By Beth Treffeisen
Special to the Gazette
Plaguing the commercial and residential districts throughout the city, empty storefronts and vacant apartments are making it seem that Boston is experiencing market failure, despite the strong economy, high real estate values, and low unemployment rate.
In an effort to reverse the trend, Jamaica Plain City Councilor Matt O’Malley wants to start looking at ways to prod landlords and building owners to rent the spaces out, with one solution being a vacancy fee.
“When you walk around any of our business districts in every single neighborhood of the City of Boston you’re seeing an increase in vacant storefronts and you’re seeing vacancies last for longer and longer,” said O’Malley.
O’Malley introduced a hearing order, which is co-sponsored by City Council President Andrea Campbell to the City Council at the April 4 meeting. A hearing date has not been scheduled.
Although the City of Boston has implemented many initiatives aimed at increasing the affordability of commercial and residential space ranging from zoning reform to subsidies, the City has not explored disincentives such as fees levied on long-term vacant properties.
“It will be based off of the square footage or the building evaluation in terms of taxing the vacancy,” said O’Malley. “But this isn’t meant to be a punitive measure against landlords and buildings owners. It is meant to bring the vibrancy back to all the buildings in Boston.”
Cities including Washington D.C., New York City, San Francisco, Paris, and Vancouver have explored or implemented a variety of financial disincentives to keeping residential or commercial property vacant.
The displacement of neighborhood small businesses is linked to many problems including the overall lack of affordability of residential and commercial space.
O’Malley said that many businesses are facing “high-end or high-rent blight,” which is when landlords are making the calculation that it is less expensive for them to hold off for a higher paying rent than to have something activating that space at a lower rate sooner.
High-end blight isn’t only happening in wealthier parts of the city but across it.
“We’ve been seeing the trend of these spaces remaining empty for two, three, five and even in some cases for 15 years or more,” said O’Malley. “When storefronts remain empty it really leads to a whole host of problems. I hope the hearing will shine a light on this.”
Empty storefronts and vacant buildings not only leave blight and empty space, but can lead to crime, trash not being picked up, sidewalks not being shoveled from snow, and more.
“It ends up being a whole host of issues that the City ends up paying for in other ways,” said O’Malley.
Vacancy is not only being seen in commercial districts but residential units as well, particularly in some of the higher end units.
Often times luxury buildings over 50,000 square feet are purchased for investment and left empty or are only occasionally inhabited, challenging the City’s effort to create housing for a growing population.
“You see the trickle down affect this has in increasing rents and increasing prices in our neighborhoods,” said O’Malley.
Data from the U.S. Census and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council indicates that new construction to relieve Boston’s housing crunch has been partially counteracted by increasing vacancy.
In addition, O’Malley wants to have a comprehensive data collection on all of the vacant buildings in Boston. Currently, that list does not exist, making it impossible to know what is vacant and for how long a property has been vacant.
He hopes that a comprehensive list will help the Problem Properties Task Force, in identifying properties that the city should put more resources towards to fix.
The Problem Properties Task Force is a panel made up of various City agencies including fire, police, and inspectional services that meets once a month to share data on problem properties throughout the city.
He will also work alongside Councilor Kim Janey who recently held a hearing on April 10 on the hurdles small businesses face in Boston.
“This is a deep, deep problem,” said Janey. “On one end you don’t want to put just anything in, but the other issue is that some landlords are holding out for a big pay day to sell or rent out at a future date or are waiting for something better to come along – and that hurts all of us.”
In O’Malley’s own neighborhood, an empty storefront in Hyde Square that used to house Bella Luna restaurant and the Milky Way lounge and bowling facility has been sitting empty after the landlord’s rent hike forced those businesses to move and then left the space empty.
O’Malley said that although he has been working hard on that problem in Jamaica Plain for a long time he is trying not to zero in on any specific buildings, saying he wants this to help the entire city.
“When buildings stay vacant, small businesses can’t find places to rent for home or business and our communities remain less active and less vibrant,” said O’Malley. “It is about affordability as much as it is activating our streets. As more people more to our city we should make sure we are using every tool in our tool box and every empty property to keep the city affordable.”