Testimony of Metro Housing|Boston: Boston City Council Committee on Housing and Community Development Hearing


Testimony of Metro Housing|Boston by Chris Norris, Executive Director

 Boston City Council Committee on Housing and Community Development Hearing

A hearing regarding vacant affordable housing units and improving access to those units in the City of Boston

August 7, 2018

 Good afternoon.  Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.  My name is Chris Norris, and I am the executive director of Metro Housing|Boston.  Metro Housing, located at Roxbury Crossing, is a not-for-profit organization that provides innovative and personalized services that lead families and individuals to housing stability, economic security, and an improved quality of life.  We work with residents of Boston and more than 30 other cities and towns.

Over the last twelve months, in Boston, we provided rental assistance to 5,894 households (out of total of 10,064), Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (homelessness prevention funds) to 1,041 households, and other housing supports, including fair housing advocacy, to 5,322 people through our Housing Consumer Education Center.  The city of Boston Department of Neighborhood Development is a long-time partner in our work.

Experiences with the housing system

Metro Housing has thirty-five years of experience in this arena, starting with our founding when the Kevin White Administration partnered with Bill Edgerly of State Street Corporation and others to preserve community-owned housing that was at risk of foreclosure.

Today, we are a full-service, comprehensive affordable housing and homelessness prevention organization located at Roxbury Crossing and with 14 colocation sites.  Annually we serve approximately 25,000 households (families and individuals) who are along the continuum between homelessness and economic security. Regardless of a family’s housing issue, we meet people where they are and provide them with solutions to fit their needs.

The current “housing system” is fragmented and difficult to navigate when it comes to securing an apartment with rent that is affordable to our clients.  The people that we serve have average annual incomes in the range of $9,000 to $15,000 for a family of three.

Over the years, Boston has led the way in producing housing with rents that are below market rate.  The city also has a very strong network of housing developers that are actively involved with many projects dedicated to increasing the supply of affordable housing using programs such as federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits, New Market Tax Credits, and HOME and CDBG funds.  And there are some very clear and positive housing goals that have been established and are being tracked by Mayor Walsh and his team, for which they should be commended.

However, when they arrive at Metro Housing families looking for housing are severely limited in their choices. The market is forcing them to search in areas with high concentrations of poverty or to move out of the city all together, leaving behind valuable social support networks, health care providers, employment opportunities, and their children’s schools.  All of this has led to increases in how long it takes to rent an apartment and, for families who are homeless, an increase in the length of time they remain in emergency shelter.

Challenges we have identified

The primary challenge is the lack of housing that is available and affordable for families who have very low[1] and extremely low incomes[2].  We are not building the supply of housing necessary to meet this need.  That is one of the reasons why it is so important that every new unit that is built be made available and occupied as soon as possible.

Opportunities for housing for the people who seek our assistance are quite limited. Over the last few years, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has increased funding for state rental assistance; however, the program still serves less than half of the families that it served thirty years ago.  Metro Housing received more than 10,000 applications when we had 71 vouchers available in October 2014.

We cannot take our eye off the need for increased housing production for those with the lowest incomes. There appears to be a presumption that they are “taken care of” with programs such as Section 8.  However, we have not seen any significant increase in the availability of federal rental assistance.  So, today, there are more than 34,000 unduplicated households on our Housing Choice Voucher Program waitlist.  Applicants fortunate enough to be receiving vouchers now applied back in 2007, eleven years ago.  Nationally, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that no more than one-quarter of families eligible for federal housing benefits actually receive them.

Accessibility is a second challenge.  Nearly one-quarter of the people served by Metro Housing through our Leased Housing Department are elderly, and more than 60% have a family member with a disability. Given mobility and other barriers many of these families face, identifying homes that have accessible features is a priority. Best practices emphasize that the important work of fair housing marketing plans, outreach, community meetings, and tenant selection are critical to ensuring that these households are matched with homes with accessible options.

Finally, there is no single online waitlist for affordable housing units, and the application process often requires applicants or those working with them to go to various sites to complete the process.  The development and implementation of an on-line, standardized application system would allow for those in need to enter their information in one place one time and have it automatically distributed to open lists for which they may be eligible and where they are interested in living.  This would simplify the application process and could allow owners to fill vacancies more quickly.

Possible solutions

There are many different steps that can be taken to help resolve some of the issues that have been raised.  One, a standardized online application system, I already mentioned.  Here are two others.

Hearings such as this one today allow the Council to ask specific questions.  Knowing what is being built, where it is being built, and who it is available to (ie: what “affordable” means) is extremely important.  It also allows you to gauge whether the variety of needs for homeownership, market-rate rental, below market rental, publicly subsidized but privately owned, and public housing are being met.

Another step is to consistently reaffirm our commitment to fair housing.  The City of Boston and the Greater Boston area experiences significant geographic segregation patterns based on race and ethnicity with high concentrations of persons of color and Hispanic families living in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Chinatown.  To reduce these segregation patterns one of the most valuable tools is to affirmatively further fair housing through effective fair marketing plans.  A major part of this process is to in a timely fashion monitor advertising, community meetings, non-profit outreach, application procedures, and lotteries so they will be conducted in a non-discriminatory manner.

Federal, state, and local fair housing laws and procedures are complicated, and there is a large volume of housing under construction.  It is important to do this work right, and it is critical that the fair housing work be fully staffed by trained and qualified people.  Metro Housing appreciates that the Administration is seeking to increase staff capacity to address this challenge and fully supports adequate funding for the Office of Fair Housing & Equity.

Again, thank you for this opportunity to testify, and I would like to offer a blanket invitation for any and all members to visit our new offices, to meet with our staff, and to talk to our clients.

[1] $48,550 for a family of three.

[2] $29,150 for a family of three.

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