Of all the issues facing Boston’s five major candidates for mayor, the squishiest may be how to spend as much as $560 million the city will receive in U.S. COVID relief granted under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). About $137 million of that is already in this year's budget. But the remaining hundreds of millions comes attached to reams of federal paperwork, so all the candidates speak in general terms when they outline how they would spend this unprecedented windfall.
Housing is the common denominator among the field: how to build more affordable units so residents aren't squeezed out of the city. But opioids, school infrastructure and job creation also pop up on various agendas. Here are the highlights of the candidates' COVID recovery thinking.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey, by virtue of her office, is best positioned to set a broad agenda. And Janey is acting cautiously, seeking community input.
At a July COVID-19 relief forum, Janey declined to spell out dollar figures for her priorities, saying "what we're not going to do is pretend, in 60 seconds, that we're going to give you a formula of how we're going to spend it without engaging the residents of Boston," adding that housing, schools and infrastructure were her top goals.
Janey last week convened a 33-member Equitable Recovery Task Force. The group is composed primarily of private sector and non-profit executives and is scheduled to hold a round of eight community meetings over the next month, then present recommendations to Janey in October.
Those recommendations will come too late for the Sept. 14 preliminary election but could arrive in time to serve as campaign fodder for the Nov. 2 election.
At-Large Councilor Michelle Wu would commit $200 million towards housing.
"My priority with those funds will be to make sure that families will be able to stay in Boston by the time we're through with it," Wu said, pointing to the outflow of residents seeking affordable housing beyond Boston.
Wu said she would pursue affordability through a combination of subsidies, vouchers, "boosting homeownership," and building more housing on city land.
"The rest of the money, we need to split into big picture city-wide projects and then ensure that every neighborhood sees some benefit," she said, raising childcare and green jobs as two additional priorities.
Annissa Essaibi George
At-Large Councilor Annissa Essaibi George prefers focused investments rather than "sprinkling" the money across many different programs, and much of her attention is on homelessness.
Essaibi George would focus on: the opioid crisis, rebuilding the bridge and recovery facility on Long Island; small and mid-size business support; and infrastructure — especially school buildings.
"We need to invest $30 million dollars from the [ARPA] money to help those that are in the midst of the opioid crisis, experiencing homelessness, dealing with mental health illness," Essaibi George said, which her campaign estimates is enough money to “eliminate the issues at Mass and Cass.”
Former city development chief John Barros has initially earmarked $300 million for housing, but, according to a campaign spokesperson, scaled that back to somewhere between $200 to $300 million in order to spend on early education and child care.
Nevertheless, as mayor, Barros said jobs and job creation would be his first priority.
"We need to invest in the businesses that got hardest hit, including in our hospitality industry," Barros said. Boston’s hospitality revenues in 2020 dropped by nearly two-thirds compared to previous years.
Councilor Andrea Campbell, like Janey, declined to attach specific dollar amounts to her priorities. She pointed, though, to the city economy and housing as two areas she'd like to invest in through small business supports. She also plans to activate 100 of the city’s vacant lots with affordable housing in her first 100 days in office and create a new workforce housing voucher program to help residents who make 60% to 80% of the area median income, but still spend more than a third of their income paying for housing. These higher income earners are often ineligible for existing housing voucher programs designed to support very low-income and elderly renters.
Campbell has been more detailed when it comes to outlining priorities for the more than $400 million Boston Public Schools is slated to receive as part of a separate relief grant through the ARPA Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). Back in May, she proposed that a portion of that funding — $3,000 per student — be placed in accounts for parents and caregivers to spend on their children's behalf.