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Housing issues loom large in Boston town hall meeting

Yawu Miller | 12/18/2013, 11:21 a.m.

At the end of a day of brainstorming, the ideas came down like snowflakes in a nor’ easter — more transparency in the school department, affordable housing on city-owned land, recycling in city parks, higher payments in lieu of taxes for universities and hospitals.

Would the Walsh administration deign to take control of the St. Patrick’s Day parade? How about removing the tax-free status the Boston Redevelopment Authority has granted to downtown multi-million dollar office towers?

The ideas shared at Mayor-elect Marty Walsh’s town hall meeting at Roxbury Community College on Tuesday ranged from practical to cosmic, giving his transition team members much to consider as they chart the course for the first new mayor the city has seen in 20 years.

Nearly 1,000 people turned out for the day-long event, during which attendees split into working groups to flesh out ideas for the new administration.

During the report-back, concerns about gentrification, displacement and the high cost of living in Boston played a prominent role.

“There are huge segments of the population that are not being served by the economy,” said Ed Glaeser, director of Harvard Unversity’s Rappaport Institute, which helped facilitate the meeting.

Glaeser ran an economic development break-out session in which participants discussed mandating greater community representation on the Boston Redevelopment Authority, implementing universal child care in Boston and increasing the payment-in-lieu-of-tax hospitals, universities and other large nonprofits voluntarily make to the city to partially offset the cost of providing them city services.

In the housing break-out session, Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations Executive Director Joe Kriesberg said the short supply of affordable housing options in Boston was an overarching theme, with many voicing concerns about gentrification and displacement.

“There was a tremendous amount of comment that as neighborhoods improve, people want to be able to stay,” he said.

Kriesberg said participants advocated mandating that one third of all housing built on public land in Boston be affordable to low-income people and another third to moderate-income people.

Community activist Shirley Kressel argued for the Walsh administration to investigate the Chapter 121A tax waivers the BRA grants to owners of large commercial developments in the downtown sections of Boston. Originally designed as a program to help affordable housing developers build on blighted parcels of land, the program has been extended to dozens of buildings with class A office space in areas that haven’t seen blight since the 1960s, when the program was established.

“There’s never been an audit to see how much the cost is,” Kressel said of the program.

Answering Kressel in a question-and-answer session, Walsh reiterated his campaign promise to separate out the planning function of the BRA from its development function, and said Chapter 121A would be part of a review process.

“As we begin to restructure the BRA, that’s one of the things we’re going to be looking at,” said Walsh.

Walsh, who stayed on to answer questions after the forum ended at 5 p.m., said he would encourage neighborhood activists to have a voice in city government by continuing to hold community seminars like the one held at RCC throughout his administration.

“We’re going to try and meet two or three times a year and keep the community engaged,” he said. “We have a plan for that.”