Legislators grilled Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and other city officials for more than an hour Monday over a home rule petition that would dramatically expand the volume of liquor licenses in low-income, marginalized communities, raising concerns about whether the legislation could ultimately accelerate gentrification and harm entrepreneurs of color.

Proposals from Rep. Christopher Worrell and Sen. Liz Miranda (H 3741 / S 2380), which build upon local approval from the Boston City Council, would gradually add 250 targeted liquor licenses in 10 ZIP codes in Mattapan, Roxbury and Dorchester, among other neighborhoods.

The scarcity of available liquor licenses, plus the nearly $600,000 price to buy a license from an establishment that’s going out of business in Boston, has contributed to the racial wealth gap and disproportionately concentrated restaurants and bars in wealthier hubs of the city, according to city officials and state lawmakers who voiced their support for the bills at a legislative hearing Monday afternoon. That landscape has left poorer neighborhoods with few dining options, particularly sit-down restaurants that are able to turn a profit with alcohol sales, they said.

“We are, I believe, in such dire need of licenses across the board that we very well may be coming back to you in the future as we see where things go,” Wu told the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure. “I’m confident that with this first threshold and first set of permits, we’ll be able to make some significant headway on that and very likely we will need more as the success grows.”

Rep. Tackey Chan, co-chair of the committee, noted that Wu had not spoken to him or co-chair Sen. John Cronin about the liquor licenses before Monday’s hearing. After a barrage of questions from his colleagues, Chan told Wu and Kathleen Joyce, chair of the Boston Licensing Board, that the committee would be requesting more information about the distribution of licenses and their active use in recent years, including a focus on the rollout of 75 restricted licenses to certain neighborhoods in 2014.

“I do want to dispel this notion that we have all these licenses out there that are not open and operating — I would have to guess single digits,” Joyce said in response to committee member Rep. Joan Meschino, who suggested that there are Boston liquor licenses going unused and questioned what city officials are doing to take them back.

The bills before the committee Monday would add up to three non-transferable restricted licenses for the sale of all alcohol, plus up to two non-transferable restricted licenses for the sale of wines and malt beverages, each year over a five-year period.

At-Large Boston City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune said the legislation is crafted to ensure that liquor licenses remain in specific neighborhoods, restricting the current scenario in which licenses that originated in places like Jamaica Plain are bought at a hefty price and end up in the Seaport following restaurant closures. She called sit-down restaurants “strong economic agents.”

“By increasing the number of neighborhood-restricted licenses, we encourage the growth of sit-down restaurants, enhancing community bonds and fostering economic success in historically marginalized and excluded areas,” Louijeune said. “The current liquor licensing system in Boston presents numerous challenges: the high costs of licenses effectively restricts them to well-funded, well-connected, often corporate and often white operators, especially in high traffic areas, like the Seaport and downtown.”

Meschino and committee member Rep. David LeBouef pressed Wu for a more detailed framework to ensure that the additional restricted liquor licenses, if approved, would be awarded to the intended business owners — rather than to corporations or entities that entered the application queue first.

“Sometimes when we see new businesses come in, they’re not necessarily owned by residents of the neighborhood,” LeBouef said.

Committee member Rep. Joseph McKenna also questioned whether there was sufficient demand in Boston to warrant the expansion of licenses.

Segun Idowou, Boston’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, emphasized to lawmakers that residents from neighborhoods included in the legislation have been urging city officials to grant more liquor licenses as they look to create more vibrant cultural districts.

Applicants could expect to pay up to $2,500 for a license, though that annual renewal fee would be prorated depending on when it’s awarded to a business before the end of the year, Lesley Delaney Hawkins, chair of the restaurant and hospitality industry group at law firm Prince Lobel, told the News Service.

“The demand for licenses is higher than I’ve ever seen in the city of Boston,” she told the committee.

(Copyright (c) 2023 State House News Service.

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