Friday, January 26, 2018

Boston City Council Looks At Housing, Transportation, Safety, Committee Assignments & Lots More

City Councilor-At-Large Michelle Wu publishes notes from Boston City Council meetings. The Boston City Council considered the following items at their inaugural meeting on January 24, 2018:

Council Committee Assignments: The Council voted to pass the 2018-2019 City Council rules, which include our procedural rules and the new committees (listed below as Committee name, Chair, Vice Chair):

• Arts, Culture & Special Events – Janey, Wu
• Census & Redistricting – Wu, Pressley
• City, Neighborhood Services and Veterans & Military Affairs – Flynn, O’Malley
• Civil Rights – Zakim, Flynn
• Community Preservation Act – Flaherty, Campbell
• Education – Essaibi-George, Janey
• Environment, Sustainability & Parks – O’Malley, Wu
• Government Operations – Flaherty, Edwards
• Healthy Women, Families & Communities – Pressley, O’Malley
• Homelessness, Mental Health & Recovery – Essaibi-George, McCarthy
• Housing & Community Development – Edwards, Janey
• Jobs, Wages & Workforce Development – Baker, Pressley
• Planning, Development & Transportation – Wu, Baker
• Public Safety & Criminal Justice – McCarthy, Campbell
• Rules & Administration – Campbell, Flaherty
• Small Business & Consumer Affairs – Janey, Ciommo
• Ways & Means – Ciommo, McCarthy
• Special Committee on Charter Reform – Baker, Zakim


HOUSING AFFORDABILITY

Short-Term Rentals: Mayor Walsh filed an ordinance to legalize and regulate short-term rental platforms like AirBnB. The goal on all sides is to stabilize neighborhoods because unregulated short-term rentals lead to long-term tenants being displaced for corporations to exploit a loophole to operate de facto hotels in our neighborhoods. We know this is already a huge issue in Boston--our downtown short-term rental offerings are more densely concentrated than in New York City, and developers of new residential buildings are routinely reserving units to lease to companies that operate short-term rentals full-time. This reduces the supply of stable rental units, displaces long-term tenants, and drives up our already-high housing prices. No one is saying that we should ban AirBnB outright, as many homeowners rely on renting out a spare bedroom or their entire unit when on vacation to help pay the mortgage. However, we must act quickly to close corporate loopholes. The proposed ordinance recognizes three different categories of units:

• Limited Share Units: a partial residential unit e.g. bedroom or shared space offered for rent while the resident is present (limited to 3 bedrooms or 6 guests, with 1 bedroom occupied by the resident) – no limit on how many days these can be rented out; $25 registration fee

• Home Share Units: an entire residential unit offered for rent while the primary resident is away (limited to 5 bedrooms or 10 guests) – primary residency is defined as residing there for at least 9-months of the year, effectively putting a 3-month limit on the number of days able to rent; $100 registration fee

• Investor Units: an entire unit offered by someone who is not primary resident (limited to 5 bedrooms or 10 guests) – limited to 90 days of rental per year; $500 registration fee

Certain types of residential units would NOT be eligible for short-term rentals, including those designated as below-market or income-restricted; those designated as “Problem Properties” by the City; and those with 3+ findings of violations in 6-months of the short-term rental regulations or 3+ violations within 6 months of any city or state law relating to noise, trash, or disorderly conduct. Enforcement would be complaint-based with ISD able to impose fees of $300 per violation per day for offering an ineligible unit, and $100 per violation per day for failure to comply with a notice of violation.

My own view is that the “investor unit” category is still a large loophole that companies will use to displace long-term tenants. Even with the 90-day limit, a corporation could buy a building, rent it out 45 weekends of the year (Friday and Saturday nights) and perhaps make enough money to keep it as AirBnB-only.

The matter was assigned to the Government Operations Committee for a hearing. Because this is an ordinance from the Mayor, it is a 60-day order that requires Council action in that timeframe (even if the action is to reject without prejudice for a refiling with a new 60 days). Read the ordinance here. For a good summary of the issue, read this article.

Speculation: Councilor Edwards gave her first speech on the floor of the Council today, calling for a hearing on slowing down housing speculation in Boston. She described the housing crisis and wealth gap in Boston undermining people’s ability to stay in Boston. She suggested taxing the flipping of residential properties into luxury condos or apartments, foreign investment, and condo conversion to slow the forces that continue to reduce our supply of housing for working families and generate needed revenue for affordable housing creation. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Housing & Community Development for a hearing.

University Accountability Statistical Report: The Council received the final 2017-2018 reporting from local universities as mandated by the ordinance passed in 2015. This helps us track the student impact on Boston’s housing stock. As reported there are 151,050 students enrolled at Boston universities, with 37,258 living on campus and 47,019 living off-campus. The universities own a total of 388 properties in Boston.

TRANSPORTATION

Taxis, TNCs & Self-Driving Cars: Councilor Baker called for a hearing on how the taxi and ride-share industries would be affected by the impending availability of driverless vehicle technology. He described how the taxi industry continues to be overregulated relative to ride-share companies, and self-driving cars will complicate both the transportation and workforce aspects of our economy. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Planning, Development & Transportation for a hearing.

Health Care Provider Parking Permits: Councilors Zakim and Flaherty called for a hearing to consider offering parking permits to health care providers who need to travel to patients’ homes and have trouble finding parking spots with resident parking signs. Currently there are parking placards available, but the Home Care Alliance of Massachusetts decides which providers have access. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Planning, Development & Transportation for a hearing.

Resident Parking Permits: I called for a hearing to discuss reforms to our on-street resident parking program. Currently, the City restricts on-street parking on many residential streets to vehicles with a valid neighborhood resident parking sticker, but there is no charge for a parking sticker and no restriction on how many stickers per household. This means that there are more permits issued than parking spaces available, and residents are left circling for a parking spot, increasing traffic and emissions. There are many potential changes that would improve this system, e.g. including adding parking benefit districts to incentivize use of off-street spots, which frees up on-street spots and would also generate funding for needed infrastructure improvements. This would also be the opportunity to discuss potential visitor parking passes, stickers for Boston Public Schools staff serving students at multiple sites throughout the day, and small business owners who currently struggle to find metered parking and must run out to move their cars every two hours. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Planning, Development & Transportation for a hearing.

Cashless MBTA: Councilor Pressley and I called for a hearing to discuss equitable access to public transportation with a cashless fare collection system planned for the MBTA. The agency has approved a $723M contract to modernize the fare collection system, eliminating cash payment on buses and trains and instead creating a network of retailers to sell and reload cards. We know that affordable, reliable public transportation is the foundation for economic mobility, and we need to take every step to increase access to transit. The cashless system is intended to streamline payment and speed up commute times significantly, which is important for increasing ridership. However, we must make sure that low-income residents, people who are underbanked without access to credit cards or smartphones, and our seniors do not face barriers with this system. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Planning, Development & Transportation for a hearing.

Rutherford Avenue/Sullivan Square: The Mayor filed an order requesting authorization to accept and expend two grants from the MA Gaming Commission totaling $250K to fund a portion of the City’s cost for the design of the Rutherford/Avenue/Sullivan Square project in Charlestown. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Planning, Development & Transportation for a hearing.

SCHOOLS

BPS Grade Configurations: Councilor Essaibi-George called for a hearing to discuss reconfiguring the school district’s complex system of 33 different grade configurations. The grade configurations affect transportation, school facilities, and start and end times policies. The matter was assigned to the Education Committee for a hearing.

BPS Buses: Councilor Essaibi-George called for a hearing to discuss the 2018-2019 BPS transportation budget. She reminded the Council that the School Department promised a $10M savings from transportation efficiencies when planning for the FY17 budget; this did not happen. She asked for the hearing to review year-to-date spending of the BPS transportation system and any mid-year planned adjustments. Councilor McCarthy mentioned that this was the 4th year in a row that he was starting off the year asking for answers on BPS Transportation, and we must find a way to free up some revenue from transportation to academics. The matter was assigned jointly to the Ways & Means Committee and Education Committee for a hearing.

School Committee: Councilor Essaibi-George called for a hearing to discuss the pros and cons of an appointed, elected, or hybrid school committee. Boston transitioned in 1991 from a 13-member elected School Committee to a 7-member appointed School Committee, after a 1989 referendum. The voters of Boston reaffirmed this structure in a 1996 referendum. The matter was assigned to the Education Committee for a hearing.

CIVIC ENGAGEMENT

Voter Registration: Councilor Zakim refiled his proposed ordinance from last November to remove barriers to voter registration. The language would require Boston Public Library branches to make voter registration forms available in conspicuous locations. It would also require Boston Public Schools to provide voter registration forms to parents and legal guardians as well as pre-registration forms to eligible students. In addition it would require BPS schools to allow students a later start on Election Day, provided they can prove they used the time to vote (i.e. with an “I Voted sticker” or a signed form from a poll worker). Finally the Boston Transportation Departments would provide voter registration forms to residents applying or re-applying for resident parking permits as well as updating their resident parking permit applications to include all the information necessary for voter registration, in order to share info with the Elections Department and automatically register residents. The matter was assigned to the Government Operations Committee for a hearing.

Free Petition: I refiled my ordinance from last March to codify the right of free petition at the municipal level in Boston and give residents a direct way to shape the City Council agenda. The right of free petition is unique to Massachusetts, found in Article XIX of the state constitution and dating back to colonial times. At the Massachusetts State House, the right of free petition guarantees that any citizen may file a bill through his or her state legislator. Several cities and towns have laws codifying free petition at the municipal level in place already, including Chelsea, Lawrence, Winthrop and Newton. The free petition ordinance would require the Boston City Council to hold a public hearing on the subject of any group petition signed by 500 or more residents, within three months of filing the petition. The goal is to provide another outlet for residents to get involved in influencing policy and public discourse in Boston, regardless of voter registration and immigration status. The matter was sent to the Government Operations Committee for further action.

SAFE AND HEALTHY COMMUNITIES

Body Cameras: Councilor Campbell called for a hearing to review the Police Department’s body camera pilot program preliminary study results. She mentioned that although the full evaluation is expected in June, the Council should have access to study information and costs now to determine the feasibility of a permanent, citywide body camera program. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Public Safety & Criminal Justice for a hearing.

Sexual Harassment Policy: Councilors Zakim and Pressley refiled their hearing order from last December to review the City Council’s sexual harassment policy. We must do our part in ensuring that there are comprehensive policies and implementation within our organization to properly address sexual harassment and prevent retaliation in the workplace. The matter was assigned jointly to the Rules Committee and Civil Rights Committee.

Elder Scamming: Councilor Essaibi-George refiled her hearing order to discuss how the City can better protect senior residents from being victims of fraud. She noted that seniors are particularly vulnerable to scamming and predatory sales techniques including language barriers and social isolation. Especially with home values having gone up so much since seniors first purchased their homes in Boston, they are also targeted by developers looking to profit. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Small Business and Consumer Affairs for a hearing.

Long Island: Councilors Campbell, Essaibi-George & Baker called for a hearing to examine plans to reconstruct the Long Island bridge and reopen service facilities. Specifically, they ask for accounting by the City and other agencies on the current status of the bridge and facilities on the island, and an update on the City’s current plans to create a new recovery continuum of care on the island, including funding, permitting, and timeline. The matter was assigned jointly to the Committee on Planning, Development & Transportation and the Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health & Recovery for a hearing.

Suing Pharmaceutical Companies for Opioid Crisis: Councilors Pressley & Essaibi-George called for a hearing to discuss the findings from the City’s RFI to pursue litigation against pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid crisis.  Cities and states across the country have filed lawsuits accusing drug companies of “borrowing a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook” by concealing the dangers and risks of long-term opioid use. Boston recently put out an RFI to seek information for our local involvement with this effort. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health & Recovery for a hearing.

Human Trafficking: We voted to adopt the resolution filed by Councilors Flaherty & Pressley to declare January 27, 2018, as Human Trafficking Awareness Day in Boston. Since 2005, over 450 children from Boston have been identified as victims of human trafficking. We must continue to eliminate exploitation that is often unseen across the city.

CLIMATE JUSTICE

Community Choice Energy: I filed an order in partnership with Councilor O’Malley to monitor the implementation of our Community Choice Energy authorization order passed last term. The goal is to dramatically and seamlessly increase the usage of renewable energy in Boston by authorizing the City to aggregate an alternative electricity contract with a higher percentage of reusable energy than the level offered by the utility company in compliance with state minimums. Our authorization order had also included a recommendation to create a community working group to help oversee the process. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Environment, Sustainability & Parks.

Plastic Bag Reduction: Councilor O’Malley and I filed another order to monitor the implementation of the ordinance passed last December by the Council, which has an effective implementation date of December 15, 2018. Much remains to be sorted out before then, including outreach to small businesses, mobilizing efforts to distribute free reusable bags, and setting enforcement policies. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Environment, Sustainability and Parks for further action.

Heating/Cooling Requirements: Councilor Pressley refiled her hearing order to review the “heating season” established by the Massachusetts Housing Code which establishes minimum temperatures to which landlords are required to heat their buildings during winter. Councilor Pressley described how many seniors live in apartment complexes and are unable to regulate their own units’ temperatures. By state law, heat has to be on for tenants by September 15th. With warmer temperatures, residents and particularly our seniors, have been subject to apartments that are uncomfortably heated, sometimes resorting to running air conditioning to make the space livable. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Housing & Community Development for a hearing.

OTHER

Contracts: Mayor Walsh filed orders for the Council to appropriate funding to cover two newly settled contracts, with the Boston Police Detectives Union and with the AFSCME employees of the Boston Public Health Commission. All were assigned to the Ways & Means Committee for a hearing.

Appointments: Mayor Walsh made the following appointments
• Chief Financial Officer: Emme Handy
• Chief of Health & Human Services: Marty Martinez
• Chief of Staff: David Sweeney

Council President Campbell appointed Councilor Lydia Edwards to the Boston Neighborhood Housing Trust as trustee

Medical Marijuana: Councilor O’Malley filed for a hearing on whether to issue a letter of non-opposition for a medical marijuana dispensary at 1524 VFW Parkway in West Roxbury. The matter was assigned to the Committee on Planning, Development & Transportation for a hearing.

Hero Squares: The Council voted to adopt two resolutions for commemorative hero square:

• Cambridge Street & Cambridge Terrace, Allston: Councilor Ciommo filed for recognition of Peter A. Simpson, who enlisted in 1941, was captured and died in POW camp.

• Marmion Street & Germania Street, Jamaica Plain: Councilor O’Malley filed for recognition of Dennis Leroy Morrill, who was stationed in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, serving in the 101st air division, and died honorably as a Private First Class fighting for his country in 1970.


For complete notes on Boston City Council meetings, visit MichelleForBoston.com or sign up to receive these notes automatically each week by email. 

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