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Most workers free from city rule

A decade after Mayor Thomas M. Menino declared residency a cornerstone of his administration, more than two-thirds of city employees are still exempt from a law requiring Boston workers to live within city limits.

Just 4,836 of 16,695 city employees are subject to the residency ordinance, and most of those are workers who can least afford Boston’s skyrocketing housing costs — clerks, secretaries, laborers, and others at the bottom of the salary scale.

Meanwhile, higher-paid employees who are members of more powerful unions often have found ways to remain largely unaffected. Teachers secured an exemption through state legislation. Police superior officers refuse to abide by the law because it was never written in their union contract. Other unions have negotiated lenient grandfather clauses that allow the bulk of their members to remain exempt. And ever since unions challenged a rule that requires grandfathered employees to move to the city when they are promoted, it has not been enforced.

A Globe review found that:
- Of the 1,400 members of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, only 480 are subject to residency.
- Of 360 detectives, only eight are covered by the law.
- Of more than 9,000 full-time School Department employees, only 1,141 are required to live in the city, according to School Department records.

By contrast, nearly all members of the service employees’ and municipal employees’ unions — who on average earn less than $35,000 annually — are subject to the requirement. “Some people are paying 60 to 70 percent of their income on housing," said Tony Antonelli, president of the Boston Public Library's American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees unit and a leader of Boston's Union Residency Coalition, a group fighting to revamp the law. "Or they're working days for the city and going to the Pine Street Inn at night. I've talked to people who lived in their cars for months at a time." Now, with Boston's high rents and booming real estate market, every city union, except those already exempt, is asking for relief at the bargaining table. Some unions want the law repealed. Others are hoping for more lenient effective dates, or a limit on the number of years employees must stay in the city.

Menino continues to publicly support the law, even though in recent weeks his administration quietly offered to relax it for two unions -- AFSCME and Salaried Employees of North America. SENA, which had balked at approving a tentative agreement, ratified a contract last week that exempted an additional 189 employees from the residency requirement. If AFSCME takes the city's offer, about 1,000 of its 1,800 members who are now bound by the law would be exempted.

Enacted in the 1970s, Boston's residency rules were touted as a way to boost property values by stemming the exodus of middle-class workers from declining neighborhoods. But not all employees were bound by the law, including police and firefighters. Teachers won exemption in the Legislature, and the City Council routinely approved waivers for individuals.

When Menino became acting mayor in 1993, he pledged to beef up the law, and a year later he and the City Council clamped down by eliminating waivers, setting up a residency compliance commission, and extending the law to previously exempt police officers and firefighters.

"We are putting into practice the principle that city employees, those who shape policies and deliver services for the people of Boston, must themselves have a stake in the decisions they make and the job they do," he said when the ordinance was signed in 1994.

Still, broad swaths of city workers never had to comply. Only police officers hired after 1994 were required to live within Boston city limits, for example. And since the city has not enforced a provision mandating residency when officers receive promotions, only a small fraction of the force is covered.

But low-paying service employees have had to abide, and many tell nightmarish tales of struggling to get by in a city where rent control has been abolished and the median price for a two-bedroom apartment last year was $1,400 a month. The median sale price of a single-family home in 2003 was $333,000, triple what it was two decades ago.

Charles Strange, a custodian in the Department of Public Works, said he lived in his old Mercury sedan for two years after the bank foreclosed on the house he was renting in Dorchester with two roommates. He said the cheapest apartment he could find was $950 a month, beyond his reach.

"I make $11 an hour and I couldn't afford it," said Strange, a Service Employees International Union member, who now lives in public housing.

Even while his administration uses the law in contract negotiations, Menino has stuck by his position, saying last week that he's "always been a strong believer in residency."

Menino's aides say that, despite the loopholes, about two-thirds of Boston employees have chosen to live in the city. But some unions question that figure and have circulated a videotape of Menino telling an interviewer last year that anyone seeking affordable housing should look outside Route 495 -- perhaps to Fall River or New Bedford.

Other onetime proponents of the law are now questioning its fairness and usefulness.

"Values were low and we were trying to get people to invest," said Councilor at Large Maura Hennigan, of conditions in the early 1990s when she voted to beef up residency. "But Boston has become a desirable city for a lot of reasons. Now it's really wrong to make them live here when, for the most part, they can't afford to buy on the salaries that are being paid."

Councilor Maureen E. Feeney of Dorchester, who chairs the residency committee with Councilor at Large Stephen J. Murphy, said there has been some thought of changing the law.

"I have always been pro-residency," she said. "I believe it has made a huge difference in the city. But there are inconsistencies in the legislation. There are some very real conditions that exist for some city employees and this time, when the cost of living is the highest in the country, people are looking at ways to help those employees in some way." 

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