Politics

Mayor Wu’s ‘unprecedented’ housing vision and 3 more things to know about her $3.9 billion budget proposal

"In my history at the city and probably in all of City Hall's history, there has never been this kind of investment in righting our housing issues," the city's housing chief said.

Mayor Michelle Wu during a news conference on April 5. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Echoing her campaign trail vow to lead Boston through changes both big and small, Mayor Michelle Wu on Wednesday unveiled her first operating budget proposal — a $3.99 billion vision that pledges a historic investment in housing and draws on the city’s significant federal funding to propel Wu’s long-touted progressive initiatives, such as a “Green New Deal.”

The budget, a $216 million or 5.7 percent increase over the previous fiscal year, along with the accompanying $3.6 billion capital plan for the next four fiscal cycles, and the federal cash, seeks to commit $380 million to housing affordability efforts — an “unprecedented” influx as city residents struggle with rapidly rising rents.

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“Overall, this budget is an unprecedented investment because we have an unprecedented moment to connect all the resources together,” Wu said, speaking at City Hall’s annual “Budget Breakfast.” “Our goal was not only to put forth an operating budget and capital budget and schools budget that are fiscally sound and represent the delivery and continuance of city services, but to really tie in the federal [COVID-19 pandemic] recovery dollars so that we can do something special and transformative in this moment.”

Wu, who framed her budgeting asks as necessary to form a foundation for Boston’s near-future, wants to tap $350 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to serve her agenda for boosting Boston’s green economy and climate resiliency.

Those efforts include providing for a greener city vehicle fleet, Boston’s first citywide composting program, and investments in the tree canopy and open space, among other objectives.

As for other firsts this budgeting season, under a new process approved by voters last fall, the City Council has a larger role in shaping the budget.

Historically, the council has only been able to approve or reject a mayor’s proposal and make specific line-item reductions.

But councilors may now respond to the mayor’s vision with a proposal of their own, so long as they do not seek to increase the budget’s total. The council will be able to reallocate funding and create new line items — changes that proponents have said will democratize one of City Hall’s most significant responsibilities.

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As such, the Wu Administration and city councilors held a series of listening sessions this year to take in input and requests from over 1,000 residents, officials said.

“Frankly, from the outset in our first meeting with her six months ago …, (the mayor) really challenged us to think about the budget differently and how we approached the budget, which really sort of set us on this new path,” said Justin Sterritt, the city’s CFO.

Here are four key components of Wu’s proposal:

‘There has never been this kind of investment:’ Wu is putting a lot of cash into Boston’s affordable housing efforts

According to Sheila Dillon, Boston’s housing chief, Wu’s proposal would advance the development of green housing on city-owned land near transit hubs, and the purchase of buildings for conversion into affordable housing.

Dillion said the $380 million earmark leans heavily on ARPA funding to support “transformative housing.”

Wu’s office said the proposal seeks to draw $206 million in ARPA cash for housing issues, including financial assistance to first-generation homebuyers and “deeply-affordable housing creation on City-owned land.”

“In my history at the city and probably in all of City Hall’s history, there has never been this kind of investment in righting our housing issues,” Dillon said.

Wu’s official budget states the funding between fiscal year 2023 and 2025 will serve to “increase affordable housing availability, improve housing conditions in existing units, and bolster supportive services for individuals facing housing instability and homelessness, amongst other goals.”

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Those other initiatives include expanding the city’s rental voucher or rent subsidy program by $2.5 million, raising its total funding to $7.5 million.

“The goal is for tenants to pay no more than 30% of their income to rent,” the proposal states.

Dillion offered Wu’s investments will not solve all of Boston’s housing woes. Rents have increased sharply over the past year, adding financial stress to residents in a region that was already hard-pressed for affordable housing.

“But I am here to say I believe they will have a very large impact,” Dillon said. “They’ll form solutions and are going to show us a way forward and how to do work differently. And we’re going to look back and be able to point to real change and real accomplishment.”

Wu is seeking to lower the Boston police budget by about $4 million, while still boosting cadet classes by 50 percent

Like her predecessor, acting Mayor Kim Janey, Wu is seeking to rein in the Boston police budget — goals that have been challenging for officials to meet in reality because of uncapped overtime expenses.

In sum, Wu’s proposal decreases the police budget by $4.3 million from last year’s $400 million budget.

“The Police Department will decrease by 1.1%, due to a higher than anticipated level of attrition,” the budget proposal states. “While replacement classes are keeping up with attrition, officers retiring earn more than newly sworn in replacements. The department will continue its efforts to reduce overtime hours and in FY23 will move ahead with efforts to return to duty officers that are on injured leave.”

Wu will also seek to continue an effort by Janey to boost the number of police cadets.

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Dr. Rufus Faulk, the city’s director of public safety, said the budget proposal supports expanding the cadet class by 50 percent, or 30 people, up to a total of 90 cadets.

“That’ll be an opportunity for us to increase the diverse pipeline of young people going into these public safety careers. Again, we want our folks, within our city, to recognize that they have a place in those spaces,” Faulk said.

Additionally, Wu is looking to add 20 EMTs and an additional four EMTs to respond to “certain mental health response calls,” Faulk said.

“Boston is rethinking how we provide appropriate emergency responses,” he said. “It is vital to make sure that every response is appropriate to the situation.”

Wu is ‘moving fast on a Boston Green New Deal’ with this proposal, she says

Long a priority for Wu, a “Green New Deal” will be necessary to create clean energy sector jobs and boost the city’s climate resiliency, which will be accelerated with funding in this budget, the Democratic mayor says.

Through Boston’s remaining approximate $350 million in ARPA funding, Wu is looking to put $31.5 million of that toward “climate-focused investments,” her office said. That includes expanding the city’s Green Youth Jobs program, creating more walking and biking infrastructure, growing and maintaining Boston’s tree canopy, reinforcing local “food systems,” and continuing efforts to electrify the city’s vehicle fleet.

“We’re getting to the point where we can get our entire fleet electrified, and we have the possibility to do up to 20 buses in this next cycle,” said Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, the city’s chief of environment, energy, and open space. “So we’re leaning in on that.”

Unlike other cities, Boston ‘can afford’ to use ARPA funds to ‘proactively address’ COVID’s impacts, officials say

Although Wu’s visions draw heavily from the city’s nearly $560 million ARPA allocation — of which Boston has already used or has planned to use just over $200 million — her administration says the city is well-positioned to put the balance toward proactive projects.

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“Boston entered this pandemic as one of the best prepared local governments in the country,” the budget proposal states. “Unlike many cities that are using the vast majority of their federal ARPA resources to replace lost revenue to maintain basic services, Boston can afford to make targeted investments to proactively address the impacts of the pandemic.”

Wu’s office pointed to the city’s AAA-bond rating, granted last month for an eighth consecutive year, as an indication of Boston’s sound fiscal standing.

“Even with lingering weakness in certain sectors of the economy, property tax revenue has proven resilient over the past year,” the proposal’s “Executive Summary” reads. “This year’s budget has been crafted within the context of uncertainty related to the long-term impact of the pandemic on new development in the City. Other local revenue sources like excise taxes and department revenue will grow modestly as the economy continues to rebound more fully, but will continue to be below pre-pandemic levels.”

Regarding ARPA funds, Wu said officials are “excited to use that once-in-a-generation, one-time funding to really leverage the investments that we’re able to make on the operating side, thanks to the continued sound management and strong policies of the city.”

Read the full budget proposal:

FY23 Full Budget Document by Christopher Gavin on Scribd

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