Monday, December 08, 2003

The standard conservative line is that block grants are better than federal programs, because local authorities are better equipped to know what communities need.

I'm sure, for example, that the Department of Housing and Urban Development would never have guessed that what Boston needs most, in terms of economic revitalization of struggling neighborhoods, is a string of luxury hotels.
Three big hotel deals announced recently by the city -- in tony Back Bay, the North End's waterfront, and in South Boston near the new convention center -- are being financed with $40 million backed by Boston's HUD community development funds.

The Mandarin Oriental Hotel is being billed as the finest hotel Boston has ever seen, set in the "sophisticated panache" of the Back Bay. The Regent Boston Hotel on Battery Wharf is being described as a "spectacular" five-star experience in a parklike setting, with beautiful harbor views and "every conceivable amenity." The third is a 790-room Westin Hotel designed to accommodate convention guests near the South Boston Waterfront.
Two of the hotels will also offer condos - one starting at $700,000 for an 800 square foot apartment, and the other starting at $2 million. Clearly, this is a community development windfall in a city famously lacking affordable housing.

The city, of course, argues that building these hotels will create service-industry jobs. But Community Development Block Grants are supposed to be more than just another source of corporate welfare in the name of "job creation" - they're supposed to help communities develop businesses in low-income neighborhoods in which more traditional investors might balk at the risk involved. Lacking tighter federal control, they're apt to end up just another pile of pork.