December 24, 2013

Waking up to the BRA

Waking up to the BRA

Boston Redevelopment Authority

Illustration thanks to Boston Magazine

In our last podcast, “Where’s Boston,” citizen activist Shirley Kressel excoriated the Boston Redevelopment Authority as a corrupt, powerful, unaccountable and non-transparent organization that gives away Boston land and tax-money to wealthy developers, ignoring the dire need for affordable housing in this rapidly gentrifying city.

Today, the Boston Globe reiterates her claim in an article that reveals some shady deals by the BRA, contrasting Mayor Thomas Menino’s public statements supporting affordable housing in the city. By law, developers are required to allocate at least 13 percent of their housing units for middle-income families or pay fees to build the units in a different location.

However, Globe reporters discovered hidden “discounts” unequally granted by the BRA to some developers but not others. In one particularly egregious example, the BRA staff awarded a $5.9 million discount to Anthony Pangaro, the developer of the luxury Millenium Place and campaign contributor to Menino. Additionally, the Globe writes, “a four-month Boston Globe investigation has found that the BRA has allowed at least four other developers breaks on affordable housing fees valued at a combined $3.4 million without disclosing them publicly.”

Unfortunately, the problem seems to extend beyond the secret tax breaks and loopholes that erode public funds for affordable housing. When money is collected, it is misused. According to the Globe, “the BRA has spent just $18 million on affordable housing since Menino established the housing program in 2000, less than a quarter of the $75 million the agency should have collected if the BRA had consistently followed the rules… the rest either has not been collected, was diverted to other purposes, or languishes in a BRA account.”

Four out of five of the BRA board members are appointed by the Mayor, and all report directly to him alone. During his campaign, Mayor-elect Martin Walsh acknowledged the need for change in the BRA, saying “the BRA must be reformed for efficiency and transparency.”

Will he keep these promises and prevent the siphoning of money away from affordable housing and into the pockets of developers? How will these uncovered deals impact the legacy of Mayor Menino? Is the BRA giving away the city of Boston to its political friends?

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  • Potter

    Quite an article in the Globe. In the comments comes the question why did the Globe wait until the end of Menino’s time in office for such an article?

    “Waking up” indeed.

  • Linda

    Full disclosure: My husband works for the BRA and has never been involved in any secret deal making, favor giving, favoritism, etc. He and his colleagues are consummate professionals who make every effort to balance the needs and desires of the community against those of developers. Ironically, neighborhoods often wish the BRA had more power than it actually does to curb development or alter proposed plans. Blowing up the BRA will probably create more problems than it solves. A separate planning department, which Rachel Slade advocates, has not lowered housing costs in San Franciso or New York. Most ten year plans are antiquated before the ink has dried anyway.

    I think Shirley Kressel will abhor the streamlined approval process, since it will probably allow less input from affected neighbors. As it is so often said because it is so often true, be careful for you wish for.

    • shirley_kressel

      What is “input”? Testifying at public meetings, sending in comments– all are ignored. I’ve stopped putting in input; it’s a waste of time. We need the rule of law applicable consistently to all, not a street fight over each project in which the Department of Dirty Tricks declares the winner.

  • Shirley Kressel

    How can the BRA possibly have more power to curb development? It can simply disapprove any project right now. The way development is reviewed in Boston is a hoax, a politicized game of favorites and horse trading. The time for input from the community is in the planning/zoning phase, based on a comprehensive data-driven process, not when an individual project is proposed. Once there is a plan and it is codified in zoning, development should be as-of-right unless deviations from the zoning are sought, in which case it goes to the Board of Appeal for a variance. That is another opportunity for local input. Variances that are wrongfully granted (not in compliance with the zoning code criteria for variances) can be challenged in court. That’s the most streamlined and predictable process, and the most lawful one. The current project-by-project review of development is actually spot zoning, adorned with a bogus public process.