Walsh proposes housing investments, rental vouchers

Plans to use proceeds from garage sale, transfer tax

IN HIS ANNUAL State of the City address, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced his administration plans to spend $500 million over the next five years to create more affordable housing and provide rental subsidies for low-income and homeless people.

“Housing is the biggest economic challenge our residents face,” Walsh said. “We know we have been making progress, but rents and home prices are still too high for too many people.”

The mayor said the city will create its first rental voucher program for low-income and homeless families not eligible for state emergency assistance.

“For the first time in Boston’s history, we will issue city-funded rental vouchers, so more low-income families can be stable and secure,” said Walsh.

The program will be similar to the federal Section 8 program, but funded by city operating funds. City officials estimate they will be able to provide hundreds of vouchers in the next five years in an effort to fill in gaps left in the affordable housing market by a decline of vouchers provided by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The program will be run by the Boston Housing Authority, which already administers vouchers through a state-funded rental voucher program. There are currently more than 47,000 families on the housing authority’s waitlist for affordable housing programs.

According to Moody’s most recent figures, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Boston is $2,349 a month, the fourth-highest rate in the US.

Housing and homelessness resources in Boston’s 2020 budget include $18.7 million from the city operating budget, $40.1 million in special revenue, and $60.2 million in federal grants, equaling $119 million. About half of the money goes for housing production and preservation.

Sheila Dillon, the mayor’s chief of housing and neighborhood development, told reporters on Monday that the city, through increases in the city’s operating and capital budgets, will invest another $100 million to address housing and homelessness issues.

As Walsh enters his seventh year as mayor, the city has created 32,000 total units of housing during his tenure. About 6,200 of those units are subsidized affordable housing created for low and middle income households. Another 1,000 units of public housing have been renovated or replaced by the Boston Housing Authority with an additional 3,500 units in the pipeline.

In order to help cover the cost of its affordable housing initiatives, the city plans to sell the 1,000-spot Lafayette Garage near Downtown Crossing. The hotel and offices above the garage are not owned by the city and will not be part of the sale. (The city’s most recent garage sale in Winthrop Square netted the city $163 million, but that sale paved the way for a teardown of the garage and the construction of a skyscraper.)

“It’s a unique opportunity for us to turn a city asset, a type of industry we’re no longer interested in running, into immediate impact cash we’re able to invest in affordable housing,” said Emma Handy, the city’s chief financial officer.

The city is also counting on the Legislature passing a home rule petition that would authorize Boston to slap a transfer tax of up to 2 percent on private real estate sales over $2 million. The city previously calculated a 2 percent transfer tax would yield over $100 million a year.

In documents provided to reporters, the city estimated that new revenue from the transfer fee and the sale of Lafayette Garage could produce annual revenue of $80 million, with the remaining $20 million coming out of city funds.

Walsh is counting on the new money to bolster the city’s housing initiatives and help more people like Lamarana Bah, who moved into a three-bedroom home in Dorchester last year with his wife, three children, and in-laws.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Bah, a refugee from war-torn Sierra Leone, and his in-laws, who are from Guinea in Africa, were previously crammed into a two-bedroom $1,200-a-month apartment while he worked jobs at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and as a concierge in Cambridge. He now pays $2,000 a month for his new home, which he was able to acquire with a zero-interest loan from the city for the downpayment and a mortgage from Mass Housing.

Bah said he wouldn’t have been able to purchase the home without the city’s help. On the day he got the keys to the house, he moved furniture into it and surprised his in-laws. “Everyone was crying,” he said. “The kids were saying, ‘can we have our own room now?’”