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  • Writer's pictureDylan Kelly

House Approves Bill to Add 205 Liquor Licenses in Boston

The most ambitious effort to expand the number of liquor licenses in Boston since Prohibition took a significant step forward on Thursday when the House approved a measure to add 205 permits, primarily targeting underserved neighborhoods across the city.

Supporters believe this initiative will benefit communities of color and small business owners, who often struggle to obtain permits due to their prohibitive cost of around $500,000. The measure, which emerged about a year after being filed, has been amended to a scaled-down version of what was initially proposed by the City of Boston. It now heads to the Senate, and if passed there, it will proceed to Governor Maura Healey’s desk.

The revised bill proposes 198 licenses over three years, with 180 designated for 12 ZIP codes, 15 reserved for nonprofit organizations, and three specifically for establishments in Oak Square in Brighton. Each ZIP code — covering Roxbury, Roslindale, Mattapan, Hyde Park, West Roxbury, East Boston, Dorchester, Charlestown, and Jamaica Plain — will receive five licenses per year that cannot be bought or sold. These licenses, for which proprietors pay only a nominal annual fee, must be returned to the city after use.

The remaining seven licenses will be unrestricted, meaning they can be used anywhere in Boston and sold for a profit — an element not included in the initial proposal.

The state caps the number of unrestricted licenses in Boston at about 1,200, a limit reached roughly two decades ago. By dedicating most of the new licenses to specific geographic areas, the bill does not significantly alter this cap. Unrestricted permits can be highly valuable for restaurateurs, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars on the resale market.

However, critics fear these licenses could exacerbate inequities if not distributed to the restaurateurs and neighborhoods most in need of the economic boost that serving alcohol can provide. License holders in the new batch would also be required to sell food.

The scarcity of liquor licenses in Boston has driven some chefs to open restaurants in nearby communities like Brookline and Lynn, where licenses are more plentiful and typically cost only a few thousand dollars in annual fees. This scarcity hinders Boston's ability to cultivate a vibrant restaurant and nightlife culture, favoring chains and restaurants with wealthy investors over independent operators and wealthier neighborhoods over more distant residential areas.

The bill could have the most significant impact in Mattapan, which was overlooked in the 2014 legislation. Although licenses were available to the predominantly Black neighborhood at the time, not a single one was awarded there due to a lack of interest from existing restaurateurs. Today, however, the situation is different, and this measure would specifically allocate 15 licenses to Mattapan.

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