With Growing Demand For Affordable Housing, Boston Council Mulls Controversial Luxury Transfer Fee

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Construction Of Luxury Condo On Boston's Pier 4
Construction takes place on a 106-unit luxury condo building on Pier 4 in Boston Harbor on Sep. 28, 2017. Formerly the site of one of Boston's best-known restaurants, the site will feature a low-slung, glassy building surrounded on three sides by the sea, with stores and restaurants on the ground floor and a public park at the water's edge.

The Eddy, a brand new residential tower along East Boston’s waterfront, is in many ways typical of the kind of development projects popping up all around Boston.

The building is 16 stories high, a mix of studio and one- and two-bedroom apartments; its website, “EddyLiving.com,” boasts “uninterrupted views of the Boston Harbor and city skyline,” a “lounge with a chef’s kitchen,” and an “outdoor terrace with a pool and sun deck.”

The apartments are not exactly cheap: Listings on the real estate site Zillow list studios at upwards of $2,500, and one-bedroom apartments above $3,000, monthly.

“It’s really meant for people who can afford luxury units,” said Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who represents East Boston, as well as Charlestown and the North End.

For Edwards, the building embodies one of the most challenging problems for East Boston.

Luxury buildings like The Eddy are going up across the city, while low-income, working-class and middle-class residents are finding it increasingly difficult to afford living in Boston — let alone buy their own home.

To combat that, Edwards says, the city needs more money for affordable housing — a lot more.

Earlier this year, Edwards, along with City Councilor Kim Janey, who represents Roxbury and the South End, sponsored a home rule petition that, if approved by the state legislature, would impose a transfer fee (or, depending on who’s talking about it, transfer “tax”) of up to 6 percent on real estate sales over $2 million.

Homeowners who live in their own property would be exempt. The fee would be aimed at absentee and investor owners.

“What we’re basically trying to say is: Luxury units should be paying for affordable housing,” Edwards said.

On its face, the idea that the city’s booming luxury real estate market should help fund affordable housing isn’t so controversial among city leaders.

Mayor Marty Walsh has touted the success of various programs that leverage market forces for affordable housing. Last year, those programs funded some 500 new affordable units.

But affordable housing advocates say that those numbers are still far too small to keep up with the red-hot housing market.

Symone Crawford helps oversee first-time home buyer classes for the Massachusetts Alliance for Affordable Housing, where she sees the lack of affordable housing stock first-hand, she said.

“Most people that I notice now are just despondent because investors pick up the few homes that are here, and there are others they just can’t afford,” Crawford said.

The implication of low-income residents, and especially residents of color, being unable to afford their own homes, Crawford says, is the perpetuation of deep-rooted inequality. In Boston, the average net worth of a white family is about a $250,000; for black families, it’s just $8, according to The Boston Globe.

“And the driving force behind it is the ability to own your own home,” Crawford said.

“Home ownership is the biggest part, or one of the biggest parts, of wealth creation. So, if you’re not able to purchase your own home, how are you going to create wealth?” she said.

Proponents of a transfer tax estimate it could double or even quadruple city affordable housing funds — and without federal or state support, which has been dwindling for years.

“So this is a huge thing, if we could get it through all the hoops we have to get it through,” Crawford said.

Not everyone agrees. Real estate interest groups like the Greater Boston Real Estate Board say the fee could have unintended consequences and wind up hurting renters of more modest means.

It's not the first time those arguments have been raised. Members of the region’s real estate community came out in force against a similar proposed transfer fee in Somerville, where property values have soared, displacing renters and making home ownership an increasingly untenable proposition for many.

“It would hurt housing. It would hurt the housing market, a whole litany of things,” said Somerville City Councilor Mark Niedergang, recalling arguments made against proposals for a transfer fee there.

“I didn’t find any of them remotely convincing, and obviously none of my colleagues did either,” he said.

Last year, after a series of contentious hearings, Somerville's city council and mayor unanimously approved a home rule petition for a transfer fee similar to the one before Boston’s council.

The bill died in the legislature, but the city will try again this year.

Should a transfer tax pass Boston's council and get the mayor’s uncertain support — Walsh has been noncommittal so far — it will surely face an uphill battle on Beacon Hill.

Boston Councilor Edwards said she's open to compromise but points out that other cities, including New York and San Francisco, have passed similar measures, and argues that momentum is on her side.

“This is a conversation that’s only going to grow,” Edwards said.

“I would encourage the real estate folks instead of only saying no, to say the ‘yes’ they can accept,” she said.

Boston’s housing crisis, after all, is affecting renters and would-be homeowners almost across the board — and that, argues Edwards, means a lot of voters.