Banker & Tradesman: The Pandemic Taught Us How to Enhance Housing Stability

A stable place to call home is the foundation for many things: obtaining an education, maintaining a job and staying healthy. This is as true today as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet as the economy rebounds and employment increases, many of our friends and neighbors remain homeless or at risk of losing their home.

But we don’t have to accept this situation. Instead, we can implement five policies that draw from the pandemic’s lessons: provide rental vouchers for everyone eligible, keep the simplified emergency assistance application, increase awareness of that aid, add more subsidized housing and make sure newly built homes are affordable.

Massachusetts families with the lowest incomes are the most likely to lack stable housing and spend more than they should for housing expenses. According to data presented by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, almost 250,000 households in the commonwealth have extremely low incomes and spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs.

In October, the Massachusetts Senate Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resiliency called for the state to provide “rental assistance to all who need it” and acknowledged that “the majority of eligible families aren’t able to receive rental support.” It will take time to develop, but the legislature can start by funding the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program at $200 million and put it on a trajectory to serving everyone who qualifies.

Add More Rental Aid

Massachusetts is spending $50 million per month in emergency rental housing assistance. These funds, primarily from the federal government, are keeping people housed during the recent economic turmoil. Since July 1, Massachusetts has served 45,000 unique families with a total of $320 million, providing a positive opportunity for them to remain stable.

This benefits property owners and tenants; however, the current funding will soon end, and the state projects that no new applications will be accepted after April 15. The legislature should use part of the $2 billion in remaining federal pandemic aid to provide emergency housing assistance to those who still need it, and to provide for a slow ramp down of the program to prevent folks from facing a cliff that puts their housing at risk. Additionally, the simplified and flexible application procedures and the effective use of technology that debuted during the pandemic should be continued.

But any assistance is only useful if you know it is available. During the pandemic there was an effort to increase awareness of available resources that could be used to preserve housing. New websites, outreach to residents of underserved communities, online and traditional media advertisements and partnerships with community and faith-based organizations all made it possible for residents to get the support they needed. The Massachusetts Housing Consumer Education Centers and other community assets can be used to leverage what was started and continue the outreach.

Increase Supply of Subsidized Housing

The pandemic showed how tenuous housing can be for workers in low-paying, hourly jobs. Having a home where the rent is determined based on income can make all the difference. When a job ends, the tenant’s portion of the rent can be adjusted to reflect the new reality, providing stability. When those who pay market rate rent lose a job, they quickly run the risk of losing their home because the rent remains at the original level. Increasing the supply of subsidized housing would make the difference between families remaining housed and ending up in emergency shelters.

Massachusetts needs to build housing that is affordable and accessible to those at the lowest income levels. Building market-rate housing alone will not decrease rents. Without additional supports and mandates, we will get dense housing, near transit, which is popular but financially out of reach for those who have the fewest housing options.

So that there is true housing choice, newly developed housing that has received financial assistance or zoning relief should require rent levels to be within the allowable rents of the rental assistance voucher programs. Are “affordable” homes for families who earn $150,000 a year or for the family who earns $15,000 a year? There is not a wrong answer, but there is a difference. Policymakers, advocates and media alike need to be clear about who they intend to serve and who is actually being served.

These initiatives are just a sample of what we can learn from the pandemic. The big takeaway from each of these examples is that if we choose to make resources available and put certain policies in place, we can impact housing stability.

There was a housing and homelessness crisis in Massachusetts before the pandemic yet those impacted often received the leftovers as opposed to being prioritized. Winston Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We can learn from our recent past and respond accordingly. Housing has been prioritized for almost 24 months. Let’s continue that comprehensive effort and commitment going forward.

Chris Norris is the executive director of Metro Housing|Boston.

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