment at West Broadway Homes, a state-supported public housing development in South Boston, Evalin Aguasvivas said she was still waiting.

“The doors are broken. The windows are broken,” she said through an interpreter. “If there’s a fire, how do I exit the door?” She also told about problems with mice, cockroaches, and mold.

• Mice were also a problem for a 15-year West Broadway resident, Meriam Arachiche, who stood by the lectern as her story was told by Hyacinth Clarke: “My house was a playground for the mice. I heard them all the time, in the wall, in my bedroom. I couldn’t sleep well for an entire year.” Before the problem was solved by an exterminator, there were six months when Arachiche used sticky traps, catching 2 to 4 mice per day, for a count of more than 300.

“I am grateful for some rest and peace,” Clarke related. “But why, why did it take a whole year? She lost a whole of sleep. That’s not good for her health.”

Part of the agenda supported in GBIO’s campaign is the $4 billion “Affordable Homes Act” introduced last fall by Gov. Healey. The package includes $1.6 billion to repair and modernize public housing, and other amounts for development and preservation of affordable housing. Another part of the bill would allow local communities to raise more revenue for affordable housing by imposing a real estate transfer fee.

To help people returning to the community, GBIO also wants to dedicate $9 million toward targeted housing assistance, along with a measure requiring IDs to be provided for “returning citizens” upon release from incarceration.

In the first of a series of meetings planned for Greater Boston, GBIO invited four legislators representing parts of Dorchester and South Boston to the meeting. The only one who attended was state Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley (D-Dorchester, Mattapan, Milton), who sponsored the legislation for providing IDs, and who agreed to all of the GBIO’s agenda.

“When I was out on the campaign trail in 2020 talking to our neighbors who were coming home,” said Fluker Oakley, “they told me their biggest fear was the fact of not having an ID.”

Fluker Oakley was also the lead sponsor of the home rule petition, approved by Mayor Wu and the Boston City Council in 2022, that would have allowed Boston to impose a transfer fee on real estate transfers. Sellers would have to pay up to 2 percent of the portion of the sales price above $2 million. Revenue from the fees would go to an affordable housing trust controlled by the city. An earlier version of the home rule petition had been approved by Mayor Marty Walsh and the City Council in 2019.

The fee proposed by Healey would have a lower threshold, applying to the portion of the sales price over $1 million, with a rate that could go from 0.5 to 2.0 percent. Under the local option, there could also be different rates for different classes of property.

Two years ago, the Wu Administration estimated that the version of the transfer fee enabled by the home rule petition could garner almost $100 million a year in new revenue. In legislative testimony supporting the petition in 2022, the executive director of the Mass. Alliance of HUD Tenants, Michael Kane, observed, “Some five times greater than the annual revenue generated by the city’s Inclusionary Zoning process, this additional revenue will go a long way toward addressing the city’s affordable housing crisis.” 

Supporters of the measure emphasize that the fees will often be applied to “luxury” properties owned by investors. But the home rule petition and Healey’s measure would apply to all classes of property, including commercial and office space, highlighted by the alliance as a “potentially vast source of revenue.”

“Allowing Boston to tax transfers over $2 million in this sector,” Kane noted, “would generate substantial additional revenue not otherwise available to the commonwealth or smaller cities and towns, with no discernible adverse economic effects.”

But the recent twenty-year boom in commercial and office properties cited by the alliance has given way to a fall-off in demand. According to the commercial real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, office space demand was down in Boston through all quarters of 2023, though with a slight increase in asking rents. Nationally, with a continued downturn in office jobs, the firm predicted market decline would level off, though with limited relief from any expected lowering of interest rates.

Among the groups opposing the transfer tax in 2022 were those representing realtors and bankers, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. Because of price adjustments by sellers to limit tax exposure, and recent changes in the office market, the board’s CEO, Greg Vasil, said revenue from the transfer fee would be less than amounts projected by supporters.

“It would be a huge hit to the commercial industry at a time when we’re seeing our commercial buildings actually really decrease in value tremendously,” he added. “This would be a burden on real estate and, frankly, it’s not a stable source of income.”

If the threshold for the fee were at $1 million, observers say that could be low enough for the sales prices of many units in the city, from new transit-oriented housing in South Boston to three-deckers in Dorchester. According to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Boston’s multi-family market, long associated with “mom-and-pop” owner-occupants, has increasingly become a magnet for investors.
“The value of those three-deckers has astronomically skyrocketed,” said Vasil. “And a lot of them were maybe older folks that bought them years and years ago, but the value has appreciated because of the rents they’re able to pull in in those other units.”

Vasil stressed the need to create more housing units and, at last Thursday’s meeting, so did GBIO board member Phil Hillman, a Dorchester resident who is also a board member of the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation. But he called for new revenue—including transfer fees—to build housing that would be affordable.

“We’ve had housing production that simply has not met market needs or job (pay) increases,” said Hillman. “If you think about this, this results in higher rents, and increased prices for home ownership. That’s what we’re dealing with. And so, when you put those two together, you know you’re going to wind up with a situation where the people are having housing insecurity, because of those high prices.”

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