State reps agree to 205 targeted alcohol licenses in Boston neighborhoods

State Rep. Chris Worrell (center) marched in the June 2 Dorchester Day Parade with a New Orleans-style street band. Seth Daniel photo

Boston would gain 205 alcoholic beverage licenses and an opportunity to bolster restaurants and revitalize neighborhoods and communities of color, under legislation that the House approved last week.

The redrafted bill steers 180 non-transferable licenses over three years to 12 ZIP codes in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, East Boston, Roslindale, West Roxbury, Hyde Park, Charlestown, and Jamaica Plain. The licenses must be awarded to establishments that prepare food on site, according to Blake Webber, spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee, which released the bill last Friday (May 30).

Each of the ZIP codes would get three non-transferable restricted licenses for the sale of all alcoholic beverages to be drunk on the premises and two non-transferable restricted licenses for the sale of wines and malt beverages to be drunk on the premises annually over a three-year period. 

Three non-transferable licenses are also earmarked for the Oak Square neighborhood in Brighton, with another 15 non-transferable licenses designated for “community spaces,” including outdoor spaces, theaters and nonprofits. The bill also carves out seven transferable licenses that do not have location restrictions, Webber said.

Bill sponsor Rep. Chris Worrell called the legislation’s momentum “game-changing” and an “incredible win” for spurring economic opportunity for communities of color. Worrell invoked the potential of Blue Hill Avenue, describing it as one of the busiest streets in the commonwealth but one with only about three to five sit-down restaurants.

Restaurants that gain coveted liquor licenses could double their profits, the Dorchester Democrat said. “Any day when you’re fighting for one [license] every time, and now you’re getting 205 for the city of Boston. It’s an incredible win. I think the demand is there,” Worrell said.

As the House approved the bill during a sparsely attended informal session, Worrell told staffers in the chamber, “There you go guys — we did it.”

The redrafted bill slashed 45 liquor licenses for targeted communities contained in the original filing, Worrell said. Asked about the cut, Webber told the News Service, “We will reevaluate the effects of the legislation after the three years is up.”

“After speaking with the Boston Legislative delegation, 15 licenses per zip codes over three years is what delegation members from those areas felt was an appropriate step, especially given the food provision being a requirement for those particular licenses,” he said.

The Legislature often passes bills that grant cities and towns just a handful of additional liquor licenses, even as municipalities look for greater control to boost economic activity. While Gov. Healey’s office in January previewed a policy allowing “local governments to set their own liquor license quotas and bypass the existing home rule petition process,” the governor ultimately did not include the reform in her “Municipal Empowerment Act.”

During an October committee hearing on Beacon Hill, Mayor Wu and city councillors lamented the scarcity of licenses and the hefty $600,000 price to purchase a license from an establishment going out of business.

The dynamic has helped fuel a racial wealth gap and disproportionately concentrated restaurants and bars in wealthier Boston neighborhoods, such as the Seaport, elected officials said. Poorer neighborhoods, in turn, have been left with fewer dining options, especially sit-down restaurants.

“We are, I believe, in such dire need of licenses across the board that we very well may be coming back to you in the future as we see where things go,” Wu told the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure on Oct. 3. “I’m confident that with this first threshold and first set of permits, we’ll be able to make some significant headway on that and very likely we will need more as the success grows.”

The committee on Oct. 30 had reported out Worrell’s bill favorably, accompanied by Sen. Liz Miranda’s parallel proposal (S 2380), and shipped it to the House Ways and Means Committee. 

Wu, in a statement to the News Service last week, expressed appreciation for House lawmakers, saying the bill they advanced will “help provide economic opportunity and vibrancy to neighborhoods across the city.”

“These needed liquor licenses will help bring new life to vacant retail spaces in neighborhood commercial districts and strengthen our economy and community,” Wu said. “The parameters in the legislation tying nontransferable licenses to specific zip codes will help counter the current inequities where licenses are concentrated in a few areas and are unavailable or unaffordable for new entrepreneurs due to scarcity from the cap.”

Worrell implored the Senate to “see the urgency” of the bill. “I don’t drink, but I know the importance of this legislation,” Worrell said.

Miranda, in a statement, applauded the House’s action. “This legislation is essential in rebuilding sit-down restaurants in our community – an essential piece of thriving neighborhoods, which have become a distant memory for so many in our community,” the Boston Democrat said. “Whether it’s Mass Ave in South End and Lower Roxbury, or down Blue Hill Ave from Roxbury to Mattapan, many neighborhoods in my district were once the cultural hubs of the City of Boston – known for their unique restaurants, nightlife, and strong sense of community. The secondary market, without this measure as a first step, has perpetuated the racial wealth gap, but also created an ecosystem in our City where only affluent property and restaurant owners can afford the cost of operating.”

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