14 Dec Banker & Tradesman: Report Calls for Wide-Ranging Rental Voucher Revamp
By James Sanna | Banker & Tradesman Staff | Dec 14, 2022
Fewer than half of those who need housing assistance get it in Massachusetts thanks to shortfalls in state funding, a new report says, but a new approach to rental aid could fix this while helping drive solutions to the housing crisis.
A coalition of advocacy groups including Metro|Housing Boston and CHAPA is suggesting that the state should codify the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program into state law, streamline its administration and dramatically increase its funding over time to cover the roughly 335,000 renter households who are eligible for state and federal housing vouchers but can’t access its benefits. Only around 10,000 Bay State households get MRVP support in a rental market billed by some as one of the most expensive in the country, and the program’s wait list has been closed since 2014.
“Rental assistance helps renters without hurting landlords; it makes housing affordable without tying developers’ hands; and although it is expensive for the state, it doesn’t impose the kinds of hidden costs that come with alternatives like rent control, which can dampen long-term growth and development,” the report says. “And while there’s no switch we can flip to open MRVP to all eligible households, there is a way to get from here to there – with lots of places to stop and confirm that we are avoiding unnecessary troubles and providing effective aid.”
In their report, published Wednesday by The Boston Foundation and co-authored by the nonpartisan Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, the coalition says expanding MRVP from today’s $154 million line item to a $3.2 billion “pillar” of the state budget on par with programs like MassHealth and the public education system would deal a dramatic blow to homelessness, racial inequalities and poverty while creating a new, stable market for landlords and housing developers and saving the state potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in other types of social spending.
“As a state we are paying for housing instability in so many ways. The more we have homes that people can afford, the less they’ll need those tools” like emergency homeless shelters, said CHAPA CEO Rachel Heller.
Because the funding commitment is so huge, and the idea of a near-universal housing subsidy relatively untested in Massachusetts, the report urges a gradual ramp-up in MRVP funding, either adding 25,000 vouchers per year or beginning with more vulnerable groups like families with young children. This will give time for the program to be tweaked, for housing production to catch up to the new demand – particularly units constructed specifically for voucher-holders – and make sure the voucher system isn’t creating disincentives for recipients to work.
But first, Heller said, the state needs to change MRVP from a program that needs to be reauthorized in each year’s state budget to something codified in state law. Even without extra funding, this would give more certainty to the program and enable landlords and developers to build business models around it.
In the process, the state should streamline and centralize how rental vouchers are distributed, the report says. Currently, a hodge-podge of 120 housing authorities and local housing nonprofits like Metro|Housing Boston oversee the program’s applications and distribution of funding to landlords – a structure that the report says creates needless inefficiency.
Heller said the coalition already has a bill prepared that will accomplish these two goals, and plans an advocacy push in the weeks ahead that will be open to “everyone…who wants to be a part of it.”