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Mayoral candidates Maura Hennigan (L) and Gareth Saunders, as well as City Council candidate Matt O’Malley (R), are siding with police and fire unions in their effort to abolish a law requiring city employees to live in Boston.

Residency rule draws criticism

Emerges as issue in city elections

Two candidates for mayor of Boston said they would support loosening the controversial law that requires city employees to live in the city, as the most powerful employee unions gear up to fight the residency rule in the upcoming elections.

Councilor at Large Maura Hennigan and former city councilor Gareth Saunders are taking a stand against Mayor Thomas M. Menino, siding with the city's police and fire unions in their campaign to abolish the requirement. Menino doesn't want any change, despite the unions' pleas.

''It's priority number one," said Thomas J. Nee, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association, which last week sent out questionnaires to City Council candidates. ''It is the first question on our questionnaire and it will continue to be a priority until we achieve relief from this archaic rule. I'm not sure many would leave the city if given the opportunity, but our members are frustrated that the element of choice is stripped from their life."

Without a firm commitment to oppose the residency rule, no candidate for City Council or mayor will even be considered for the union's endorsement, said Nee. The union has already endorsed Matt O'Malley, a candidate for citywide councilor, who favors getting rid of the rule.

City politicians have been reluctant to tamper with the residency requirement. But with median rents for a two-bedroom apartment last year at $1,450 a month and the average home price in downtown Boston during the first quarter of this year at $593,192, some incumbents and their rivals openly worry that city workers are being priced out of the housing market. The average city employee salary, with the exception of school department employees, is $50,870.

The firefighters' union is also making the residency law a priority -- in both the municipal elections and in the union's own internal elections this week. Boston Firefighters Local 718 president Nick DiMarino is being challenged for the first time since he was elected three years ago. Firefighter Edward A. Kelly wants the union to take a stronger stand on residency and the city's student assignment plan, which does not guarantee children a seat in their neighborhood school.

''When residency was instituted in the early 1990s the city was totally different," said Kelly, who is a member of the union's executive board. ''Property values were in question. Now, 15 years later, a single-family house is five times what it was. Our salaries could never keep up with that."

The city's public safety unions oppose the residency rule even though only a third of the workers are actually covered by it, according to 2004 city records. Because of grandfather clauses negotiated by unions, the bulk of their members remain exempt. Teachers won an exemption in the Legislature.

Of the city's 1,440 firefighters, 432 are covered by the requirement. Of 1,430 members of the patrolmen's association, 694 are subject to residency. Most of the workers subject to the ordinance are those least able to afford to live in the city -- secretaries, clerks, and laborers at the bottom of the pay scale, a Globe review last year found.

Kelly, 31, who has been a firefighter for eight years, said he would be a stronger opponent than the current fire union leadership because he is covered by the law. The current union leaders were hired before the effective date of the law and are exempt.

But DiMarino said he has been a vocal foe of the residency rule and will keep fighting for change, at the bargaining table and at the polls.

''It's incumbent upon firefighters, no matter whether they live in or outside the city, that they actively seek to work for and endorse candidates who believe in the things we do," he said.

Menino last week said he will continue to support the law, even if his opponents do not and even if it means he will probably lose the endorsement of key city unions.

''Residency has been good for the city," he said. ''We are working hard to provide workforce housing for the people who work here."

Both Hennigan and Saunders said that while the policy may have stabilized the city and helped it thrive, it has become an unfair burden for many city workers.

''Boston has become a very desirable city," said Hennigan. ''Until such time that we can create a housing stock that the people who we have forced to live here can afford to live here, we have to rethink our position on this issue. It doesn't mean we can't still encourage people to live here. I'd like to be mayor so I can deal with affordability in housing. Until it exists, I think it's wrong to force people to live here."

In a separate interview, Saunders said: ''The cost of housing is prohibitive for a lot of city workers. I think we should modify and allow for some changes in the ordinance. At one time it seemed like a good thing. Now it's hurting city workers. They have to make decisions to keep a job they've been on or leave because they can't afford to live here."

City Council candidates are also taking sides. Councilor John Tobin, who is facing a challenge from voting rights advocate Gibran Rivera, said he wants to revisit residency and file a measure that would change the rules, possibly to let workers leave the city after seven years.

''It's a subject of conversation at dinner tables every night in the city of Boston," said Tobin. ''People are saying, 'We just can't do this anymore -- we don't have access to neighborhood schools and we're paying $3,500 a year to send the kids to private grade school.' People just can't do it anymore. People want to stay in the city, but between taxes and tuition it becomes unbearable. I know a lot of couples who are working three or four jobs to keep their heads above water. What does that do for their quality of life?"

Councilor Maureen E. Feeney, a longtime proponent of residency, is unfazed that one of her two challengers, Michael Cote, is against the requirement.

''It has made a tremendous difference in our neighborhoods," said Feeney. ''I believe we have very capable, qualified individuals who served the city and live here and are raising families here. I do recognize the challenge it is today, with the economic explosion that we've seen in the cost of living here. But at the end of the day, it's cyclical. Residency isn't about what's in and out. Either you believe the people who serve you in the city should live here or you don't."

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