Has the city’s complicated, problematic, and historically corrupt liquor licensing process guaranteed that Boston will never have a normal or equitable social life? Could lifting the cap on the number of licenses fix it?
The Boston Licensing Board’s hearing room in City Hall is bland. Gray walls, high school-cafeteria-style linoleum, rickety beige chairs.
There is a long table in front of rows of chairs where applicants and their attorneys sit, more than a few of them with dark circles of sweat under their arms, to make their cases before the board. A safe distance away, on a makeshift dais of sorts, the three mayor-appointed members of the board—Liam Curren, Keeana Saxon, and Chairwoman Christine Pulgini—plus their executive secretary, Jean Lorizio, sit at a large wooden desk backed by an American flag and a sky-blue City of Boston banner.
Erin Anderson, program manager of the Roxbury-based nonprofit Epicenter Community, has been in this room for almost every hearing and voting session of the BLB since October of 2014, one month after Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley helped free up new licenses for disenfranchised neighborhoods. While meetings of the board are open to the public, Anderson is often the only spectator and has many times been the only non-government employee in the room when the board votes.
Spurred by seemingly sketchy BLB dealings of the past, Anderson’s goal in attending each hearing is to gain a clear understanding of who is being granted each of the licenses introduced by Pressley’s 2014 legislation. In doing this, Epicenter hopes to increase transparency regarding the number of licenses that are actually available (and where they are going). [For the 100-year history of where liquor licenses have gone in Boston and why, read the first installment of “The Thirsty Games.”]
After nearly two years, Anderson’s work is nowhere close to done. “It just shouldn’t be this hard,” she says. Even for an organization attempting to track the process diligently, the liquor license application and distribution system appears to be a discombobulated disaster. As proof, consider the residual inconsistency in media reports about how many licenses are available in Boston:
- “Today, there are 1,031 liquor licenses in Boston,” according to Boston Magazine in 2011.
- “Boston has just 970 of those licenses,” reported the Boston Globe last year.
Most perplexingly, according to a 2015 article in Boston Business Journal, “Boston has a little more than 600 licenses that allow the serving of any type of alcoholic beverage. Another 200 allow the sale of only beer and wine. Another 300 allow the sale of various alcoholic beverages with restrictions such as neighborhood.”
According to the most recently updated Mass General Laws, there are currently 665 full liquor licenses (not all of which have the same permissions) and 320 wine and malt licenses allowed. But that does little justice to the labyrinth of subsections and exceptions. For starters, airport facilities, social clubs, and hotels all have their own designations within those restrictions. Factor in the licenses added in 2006, plus those continuously coming online through the fruits of Pressley’s petition, and the picture of what’s truly available gets even blurrier.
“I don’t know what is what,” Anderson says.
From the outside, the process seems fairly routine. City of Boston guidelines require all businesses applying for a liquor license to complete an application, undergo a background check, hold a public hearing in the neighborhood where the establishment will open, notify abutters, attend the Wednesday hearing at the BLB to demonstrate a “public need” for the establishment’s license, and finally “pay a variety of fees.” In practice, however, there’s another layer of confusion added, since applications need approval from boards at both the city and state levels.
“It’s not official until the state signs off on it as well,” explains Jean Lorizio, executive secretary of the BLB since 2000. “The law states how many can be given out. And we count. We count what’s in our records, but at the same time you have to keep in mind that if the board grants a new license, the state has to approve it also. So I might tell you we have 91, but one is pending with the [state].”
Which would leave the real number of licenses available in Boston at 90. This could cause the BLB to approve a license that was already spoken for, thereby causing an application to be “denied without prejudice” (basically, “you’re approved, but nothing’s available”).
It gets shadier.
The BLB tracks licenses by address. In the office at City Hall, the members keep paper files, some thick with renewal applications, for every liquor license-holding business in Boston.
“It’s a huge waste of time to be tracking things with just a folder on each business,” Anderson says. “Whenever I ask, ‘Can you give me more information on the hearings?’ I would pull the hearing agenda and then [have to] pull every single restaurant file in order to find out anything.”
The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism had a similar experience in our own investigation for this article. When asked if the BLB could generate a list of addresses attached to the 2006 restricted licenses, Lorizio said she isn’t “sure that would be possible.”
“We don’t track when something was issued or when something was given out,” the BLB’s executive secretary added.
Which means, among other things, there is no way of knowing how many of the neighborhood-restricted licenses have actually wound up in the city’s original designated zones. The only information available, it seems, is simply that a business at a particular address does or does not currently have a license.
It’s a file-keeping loophole you could drive a bus through.
“There’s never a smoking gun,” says Malia Lazu, also of Epicenter Community. “But you can’t watchdog something that doesn’t have rules and regulations.”
In the past few months, the Board has been much more responsive, Anderson says, but she still can’t get a clear answer about where the 2006 licenses ended up or why some businesses are approved before others.
“Efforts are being made to improve documentation, and they’re being responsive to the conversation about transparency, but the issue is that there’s still a limit on economic development if you restrict [the number] of licenses.”
MAY THE ODDS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOR
Christopher Lin, owner of Seven Star Street Bistro in Roslindale, knows what it’s like to be one of those nervous, slightly sweaty business owners sitting before the BLB—he’s done it twice.
“The Board will take it under advisement and vote on this tomorrow. Good luck to you,” Chairwoman Pulgini said at the end of each one of Lin’s testimonies, like she does after every applicant’s presentation.
Seven Star Street Bistro is a small, family-owned business. Until recently, the Asian street food restaurant had only eight seats. When the beauty salon next door closed, Lin jumped at the opportunity to expand and began the application process for a liquor license, knowing that new, neighborhood-restricted opportunities had been made available through Pressley’s legislation.
“Having a liquor license is transformative, especially for a small business,” Lin says. “We knew we couldn’t open the dining room without one.”
After two rounds with the BLB, however, Lin came up empty-handed.
“We had overwhelming neighborhood support; city councilors were there to support us,” he recalls. “I really felt like it was kind of a sure thing.”
Turns out Seven Star sits just outside Roslindale’s Main Street district, making his family business ineligible for one of the new restricted licenses.
“We tried to buy licenses in the past, but it always seemed like a big crapshoot,” Lin says. But because these new licenses were restricted to certain areas, including Roslindale, he thought this time things would be different.
“There was so much confusion with the details of the licenses,” Lin says. “A lot of people involved in the process seem to be in the dark, not by any fault of their own but just because the process is super confusing and not very transparent.”
Lin ended up purchasing a beer and wine license from a neighboring business for roughly $40,000—much lower than market value but still a strain on a small enterprise. In the end, he did it because he knew he couldn’t successfully maintain a larger establishment without one.
“It’s super frustrating to have all the support you need but getting a license can still be uncertain because of confusing laws,” he says.
Lin is one of dozens of disappointed restaurant owners who have been denied a license from the city. We contacted others who faced similar situations, but many were unwilling to share their experiences due to fear of political repercussions.
“The city and all its departments are political,” says one Roxbury business owner who recently secured a license. Like others interviewed for this story—including an Allston restaurateur who has been repeatedly denied a license and who says he fears being shut down if he complains about the process—they asked that their real name not be used. The Roxbury owner adds, “You have to be aware of your voice, or you’re dismissed as a malcontent.”
SEPARATE AND UNEQUAL
In January, the Brookings Institution think tank declared Boston the city with the highest income inequality in the country.
While some of the Hub’s wealth disparity is attributed to the high student population, the facts remain stark: Between 2013 and 2014, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Boston’s wealthiest residents now make almost 18 times more than the poorest do each year—an earnings spread of more than $250,000. And the city is developing in a way that allows that chasm to widen.
There’s currently more than $7 billion in major construction underway in Boston, most of that action begetting high-rise luxury condominiums and retail spaces being plugged into Fenway and the Seaport District. Unlike in Dorchester or Hyde Park, anybody visiting the invigorated, innovative waterfront will find numerous places to stop for a cocktail, and a great one at that. Tavern Road, Drink, Pastoral; the list goes on. New nightlife spots are popping up on Northern Avenue and Sleeper Street as well, drawing crowds and money to the former industrial wasteland.
By designating the so-called Innovation District as “municipal harbor plans” in 2006, lawmakers effectively paved the way for a South Boston waterfront where AmEx black cards are thrown on bar tops like pennies into a fountain. Consider the recently approved Seaport Square, a 6.5 million-square-foot complex with 2.5 million square feet of residential units, plus new office space, two hotels, a “cultural and educational center,” and 1.5 million square feet for “multi-level retail, restaurant and entertainment” venues.
Roxbury has seen some big development as well, with a few of its own immense projects in the works. But the playing field still is far from level, with only beer and wine licenses going to new restaurants in the Bolling Building in Dudley Square.
Some have made the arguments that not enough business owners in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester are applying for licenses. By that logic, it’s not the city’s fault that licenses aren’t going there, since you can’t get what you never ask for. According to those who have studied the historic lack of nightlife opportunities in Boston’s neighborhoods of color, though, the problem can’t be written off that easily.
“We have a pipeline problem,” Pressley says. “We are not going to undo 100 years of hurt and disparity from a broken and unfair system in one year.”
Pressley is calling for full local control of the quota. She hopes that she can find support on Beacon Hill before the end of next year, after all the licenses from her initial home rule petition are accounted for and the city is back where it started. “If we don’t have full control, we don’t have the agility to prioritize neighborhoods with a higher need,” she says. “We need to have the agility as the City of Boston to best economically revitalize our neighborhoods.”
With the cap in place, Boston does not have that agility. With the cap in place, Boston does not have the opportunity to capitalize on the wealth of talent in the local restaurant industry. With the cap in place, in a city that boasts its dedication to innovation, one of the Hub’s most vibrant creative industries is being kept in check.
And with the cap in place, segregation endures.
“When people say, with all the handouts and resources committed to Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, how come the residents aren’t doing better, tell them this story,” says former Roxbury Sen. Dianne Wilkerson. “What one hand giveth, many hands taketh away.”
This story was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and with research assistance from Epicenter Community. Please join both nonprofits for a discussion about liquor license disparity at Dudley Dough in Roxbury on Tuesday, March 29 at 7pm.