If you think Boston has enough liquor licenses, you must live in a neighborhood that has a bunch

By Haley Hamilton

Last week, the Boston Globe ran stories representing both sides of the contentious argument around whether Massachusetts lawmakers should bump up the number of liquor licenses that are available in Boston.

Kudos on that coverage. As readers of this column and my reporting on the topic know by now, since Prohibition, Boston has been arbitrarily capped by the state when it comes to how many licenses it may grant businesses within its borders. Every other county in Mass, like nearly everywhere else in the country, has a limit on licenses based on population: one license per every whatever number of residents.

Boston, meanwhile, has had virtually the same number of liquor licenses since 1933.

Two measures have been passed this century so far to boost that number and to increase the startlingly small number of booze-bearing restaurants in certain predominantly black neighborhoods. One initiative, in 2006, aimed to get more licenses into such hardship areas, but due to underhanded political and legal maneuvering, the bulk of those were apparently used to populate the South Boston waterfront with new establishments. Another measure, in 2014, successfully sprouted bars and restaurants in places like Eastie and Roxbury but still was not broad enough to conquer the disparity in full.

Now we’re back at square one, so to speak, where there are no licenses available to give to qualified businesses and where the cost of the right to serve is upwards of $350,000 on the open market. This as Boston booms in every other conceivable way.

As for the warring sides of the debate which played out in the Globe: On one side, there are restaurant owners who bought licenses for a small fortune and are concerned that more availability of less-expensive hardship licenses — or, heavens forbid, a complete removal of the arbitrary cap — would lead to a devaluing of major assets. As one owner of several establishments told the Globe, “The one thing I knew was, if something goes wrong — the business burns down or I lose my lease — I’ll always be able to sell my liquor license.”

And yes: If it gets to the point where liquor licenses are no longer an endangered species in Boston, the money spent on buying one however many years ago will not likely be remunerated. But guess what — if you operate a bar or restaurant with a liquor license, or several bars with liquor licenses, then you have probably made good on that investment. Or else you would have sold your license for a lot of money by now.

While I don’t like to equate things to slavery, it’s easy to point out that a similar pitch was made about human investments. We’re not talking about an individual’s right to freedom, or even civil rights, when we talk about liquor licenses in Boston. But we are talking about a monied class holding the keys to successful businesses, financial opportunities, and local job growth over the heads of a huge portion of the city’s could-be budding business owners.

Erasing the cap on liquor licenses in Boston is not only the logical, practical, and sustainable thing to do, it is the conscientious and moral thing to do, especially when you examine the ways such a change can both birth new businesses and allow Boston to grow as a whole.

The list of reasons to maintain an arbitrary cap on liquor licenses in the city is short. That something was bought for a pretty penny once upon a time, and might lose value if more licenses come out to help improve conditions in neighborhoods that need restaurants, ought to be a bottom-tier consideration.

Copyright 2016 Haley Hamilton.

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