With 60 percent of Massachusetts residents living in a city or town that has adopted the Community Preservation Act (CPA), you don’t have to look far to see its many benefits. One reason CPA is so successful is the fact that the state shares the financing of the program with cities and towns. Over the last 18 years, the state has distributed almost $600 million to communities from a trust fund dedicated solely to CPA. But the financing for that trust fund is no longer able to keep pace with the popularity of the program, and that is threatening its very future. Ten years ago, CPA communities received 67 cents for every dollar they raised. This year, it’s less than 20 cents.
CPA helps cities and towns build affordable housing, restore historic buildings, rehabilitate recreation areas and protect open space. These projects improve communities and create jobs. Massachusetts passed the Community Preservation Act and established the CPA Trust Fund in 2000. Communities that adopt CPA add a small surcharge to their local property taxes. Then they receive matching money from the fund, which is financed by a $20 fee paid when documents are recorded at the state’s Registries of Deeds.
Since 2001, CPA has helped finance over 10,000 projects across the state. On the Cape, seven towns joined together to create affordable housing for residents with special needs; in Weymouth they purchased a 24-acre hilltop estate with views of Boston to create a new public park; in Gloucester they rehabilitated their iconic city hall.
As word spread about the success of CPA, participation has grown. 175 communities – from Boston to Chatham to Williamstown – have passed CPA and are drawing from the fund. But that $20 fee at the Registries of Deeds, the source of the state match revenue, has never changed.
This year, the Legislature transferred $10 million from the state budget surplus to boost what would have been the smallest CPA match ever. According to the Department of Revenue, the majority of communities would have received only 14 cents on the dollar for their investment in CPA. Thanks to the state’s one-time infusion, the match was 19 percent. Surpluses are great, but they are not reliable sources of funding.
Everyone knows how quickly the pecan pie disappears on Thanksgiving when more people are at the table. One pie for a full house means everyone gets skimpy slivers. That’s why CPA communities have been asking lawmakers to authorize a more sustainable source of funding. In each of the past six legislative sessions, a bill seeking to raise the state match has made its way through the State House, garnering bipartisan support along the way. Last year 124 state legislators signed on as co-sponsors and the Massachusetts Senate passed the bill. But even with this widespread support, the legislation stalled.
Unless lawmakers pass legislation addressing the funding challenge, Bay State communities will see their slice of pie shrink even more in years ahead, which will prevent them from funding projects that have lasting impact.
Speaking recently to a forum of housing activists, Gov. Charlie Baker agreed 18 years is a long time for a program to go without increased funding. Baker said, “It’s obvious there needs to be an adjustment made,” and he promised to sign such an adjustment, if the Legislature sends it to his desk.
Few state programs enjoy the bipartisan success of the Community Preservation Act, and it would be a shame if local projects and local jobs had to disappear. It’s time the Legislature acted to strengthen funding for CPA and preserve Community Preservation.
Tom Callahan is the executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance. Jen Ryan is director of policy at The Trustees, the nation’s first and Massachusetts’ largest conservation and historic preservation nonprofit. Together they serve as Chair and Vice Chair of the Community Preservation Coalition Steering Committee.