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CPA: Community Groups Enthusiastic, Walsh Administration Noncommittal

CPA supporters at Boston City Hall
Isaiah Thompson/WGBH News

Boston residents and representatives of neighborhood and community development groups packed a City Council hearing today, almost all of them to show support for a 1 percent property tax surcharge that, along with matching funding from the state, would be applied toward preserving open space, historic buildings, and affordable housing.

The proposed tax hike would be implemented under the state Community Preservation Act, which incentivizes community investment in certain preservation projects — including affordable housing — by offering some amount of state funds; the current proposal would raise an estimated $13 or $14 million from city property owners, and net about $5 or $6 million in state funding.

In all, the measure would bring a recurring (estimated) $20 million extra to spend on conservation and affordable housing.

The proposed hike would exempt the first $100,000 of property value and cost the average homeowner about $23.

City Council can’t pass the increase on its own — if the measure passes Council, it would appear as a ballot question in November. A similar hike, of 2%, failed in a ballot vote in 2001.

Nearly half of municipalities statewide have taken advantage of the Act (referred to in shorthand as the ‘CPA’), and some supporters at the hearing emphasized that Boston is overdue in following suit. 

Joseph Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, argued that the city has already spent years paying into the very state fund that the city would tap by passing the surcharge.

“The bottom line is CPA is a highly progressive and very affordable proposal,” Kriesberg told the committee. 

Other speakers testified to the need for funding to maintain institutions like historic churches, parks — and, of course, affordable housing — in Boston communities threatened by rising housing costs. Jumaada Smith, a longtime Dorchester resident, said that the tight-knit community she grew up with, one that revolved largely around church life, was fading.

“People are moving out of their churches, some out of their church community … the history is just going away,” Smith said.

A majority of the Council committee (including, that is, bill sponsors Councilors Michael Flaherty and Andrea Joy Campbell) seemed to agree: City Councilors Sal LaMattina, Tito Jackson, and Matt O’Malley.

Jackson called the proposal “an absolute no-brainer … we pay into this and we should get our fair share for Boston.”

But the support wasn’t unanimous — or, at least, not unanimously enthusiastic.

City Councilor Timothy McCarthy said he had “serious questions about the precedent this body is setting by putting this directly on the ballot without having signatures raised.”

And Council president Michelle Wu said she was “looking forward to the conversation,” — but offered no concrete support for the measure.

Those sentiments seemed to echo testimony from two members of the administration of Mayor Marty Walsh — housing director Sheila Dillon, for example noted, repeatedly, her “interest” in the measure.

Some of the most reluctant — though not overtly oppositional — testimony came from Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

Property taxes in Boston, Tyler said, are already skewed to weigh more heavily on commercial, rather than residential property — “Residential represents 59% of the value, and 35% of the [tax] levy,” Tyler said — and he questioned whether raising the property tax, rather than seeking to diversify the city’s revenue base, was appropriate.

Councilor Tito Jackson, however, zeroed in on another facet of Tyler’s testimony: Tyler himself chairs a CPA in Holliston, Massachusetts.

“Being ‘Chair’ means leading, right?” asked Jackson.

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