Housing, education top priorities for Boston ARPA money

City will get over $500 million

This is the third in a three-part series on how municipalities are spending ARPA money. Read the first story on small towns here and the second story on hard-hit cities here

AS AMERICAN RESCUE Plan Act funding begins to flow, Boston is expecting $558.7 million in municipal aid. The sum represents an opportunity to direct the future of the city, and city policymakers have a wide range of latitude on how to spend it.

So far, affordable housing and schools stand out as two shared priorities, though city councilors say they are considering a variety of possible projects.  

“This is our opportunity to make sure we’re meeting the moment,” said Acting Mayor Kim Janey at a recent forum hosted by the Responsible Development Coalition, a housing and development advocacy organization. Janey is pushing for housing issues to top the priority list for funding. “With this money, we absolutely need to make sure that we continue to build in the city of Boston to meet the housing demand so that families who want to live in Boston, who want to raise their families here, who grew up here, can stay in Boston,” she said.

So far, Janey has budgeted for the use of $50 million of the ARPA money, which will be allocated to city and community programs to support “an equitable recovery and reopening for Boston residents, workers and small businesses,” according to the mayor’s press office. 

Ten million dollars will support public health responses, including vaccine initiatives and treatment for behavioral and substance use issues. The same amount is headed to communities that were hit especially hard by the pandemic to be used for affordable housing investment and other housing services, health programs, support for childcare and early education, and support for language access. Another $14.5 million will address the impacts of the pandemic on food access, housing, arts, culture, and tourism, and the remaining $15.5 million will assist small businesses in pandemic recovery. 

The mayor’s office said the allocation of these funds was guided by Boston’s Equitable Recovery Coordinating Committee, an organization of cross-department leadership and external interest groups. A citywide engagement process allowing the public to participate in deciding the future of the remaining federal funds will launch soon. 

With the rest of the money still up for grabs, city officials have a range of ideas on how to spend it – with a strong focus on housing and education.

A recent poll by Suffolk University and the Boston Globe showed housing topped the list of concerns for 20 percent of Boston mayoral voters, followed by racism and equality, schools, the economy, and crime. At the Responsible Development Coalition forum, all five mayoral candidates used their seat at the table to elevate the voices of those voters by listing housing and education-related issues as areas where they most want to see the remainder of the money allocated. 

City Councilor Andrea Campbell said she wants to see at least 80 percent of the city’s municipal relief money funneled into infrastructure improvements for Boston Public Schools, including expanded internet systems. That is on top of a separate $1.2 billion in ARPA funds already set aside for schools. Campbell is also pushing for small business investment, housing voucher programs, and her vacant lot initiative to “activate” unused spaces across the city. 

City Councilor Michelle Wu pointed to gentrification of Boston that has pushed working-class families of color out of the city at disproportionate rates and said she would commit to allocating $200 million of the federal aid to housing. She wants to develop more affordable housing and promote home ownership through subsidies and housing vouchers. “We can’t keep putting Band-Aids on situations that have been problems for a long time,” Wu said.

John Barros, Boston’s former chief of economic development, said he would like to direct the largest portion of funding to initiatives to address homelessness and housing assistance. Remaining money would then go to supporting small businesses and bolstering the hard-hit tourism and hospitality industries. He also mentioned early childhood education, with a focus on closing racial achievement gaps and improving school buildings. 

City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George elevated the opioid crisis as a top issue, proposing an investment of $30 million in ARPA funding to help those struggling with addiction. “We see the suffering and the illness that our city’s residents and other cities’ residents are experiencing,” she said. Essaibi George also highlighted a need to stimulate the economy by building and training a new workforce, and she too pushed policymakers to think hard about school spending. With every investment, she said, “We need to answer the question, how does this dollar impact our kids?”

Among city councilors not vying for a new title this fall, priorities were more wide-ranging. 

District 2 City Councilor Ed Flynn said he wants to see ARPA funding go first toward pedestrian infrastructure projects. “The streets and sidewalks in the city desperately need to be improved,” he said, calling this a unique opportunity to make Boston’s streets safer. After that, he prioritized improving school infrastructure, specifically the installation of new HVAC systems, and investing in climate change infrastructure and resiliency measures. 

Like many of her colleagues, City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who represents District 1, said her top priority for the aid is housing. “We want people to stay and live and grow old in Boston,” she said. To make that possible, she wants to expand the city’s acquisition housing initiative, which gives loans to property owners to keep rental units affordable, increase funding for land trusts, and offer rent assistance and housing voucher programs. After that, she will push for funding for education, food access programs, and digital infrastructure improvements. 

District 8 City Councilor Kenzie Bok would like to see the relief money split roughly three ways between housing, the creation of a Boston-based conservation corps to work on environmental projects, and an initial investment in a long-term municipal broadband plan. 

Julia Mejia, an at-large councilor, listed as her priorities small business funding; support for hard-hit industries such as childcare, art, and the food industry; and infrastructure necessities such as extended municipal broadband and improvements to public buildings. She said she hopes the administration will partner with the council and the community to design an appropriate budget. 

Council President Matt O’Malley, who represents District 6, said his priorities for the funds are public health, education, infrastructure, housing, and climate adaptation.

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The remaining city council members did not respond to requests for comment.

Edwards said she hopes that however the money is spent, it is not done with the goal of getting back to pre-pandemic normal. How things were before, she stressed, wasn’t working for most Bostonians.