Michelle Wu proposes major affordable-housing rule changes in Boston

Mayor Michelle Wu wants to increase the city’s need for affordable housing for developers with proposals to increase the percentage of units that must be income-restricted, increase the amount they must pay the city, and regulate rules on some smaller projects apply .

Wu, along with officials including Boston Planning & Development Chief Arthur Jemison and Housing Chief Sheila Dillon, briefed reporters Thursday on efforts to address “our most pressing challenge in the city: affordability.”

The flood of proposals can be divided into three main categories. The first involves changes to the city’s inclusive development policy, which currently requires projects of 10 or more housing units to make 13% of them “affordable.” According to Wu’s vision, this would expand in both directions, with the bottom dropping to projects of 7 units or more and the more affordable percentage rising to 20%, with 17% purely income-restricted and the other 3% at market price but for people with § 8 apartment vouchers would be reserved.

Officials described this as an innovation on the city’s part, stemming in part from discussions with developers who resent the viability of some projects when too many units have to be rented for less money.

The second part of the proposals revolves around increasing the amount of money that comes in through linkage fees, which are essentially cash that a developer must put into a certain pot in order to run a commercial project. The proposal would lower the minimum threshold from which developments must pay and also increase the required price of fees. Under Wu’s proposal, projects of 50,000 square feet and larger would be required to be linked, rather than the current 100,000, and the fee would increase from $15.39 per square foot to $23.09 for general commercial purposes and $30.78 per square foot increase for laboratory space.

Wu and his company said they spent $227 million from the linkage in recent years to build 9,000 new affordable units and conduct vocational training.

Both the proposed IDP and linkage changes must be approved by the BPDA board, although the board is rarely in the mood to say no. The IDP change would also require the approval of the Council, and while that body is more vigorous, such a change would require a supermajority against to fail.

Officials said they aim to have all of this put to a vote in the early months of 2023 after the public comment periods.

The final category is what Jemison says helps bring more “balance” to the process, including creating a “testimony” for projects that help get those with large amounts of money for affordable housing to the front of the line. Jemison said various changes, including the BPDA, which has grown by 30 employees over the past six months, will help add predictability to the process, theoretically addressing a major complaint from developers about the notoriously opaque agency.

As for the future of the BPDA, which Wu has long vowed to scrap, she said reporters can expect to hear more about it next month.

Asked if she’s concerned it could slow housing production in the already expensive Boston, Wu said, “This is a very doable demand for people building in the city, and one that also serves their best interests.” .”

Some development policy observers largely kept their powder dry on these new proposals.

Pam Kocher of the Boston Municipal Research Board called the announcement “the first step in a process” and said in a statement that “attention to feasibility will be critical as the city seeks to ensure Boston’s ability to maintain its position as an attractive market for… to keep doing business and pursues its goals of creating an affordable, just and resilient community.”

Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said in a statement: “While we have traditionally been skeptical of government regulations affecting the real estate industry, we hope that measures like IDP reform will prove successful if they inspire the real estate industry with creativity and… Allowing flexibility in their approach to zoning.”

BOSTON, MA.- Mayor Michelle Wu looks on during a beam signing and topping-out ceremony at the new Josiah Quincy Upper School construction site on December 9, 2022 in Boston, MA.  (Photo by Amanda Sabga/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. (Herald file photo.)

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