Boston City Council members, who for the past couple weeks have convened meetings remotely, by Zoom, are discussing – and in some cases vigorously debating – what a local, city response to the coronavirus pandemic should look like.
At the Council’s weekly meeting Wednesday, tensions came to the fore over a resolution, sponsored by freshman Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, calling for a moratorium on housing evictions during the public health crisis.
The measure is symbolic, as the Council has no authority over housing law. But Arroyo argued the vote was meant to send a message to state lawmakers who do have those powers.
“These much-needed moratoriums are not within our powers as Councilors to institute, but the power to institute them does exist,” Arroyo said, “And it is well within our power to advocate … in fact it’s the least we can do when so many residents are at risk of losing their housing and businesses.”
The resolution passed, but not without strenuous objection from Councilor Frank Baker, who called the resolution well-intentioned, but reckless.
“We could potentially destroy people’s lives, people’s credit scores, this is a dangerous message to send,” Baker said, “Especially when we know we cannot enact it.”
The media, Baker added, would have a field day: “The Herald will be, ‘City Councilor calls for moratorium on the rent,’” Baker said. “Wrong message.”
Meanwhile, City Councilor Lydia Edwards raised the idea of using funds raised from the Community Preservation Act, which Boston residents passed in 2016, for emergency rental assistance for Boston residents.
“It is not a voucher program – it is meant to be a bridge over troubled water for a couple months,” Edwards said.
Edwards acknowledged the proposal would mean less funding for city housing programs – a first-time homebuyers program and a program to help smaller investors buy affordable rental properties -- already allocated to receive $8 million.
But, she said, the need is immediate.
“I support those programs and in any other time I would want them fully funded and even get more funds, but giving those programs $4 million each so one day in the future people can apply for them people while we’re dealing with people struggling to pay rent makes little sense to me.”
Councilor Kenzie Bok, who worked on the ballot committee to pass the CPA, said she agreed with the intention but not the proposal.
“I think that there’s a real risk on the other side of this thing that people with a lot of money are the ones who swoop in and grab distressed assets,” Bok said.
“One of the things we absolutely need is ... a fully funded first time home-buyer program.”
Beyond assistance for individuals, Council members are considering what local measures could help small businesses impacted by coronavirus, especially minority-owned and disadvantaged businesses that have already struggled to open and stay open.
Council Michelle Wu called for a hearing on “equitable recovery,” of small businesses in Boston.
“We all know and are hearing from our constituents that this is way beyond a public health pandemic – this is an economic crisis and it has been deepening systemic inequities across our city,” Wu said.
“We need to start planning for an equitable recoveyr otherwise the same communities that have been left out, the same businesses that struggled to stay open, even prior to COVID-19, will continue to bear disproportionately the cost of this pandemic over the long run.”
Wu has raised the idea of property tax relief for businesses and a break on rent for businesses leasing space in city-owned properties.