Boston Globe: Helping the Massachusetts renters left in the cold

The state has let cities and towns erect barriers to housing for decades. The least the Commonwealth can do now is help tenants survive the vicious housing market its policies helped create.

Boston Globe

By The Editorial Board,  April 18, 2023

After decades of letting cities and towns prevent construction of the kind of housing that she needs, what do state lawmakers owe someone like Jamie Augusta?

Once homeless, the 29-year-old Chelsea resident, a single mom, now works at Massachusetts General Hospital, assisting doctors by vaccinating patients or administering medical tests. She makes just over $22 an hour.

She wants to find an apartment for $1,600 a month.

That budget ought to be more than enough — and in the Austin, Texas, area, where median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,483, or the Atlanta area, where it’s $1,489, according to HUD statistics, it would be.

Not here. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Boston area, which includes Chelsea, is an astonishing $2,368. Even the metropolitan area of Washington, D.C. — a city that constantly ranks among the most expensive in the country and also happens to be highly comparable to Boston in both land and population size — has a median rent of $1,740 for a one-bedroom apartment.

“If I find something cheap, it’s not really a decent place to live with a child,” she told the Globe between tours of rental prospects. “I was just looking at what if I just move states? But it’s like why would I want to leave my hometown? Why would I want to leave the place I grew up in?”

She shouldn’t have to. Nobody should. But the long-term failure to build housing — in particular, rental housing — has made it harder and harder for working people in Massachusetts to live in decent conditions.

Of course, newly built apartments probably wouldn’t rent for $1,600. But if the state’s municipalities had allowed adequate multifamily housing production over the decades, there might have been enough existing decent-quality housing stock to temper today’s runaway market. And new multifamily housing built today, even if it’s pricey now, would become the middle-income housing of future generations.

For now, legislators need to do more to help the victims of the housing shortage they and their predecessors created. Part of the answer is subsidized income-restricted rental housing and homeownership opportunities. But construction takes time. A more immediate step would be to increase rental vouchers to close the gap between what renters can afford and what a seller’s market gets away with charging.

Augusta’s story shows how vital direct rental assistance is — and how devastating its removal can be.

In 2020 she was pregnant and homeless — couch surfing as she tried to find some semblance of stability. She didn’t have much luck: Waitlists for shelter homes were long and assistance programs were difficult to navigate. And while COVID relief money and some basic welfare programs like food stamps helped her scrape by, when it came to housing, she was stuck. “A year after I had the baby, I was still going through the same situation,” Augusta said.

Eventually, Augusta found help from HomeBASE, an emergency housing assistance program run by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. The program is aimed at diverting homeless families from shelters or motels by covering burdensome move-in costs like security deposits or the first and last month’s rent. HomeBASE also provides furniture and subsidizes rent for up to a year. With a job at Starbucks at the time and help from HomeBASE, she landed a one-bedroom apartment in Chelsea.

But before long, the financial and time constraints of her new life with a baby made it impossible for her to make rent. So she found herself leaning on people she knew and ended up mothering her newborn in a poorly ventilated basement. It was far from ideal, and with all the exposed air ducts around her room, her daughter ended up with a heat rash whenever someone dialed up the thermostat. “It was horrible,” she said. “[The baby] was in pain all winter long.” That’s not to mention other health hazards that came along with living in that basement, she says, which included a persistent rat problem.

With the help of local nonprofits, Augusta was able to get herself out of that situation and reconnect with HomeBASE. She had also taken on some student loans, enrolled in a vocational school, and got certified as a medical assistant, leading to her current hospital job. But that came at a cost. “I had help — I had food stamps, I had all that — but they took it away. They said I earned too much money right after I became a medical assistant,” she said. Even though she makes more than the minimum wage, it’s been a challenge to make ends meet. “In total, I barely have enough money to get food or pay the rest of my bills.”

Her rent in Chelsea is $2,050, and at first, HomeBASE covered nearly $600 of it each month. She also got assistance from the state’s temporary Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which used federal funds from COVID relief packages to help tenants pay for owed and future rents. But all that assistance was time-limited, and now Augusta has to pay the full amount, which she can’t afford without taking on high-interest loans.

One industry after another, from the T to local hospitals, reports labor shortages. How does this region expect to retain — let alone attract — essential workers like Augusta if they have no place to live?

Felisha Marshall, the director of housing supports at Metro Housing Boston, a homelessness prevention nonprofit that helps administer government assistance programs, told the Globe editorial board that over the last several years, her organization has seen more people like Augusta seek help.

“We’ve had a number of individuals that we worked with that were already housed that we were trying to relocate to new housing,” Marshall said, because of what can only be described as de facto evictions. Landlords in those cases were raising monthly rents by up to $1,000 after the initial shock of the COVID pandemic, and tenants had no choice but to leave. “Generally [these are people who] can afford that $1,500 to $2,000 range, but they can’t even find anything at this point in that range.”

For lower-income families who can only afford subsidized housing or rely on rental vouchers, the situation is even more dire. Across the state, waitlists have years-long backlogs. And even though Massachusetts has the largest state-funded rental assistance program in the country (which is different from the programs Augusta used), it is still extremely underfunded. According to a report by a consortium of housing groups, including Metro Housing Boston, the waitlists for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program in the Boston area, for example, have been closed since 2014. That year, Metro Housing had only 54 vouchers to distribute — a far cry from what it actually needed. “We received 10,000 applications in 30 days,” Christopher Norris, the executive director, said. “We’re still working through that list.”

What happens when people find themselves on such long waitlists? “They couch surf, they move, they go into shelter,” Norris said. In other words, they remain, or become, homeless.

A proposal in the Legislature would protect the rental voucher program from budget cuts, make the program easier to use, and ensure that voucher holders aren’t spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent. That’s a start, but the program also needs more money: Less than half of the 585,000 eligible households in Massachusetts, like Augusta’s, receive state or federal housing benefits, according to the housing consortium.

Rental vouchers aren’t cheap. The group estimates that covering all currently unmet need would cost $3.2 billion annually; the entire state budget this fiscal year is about $53 billion.

But while universal vouchers may not be realistic, neither is the status quo.

For a century, state policy has been to let suburbs keep out renters, with the implicit assumption that places like Chelsea would fill the void. It’s been a terribly cynical policy, one that has lead to massive economic segregation. And if it ever worked, it no longer does, as rents across the region spiral upward. There was a glimmer of hope last week when the Lexington Town Meeting approved zoning changes that will allow more multifamily housing in the suburb. But until fairer zoning becomes the norm, not the exception, the state has a responsibility to help those bearing the brunt of the crisis its past leaders allowed communities to create.

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