news & press

BPDA Chief Says Wu's Housing Policies Likely To Be Tweaked 'To Catch Up With The Current Moment'

Published in Other

BPDA Chief Says Wu's Housing Policies Likely To Be Tweaked 'To Catch Up With The Current Moment'

March 7, 2023

Taylor Driscoll

As Mayor Michelle Wu's proposals on housing and development face strong pushback from the real estate industry, her top planning official signaled a willingness to compromise on the details.

Boston Planning & Development Agency Director James Arthur Jemison on Tuesday morning addressed the industry's concerns around proposals to bring rent control back to the city and to change the inclusionary development and linkage fee policies, ideas that some real estate leaders believe will slow development in the city.

Jemison, speaking onstage with The Mount Vernon Co. founder Bruce Percelay at Bisnow's Boston Construction & Development event at the Westin Copley Place hotel, said the proposals are an attempt to address the issue of housing affordability, but the city is looking to incorporate feedback from developers and residents.

"The question is, can we take the right action?" Jemison said. "And I think that's why, hopefully, you're beginning to see here that this is our best thinking, and we need your best ideas to modify them."

Last month, the mayor filed a proposal for rent control that would cap annual increases at between 6% and 10%, depending on inflation. The proposal already received pushback from the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which launched a $400K lobbying campaign against the plan, arguing it will slow new development in the city and hurt renters.

When Percelay asked why the mayor proposed rent stabilization on top of all of the economic pressures the industry is facing, Jemison said the economy has changed rapidly since work began on the policy proposal.

“I understand why it feels very out of step in the current moment, but I want to say that when we started it, interest rates were in a different place than they are today, right?” Jemison said. “I think trying to get the policies to catch up with the current moment is important.”

Jemison, who serves as Wu's chief of planning in addition to BPDA director, signaled that the proposals the mayor has pushed for aren't set in stone yet and that there have been conversations with residents and developers to work to ensure a balance. That includes Wu's December proposal to change the IDP to increase the proportion of affordable units required in new projects from 13% to 20%.

"I think you’re hearing an extended dialogue about the IDP, for example, that has been pretty robust," Jemison said. "I think we are going to come up with something, in the end, that is very responsive."

Jemison said he thinks it is important to the BPDA that its approval processes don't prevent developments from moving forward.

“Those are things that we’ve been thinking about because we need [projects] to start," Jemison said. "You’re crucial to solving problems that Boston has.”

The proposals come as the agency is working through other issues like a slow approval process and staffing issues that are by themselves burdensome on new projects, Percelay said.

"How on earth can you fix this so the process itself does not end up killing the patient?" Percelay asked Jemison.

Jemison said that the approval process for developments has been something the city has been working to fix.

“We've got to make it more predictable," Jemison said. “We should not have to start a community process without everybody having a basic understanding of what's actually available to be traded and exchanged."

Jemison said that his agency has been looking into other opportunities to alleviate the burdens of the BPDA approvals process, whether that is tax and fee waivers, modifications so that developers don't have to go back to the board for every change to a project, or just better communication from the agency to help get projects rolling.

"The only way we have more housing is if you guys are excited about housing," Jemison said.

Percelay expressed his concerns with the way developers have been perceived in the public's eye and that the proposals seem to be unfairly pushed on them because of it.

"The narrative from City Hall I wouldn't say is quite effusive towards our real estate development or developers," Percelay said. "The vast majority of city tax revenues come from people in this room. Why can't the mayor educate those who view developers as the bad guys?"

Jemison said that compared to other cities in the country, the mayor has been more involved in the real estate conversation and that it is a very different way of doing things. But he offered himself as a point of contact to developers that are nervous about what is to come.

"I don't know if there's gonna be a lot of change in that mood, but hopefully you will see a lot of change in our place," Jemison said.

Percelay also asked Jemison about the plans to break up and "refurbish" the agency itself, a promise in Wu's mayoral campaign. During her State of the City address, Wu announced plans to begin breaking up the agency and shifting some responsibilities to current and new departments in an effort to streamline development.

Last week, Jemison told city councilors that the plans the mayor put forward won't be expected to take effect until at least next year, the Boston Business Journal reported. The news came after the agency received pushback from its own board of directors and employees that have voiced concerns about the changes.

"Our agency is uniquely designed for a specific time," Jemison said. "We can improve this agency."

Percelay ended the conversation by voicing some optimism about the future of the agency and the relationship it will have with the development community.

"We're happy to have you, and we hope you stick around because we think you're on our side," Percelay said. "Your understanding of both sides of the equation is key."

View Full Article Here