Boston Mayor Michelle Wu delivered a trainload of good news to the real estate industry at Back Bay’s Plaza Hotel last week in the form of policies that look like true win-wins for industry and everyday Bostonians, alike. 

Leaving aside the headline item – a long-promised rezoning of the city – for the moment, we first direct your attention to the 18-minute and 24-minute marks in her speech.  

Big changes are coming to the Boston Inspectional Services Department: A new intake supervisor, simultaneous building and fire code reviews and the restoration of a fast-track permitting program for projects that don’t need variances or make major structural changes. In other words, streamlining the approvals process most businesses need to get things done. 

In a similar, red tape-slashing vein, Wu pledged to simplify how deed-restricted affordable units get marketed and leased up.  

“When a unit has been built and is ready to be filled, we will have a renter or buyer ready to move in on day one,” she said, instead of today where we all watch as income-restricted units sat empty for weeks or months, costing developers lost rent and qualifying residents extra money paid to market-rate landlords. 

It’s a bold declaration, but it’s backed up by slashing the size and number of forms developers and prospective tenants have to fill out – the marketing and tenant selection plan will go from 68 pages to five, for example – and the city is taking on the task of marketing income-restricted units, typically also the developer’s responsibility.  

These two items harken back to one of Wu’s more compelling stump speech elements: Her time as a young teashop owner in Chicago swimming upstream against a torrent of city bureaucracy that seemed more intent on keeping her from opening or operating than helping her, one touchpoint for her vision of how a truly democratic government needed to work for everyone.  

She also signaled a newly proactive attitude towards housing production, floating the idea of a temporary tax break to spur building of the city’s 23,000 already-permitted units. While high interest rates, falling asset valuations and tighter lending standards mean developers must bring much more equity to the table today, several banks still have capital to loan out.  

As with so many things, a significant multi-year tax break won’t be a silver bullet but it could make the difference between almost no building in the next year and a still-active housing pipeline that can help keep rent increases smaller than they otherwise would be. 

As to the rezoning, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about its potential, as Scott Van Voorhis lays out in his column this week. But this effort appears to have a leg up on most other ideas. Most importantly, the mayor has marshaled the political will to put a time limit on each microdistrict’s rezoning exercise and explicitly framed it as an exercise in adding housing.  

Wu has deployed a far-reaching vision and drive to tackle tough problems many times before. Now, she’s deploying it to finally keep her campaign promise of building a city that wants to grow, not to set itself in amber. 

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Everyone Wins from Wu’s New Plans

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min