Editorial: Seeing the city as a rental agency

The city of Boston is desperately trying to help low-income people stay in the city. On Tuesday, in his annual State of the City address, Mayor Martin Walsh presented an initiative that he hopes will help the cause: a first-ever city-funded rental voucher program. The mayor describes it as a close-cousin to the federal Section 8 voucher program, but using funds from the city’s own operating budget.

“By using every tool in our toolbox and coming up with creative ways to turn our assets into immediate sources of revenue, we will be able to expand opportunity for more Boston families,” the mayor said.

The Walsh team figures that the city vouchers, when coupled with federal vouchers, will help hundreds find housing in the next five years. The need is obvious: the Boston Housing Authority’s waitlist for affordable units now includes some 47,000 households. The BHA currently has a portfolio of 13,500 vouchers on hand.

In his address, Walsh pledged to double the city’s funding for affordable housing to $500 million over the next five years. He said the budget will come from new monies from the sale of the city-owned Lafayette Garage. He’s also pushing for the Legislature to pass a Home Rule petition to allow for a luxury surcharge tax of 2 percent on property sales over $2 million in the city. (The measure has strong support among the Boston delegation at the State House, but tax hikes always face a steep climb on Beacon Hill.)

Under the plan, Walsh says the city can meet its goals of creating or preserving 1,000 rental units; creating 500 new low-income and middle-income homeowner units; and supporting 1,000 new homebuyers with down payment assistance and low-interest mortgage products.

One of the city’s leading affordable housing experts, MAHA’s Tom Callahan, had early praise for the city’s plan.

“Mayor Walsh’s aggressiveness in addressing our housing crisis is very much needed and much appreciated,” he said. “MAHA looks forward to working with the Walsh Administration to put these targeted resources to good use, including closing the racial wealth gap through increased affordable homeownership opportunities for first-time and first-generation homebuyers in Boston.”

– Bill Forry

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