Fox Undercover teamed up with CommonWealth Magazine for this investigation. You can read CommonWealth’s stories on its website: commonwealthmagazine.org
It is a government-run affordable housing program kicked off with great fanfare 10 year ago by Boston Mayor Tom Menino and its goal is to give middle class people a chance to buy a home in Boston they can actually afford.
It sounds great, but what if it turned out the people cashing in on the program include many of the city's own employees?
Make no mistake about it, Mayor Menino's Inclusionary Development Program is working. Hundreds of middle class people have been able to buy condo units in the heart of the city at huge discounts.
But a joint investigation by Fox Undercover and CommonWealth Magazine reveals there is one special group of resident benefiting more than any other: city employees and their relatives.
How would you like to live in a luxury condo development on Beacon Hill and pay only $161,000 for a unit, a fraction of what your well-to-do neighbors paid? Or live on the edge of Boston Harbor, with skyline views, for just $148,000, less than half of what your condo is actually worth.
Housing bargains like these can be yours if you get lucky in the city's Inclusionary Development Program.
"The goal of the affordable housing program is to continue to create a range of affordable housing opportunities," says Victoria Williams, director of the city's Fair Housing Commission, which oversees the marketing of the affordable condo units and the lotteries held to select the buyers.
"I think they're in great demand," Williams says. "There's a housing shortage in the city as there is in many places in the country."
The IDP is primarily aimed at people making between 80 and 120 percent of the area median income, which translates into annual household salaries of roughly $70,000 to $100,000.
So who is getting these rare bargain-rate condo units? We launched a joint project with investigative reporters at CommonWealth Magazine and what we found may, or may not, surprise you.
A disproportionate number of these affordable units are finding their way into the hands of city employees and relatives of city employees.
We focused on five centrally located and desirable projects which are part of the IDP. Here's what we found:
Overall, in these five projects, 26 of the 127 affordable units went to city employees and relatives of city employees. That is one out of every five units.
"I really think that it indicates that there's a fundamental problem," says Shirley Kressel, co-founder of the Alliance of Boston Neighborhoods. "It's not a suspicion that there's a rigging in the way that people think of, but clearly they have inside information. They know when things are coming up. They are familiar with the paperwork. They are familiar with the rules."
We spoke with John Palmieri, the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which is the agency Mayor Menino charged with running the affordable housing program. The BRA negotiates affordable housing plans with developers and gives final approval to the people who ultimately buy the units.
"I can't imagine that that is possible," Palmieri said when asked if it is possible city employees and their relatives have an inside track on getting these affordable units. When we mentioned the Reserve Channel Building in South Boston, where 11 of the 26 affordable units offered were purchased by city employees and relatives of city employees, Palmieri said, "That seems like a high percentage, I'll admit. Although many city employees reside within South Boston and may be more likely to have applied for those units."
We also asked the BRA director about one affordable unit purchased by a relative of Michael Kineavy, the mayor's chief policy advisor. We wanted to know if that concerned him. "No, I don't think so," Palmieri said. "I mean, Boston's a relatively small city. Lots of people are related to people in government."
BRA officials denied our requests and requests by CommonWealth Magazine to look at the agency's records. Because of that, we don't know the full extent to which city employees and their relatives have benefited from the affordable housing program.
We asked Victoria Williams, the Fair Housing director, if she thought the public has a right to know how many city employees and relatives of city employees are living in these affordable units. "I think the public has a right to know and I think, yes, government should be an open government."
When we confronted Palmieri with that, he changed his tune.
"Well, listen, if the Fair Housing commissioner is saying that, and she's a very competent woman, we trust her judgment, I'd be prone to say let's do that," Palmieri said. "I happen to think that more information is better, whenever you can release information, you ought to, and that transparency is something that we take very seriously."
Transparency, perhaps, but at what cost?
We followed up with the BRA chief on his offer to turn over what he himself conceded were public records. His staff responded with an e-mail, saying the agency will give us the files, but they will charge us more than $47,000. That's right, $47,000.
As for the relative of Menino's top aide getting that affordable unit, the mayor's spokeswoman says the arrangement was okayed by the State Ethics Commission. Apparently aware of the potential for conflicts of interest, the BRA asks city employees and close relatives who win the housing lottery to file disclosure statements with the City Clerk's office.