In addition to the four statewide questions appearing on Massachusetts ballots, residents in 16 cities and towns – including Boston, Chelsea, Watertown, and Springfield – will cast a fifth vote, on a measure known as the Community Preservation Act (CPA).

The Act, passed in 2000, allows communities to self-impose a property tax “surcharge” (in other words, taking a portion of one’s current tax and adding it to the total), money which then goes to a fund whose use is restricted to preserving historic buildings, open space, and/or developing affordable housing.

The new revenue is then partially matched by state funds, restricted for the same purposes.

Some 160 communities statewide have already voted to implement CPA.

Boston, the largest of those communities, would impose a one percent surcharge on property taxes, exempting the first $100,000 of value (or about $1,100 for residential and about $2,700 for commercial properties). Low-income, owner-occupied property would be exempt.

City officials have said the average surcharge would be about $24 (though the number has also appeared as $28), and would raise about $20 million yearly, about a quarter of that in matching state funds.

CPA passage received strong support from a coalition of community and faith groups concerned with preserving the dwindling supply of affordable housing.

Mayor Marty Walsh initially balked when some City Councilors expressed support. Walsh said he had reservations about any hike in the property tax, noting that Boston is disproportionately dependent on property taxes for its revenue.

In April, Walsh changed his mind. The game changer: affordable housing. 

Some members of the city’s business community were less than enthusiastic — because commercial property owners  pay a higher tax rate (more than double) that of residential owners, the surcharge would, they argued, disproportionately hit businesses.

15 years ago, a similar proposal for a 2% surcharge failed to pass.

This year, in marked contrast, little opposition has materialized.

CPA programs are popular among social advocates for obvious reasons: Rather than having to fight for funding those priorities over countless others — streets, public safety, sanitation, etc. — the fund ensures a stable source of dedicated revenue for “preservation.”

The funds operate in a few other ways that differ from standard appropriations by local government.

CPA funds, unlike general funds, are overseen directly by the city’s legislative body — Boston’s City Council, for example.

The Act also mandates the creation of a Community Preservation Committee, established by the city or town’s legislative body, to make spending recommendations.

In Boston, Mayor Walsh will appoint a 5-member majority of members of the Preservation Committee; the City Council will appoint four members. Council will have ultimate authority to approve that committee’s recommendations.

Towns / Cities Voting on Community Preservation Act This Nov.
(source: Community Preservation Coalition
City/Town                  Surcharge
Amesbury                  1%
Billerica                      1%
Boston                       1%
Chelsea                     1.5%
Danvers                     1.5%
East Bridgewater       1.5%
Holyoke                      1.5%
Hull                             1.5%
Norwood                     1%
Palmer                        1.5%
Pittsfield                      1%
Rockland                     1.5%
South Hadley              1.5%
Springfield                  1.5%
Watertown                  2%
Wrentham                  1%