It’s no secret that Boston has been transformed over the last generation. When I was growing up as a little girl in Roxbury, Boston was seen by many as a “small big city” – New York’s sibling to the north where large swaths of land were unused or unutilized. But starting in the 1990s, Boston began to grow – and grow. Entire neighborhoods were built or transformed. The Seaport went from a gritty wasteland to a destination. And a thriving biotech industry hub was born when public and private leaders brought together the city’s health care, finance, academic and technology sectors.
And yet for too many people in our neighborhoods, the growth and prosperity of our city has not been shared. Today we are the fourth most expensive metro area in the country. Nearly half of all renters in Suffolk County spend more than one third of their income on housing. And to be sure, COVID-19 has exposed systemic inequities that have made Boston one of the most unequal cities in the country, deepening a housing affordability crisis that has been getting worse for years.
Boston needs a mayor who has a vision and a plan to expand access and opportunity to all corners of the city. The time has come for a leader who not only understands that development can be a driver of economic and social opportunity, but also provides the partnership with the private sector necessary to serve long-time Bostonians while welcoming new residents, families and businesses.
New Voices, New Rules
How do we achieve that?
First, we need to shake things up. For too long, the Boston Planning & Development Agency, or the BPDA (and the BRA before it), has struggled to win the community’s trust. With structural changes and a more diverse board – including bringing on leaders with experience in affordable housing, community development, public-private partnerships, capital structure and finance and construction – we can bring greater clarity, transparency and equity to community planning.
Second, we need to speed things up. Right now, it is far too expensive and time consuming to build anything in Boston, with no consistency or predictability. A big part of the reason why is that the current permitting process is duplicative, difficult and burdensome, adding cost and slowing the construction of desperately needed units. Making city permitting faster, easier and cheaper – such as removing affordable housing and small developments from the BPDA review process and putting them before the Zoning Board – are some initial things we can do to enact much-need change.
Third, we need to change the rules of the game. Boston’s zoning code – the rulebook that says what can be built where – has not seen a comprehensive city-wide update since long before I was born. We need to implement transfer of development rights – an equitable approach that enables small and mid-sized property owners, CDCs, and other affordable housing entities to participate more actively in the market. We need a more predictable zoning code and to provide residents greater insight and a role to play in helping shape what their neighborhood will look like in the years to come.
Build a City Land Bank
Lastly, we need to use every tool we have to address the number one problem in Boston: affordability. I’m proud that the first piece of legislation I introduced on the City Council six years ago was the Community Preservation Act, which now generates over $20 million annually for new affordable housing, historic preservation, and parks and open space. As city councilor for District 4, which largely covers Dorchester and Mattapan as well as pieces of Roslindale and Jamaica Plain, I’ve worked to activate vacant lots as a public health, economic, and public safety imperative.
As mayor, I will create innovative action plans for disinvested areas that have potential for arts projects, active green spaces and housing solutions. I’ll prioritize the creation of transit-oriented development in all neighborhoods, and direct resources in the way of seed funding toward small builders and nonprofits to develop affordable housing. And I’ll advance the city’s Neighborhood Housing Division, which holds land and foreclosed properties, into a high functioning land bank and support the work of community land trusts that put land into the hands of the community for resident-led planning and can lock in affordability for residents and businesses for decades to come.
In Boston, we have everything we need to be successful, from growing and emerging industries and world class institutions to a talented, local workforce that is second to none. What’s been missing is a development process that makes the most of these remarkable assets. With leadership that recognizes we all have a stake in an equitable future for our city – and the ability to make it possible – we can be a sustainable and resilient city that benefits – and draws strength from – all of our residents.
Andrea Campbell is a Boston city councilor and candidate for mayor.