Housing plan must work for city’s most vulnerable

The Walsh administration this week executed a series of reforms to the 15-year-old Inclusionary Development Policy (IDP) that seeks to modernize and enhance the city’s efforts to create and fund affordable housing.

The executive order, signed Wednesday, includes some welcome innovations and will almost certainly pump more cash into the municipal coffers used to aid housing starts in Dorchester, Mattapan, and elsewhere.

By carving the city into three zones, the mayor and his team acknowledge the need to set a balance between downtown, with its high-end, high-density towers rising on the skyline, and neighborhoods like our own, which have not experienced anywhere near the kind of build-out that is going on in places like the South End or the South Boston waterfront.

These intra-city distinctions are obvious. It makes sense to craft a sensible update to guide developers who lean on city funds – or who need zoning relief – and insist that they do their part to create a more level playing field in a city strained to its snapping point by high costs and limited supply.

First launched in 2000 by Mayor Tom Menino, the IDP – taken as a singular effort – has had some positive impact in underwriting and actually building new affordable housing. The city’s own statistics show the IDP policy has directly led to the creation of about 3,600 new affordable units since 2000 and the collection of about $119 million in “cash in lieu” payments.

But it has not moved the needle enough. When launched, the program only required private developers to “cash-out” to the bargain-basement tune of about $52,000 for each unit. Even then, that was a pittance compared to the actual cost of construction. That sum was eventually raised to its current level – $200,000 for each unit — but the required number of designated units per project has stayed steady at about 15 percent.

This new policy addresses that ever-growing deficit as Boston booms. Importantly, it seeks to create an incentive for developers to build “on-site” affordable units, rather than simply paying into the fund and building elsewhere. That’s an important goal if we hope to create a city with some semblance of economic diversity, especially in our inner core.

If anything, this new policy does not do enough to incentivize construction of mixed-income developments, an outcome that we think should be a goal on par with the mayor’s objective of building 53,000 units by 2030. Every neighborhood in this city should share in the goal of housing people of all income levels.

The revised IDP has raised concerns in another key area: The mayor’s order opens the door for the median income level of tenants in IDP eligible rental units to go from 70 percent of AMI (area median income) to 100 percent. That’s a substantial hike that the Boston Tenant Coalition, and others, worry could “contribute to further displacement of Boston families.” It’s a valid concern.

City housing officials say they will be careful to police this new option for developers, and negotiate higher-income allowances “gingerly.” We will be watching for how well they live up to that assurance in the months to come. Their default position should be to help existing residents stay in their neighborhoods at all costs.

In our view, higher levies on luxury projects is the proper route to more robust growth in our communities. Adding even more pressure and competition to longtime Boston families seeking increasingly scarce affordable options in their own communities is not good for the people who live here now.

Members of the mayor’s team say they have heard from all sides and have crafted a solution that no one will love. It’s a tough balance to strike, for sure. The pressures on the city’s housing stock are an urgent business. This executive order, on a whole, promises significant improvements to the inclusionary program and housing creation.

Its success, however, will depend on how well city officials – led by Mayor Walsh – negotiate with builders and take principled stands to ensure that regional housing pressures do not undermine the long-term viability of our neighborhoods. We expect them to insist upon quality above quantity, to protect the integrity of our neighborhood’s character, and to allow for reasonable and transparent public input. And to always, always remember that government’s greatest duty is to those in our society who are most vulnerable.