The Boston task force charged with recommending reparations suggestions will ask Mayor Michelle Wu to consider a temporary halt to her plan to give away vacant city properties.
At her inaugural State of the City address earlier this year, Wu called for local builders to “design high quality, affordable homes” to replace 150 vacant lots across the city in exchange for free land. Administrators for the program, formally called Welcome Home, Boston, are currently evaluating plans for the first batch of 20 vacant parcels, according to the Mayor’s Office of Housing.
The suggested pause, proposed by former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, was received with enthusiasm at a recent Reparations Task Force meeting.
“It’s vacant because the city bulldozed Black people’s houses and businesses,” said Wilkerson to murmurs of agreement last week.
The panel’s research work, she suggested, should be done before the city runs out of land and allocated pandemic relief money.
“Because we can’t spend three years [forming recommendations] and then they say ‘This is wonderful, but we ain’t got no money.‘ That’s my fear and I think it’s a legitimate one.”
Pandemic relief funds, by law, must be earmarked by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
The former legislator, who represented the 2nd Suffolk District until resigning in 2008, has regained trust among a segment of the city, particularly in Black political circles, despite the blemish of a guilty plea to felony extortion charges in 2010.
Reparations panel chair Joseph Feaster agreed that Wilkerson raised a valid idea that could help guard the reparations task force from conducting a “fruitless process.”
“I think the senator raised a good point," Feaster told GBH News after the meeting. "That's a conversation that I definitely want to take back to the administration," he said, adding the panel needs to work out exactly how to make the suggestion to the mayor's office.
"I don't have an answer for you tonight, but I think that that's something that I'm certainly going to bring to the forefront."
Other task force members declined to comment on the record, but responded to Wilkerson’s comments with applause and finger snapping.
The idea to halt the land giveaway comes as the panel struggles through its first phase of work of setting up livestreaming and finding a research partner. According to the task force's governing ordinance, that work should have been completed by June 30, 2023.
Despite keen national and international attention on the topic of reparations, only five of the eight task force members attended the latest meeting, which attracted about 30 community members.
Boston is one of two cities slated to receive $200,000 from the national voting rights organization Black Voters Matter for work geared toward closing the wealth gap through reparations efforts. The mayor’s office was unable to immediately answer what the panel’s budget for the fiscal year is.
The recent meeting was one of at least five the special task force has held since its 10 members were announced in February.
Two of the panel members, Dr. David Harris and Dr. Kerri Greenidge, have since resigned, leaving the intergenerational panel with less academic expertise as it executes its mission. George R. Greenidge, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, remains on the panel.
Harris, an associate of renowned attorney and reparations advocate Charles Ogletree, described his resignation as a “difficult one.”
“It really came down to the amount of time I had that I could devote to the process,” Harris said, adding that he is not a Boston resident, which could be viewed as problematic.
Dr. Kerri Greenidge, who was never sworn in, did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding her resignation. Multiple sources familiar with the panel’s work have indicated, though, that her scholarship makes her a prime candidate for task force research partnership through a forthcoming public bidding process.
It is unclear whether the mayor intends to appoint new members to replace the pair.
A project manager for the task force has also since been fired, forcing the Wu administration to shift resources, tapping a city policy analyst to help support the panel’s uniquely complicated work.
Several Boston residents publicly criticized the task force for what they described as a lack of community engagement, including failure to publicize, livestream and record the latest pair of public meetings held within the Bruce Bolling building in Roxbury, where the Boston School Committee regularly meets. The panel’s public meeting notes are currently taken on a computer by supporting staff.
“I don’t think the task force is making a concerted effort to make sure they have community input,” Amenyonah Bossman, president of Bossman Construction Management, told GBH News. “This [meeting] today should’ve been livestreamed,” she added, noting to the lack of virtual access at the panel’s previous community meeting in June. “Whoever’s behind the planning process is failing.”
Other community criticisms include a perceived slow working pace.
“Y’all have to work quickly,” Curtis Rollins of Dorchester told the task force. “This has been the whole point, we’re always put at the back burner …that time needs to have passed and y’all have the opportunity to show it has passed.”
Chair Feaster acknowledged the panel’s “growing pains” that have come since its February formation.
“We’re trying to do a whole bunch of different things with the constraints of open meeting law,” Feaster said, asserting that panel members’ work time is limited to public meetings.
“There was confusion as to whether we would have livestreaming, that’s going to be corrected … in the future,” Feaster added.
The reparations task force is now writing a proposal to hire researchers to help assess Boston’s “role in and historical ties to the African slave trade and the institution and legacies of slavery,” according city ordinance.
The panel, its guiding ordinance says, should make final recommendations to the city “for truth, reconciliation and reparations … no later than June 30, 2024.”