Dec 14, 2022 - Real Estate

Plugging Massachusetts' housing assistance gap

Illustration of a key in a lock featuring a keyring with a dollar sign

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

More than half a million Massachusetts residents qualify for housing assistance, yet the state is serving fewer than half of them because of a lack of funding.

Why it matters: The gap has exacerbated the region's housing crisis, prompting families to double up in apartments or to turn to the state's maxed-out emergency shelter system, a new report says.

  • The report argues that creating a "universal rental assistance program" would reduce the cost burden on the shelter system and improve housing stability, health outcomes and children's schooling and career choices later on.
  • Metro Housing Boston, the Citizens' Housing And Planning Association (CHAPA) and other housing groups who helped shape the report by the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University see the report as the first step in a campaign to push for universal rental assistance.

Driving the news: The report recommends adding at least 240,000 housing vouchers under the state's rental voucher program.

  • The proposed expansion would cost roughly $3.2 billion a year once scaled up.
  • Expanding the voucher program would help more low-income families in the Boston area stay in their neighborhoods in homes where they pay at most one-third of their income on rent.

By the numbers: At its peak, state rental assistance exceeded $100 million in the early 1990s, but that funding dropped significantly over the next decade and reached an all-time low of $22 million in 2004, according to data provided by Rachel Heller, executive director of CHAPA.

  • The state has increased voucher funding in the past decade and allocated $154 million in the fiscal 2023 budget.
  • That's the most funding the program has received, but the program serves about half as many households as it did decades ago because of inflation and present-day housing costs, advocates say.

Context: The "universal" rental assistance recommendation comes as Massachusetts political leaders prepare for a new legislative session in a less-than-certain economy, which could make lawmakers less open to investing in a housing subsidy expansion.

Yes, but: The state still has about $2.3 billion in American Rescue Plan funding to allocate before 2024.

Data: cSPA tabulation of data from the American Community Survey, IPUMS USA

Meanwhile, tenants who do get vouchers are contending with landlords and real estate agents who don't want to work with recipients under MRVP or Section 8, the federal program.

  • Landlords and agents have been denying prospective tenants with vouchers despite such denials being against the law, according to GBH News.

Details: The report calls for expanding vouchers in a way that doesn't boost demand for housing so much that it drives up rents.

  • To avoid that, Massachusetts should continue ramping up housing construction while loosening zoning laws and putting limits on "unreasonable rent hikes," the report says.
  • The report also recommends gradually increasing vouchers — adding 25,000 a year — over the next decade to ensure the state and housing market can keep pace.

What they're saying: "If people care about health or education, they should care about housing," says Steve Farrell, COO of Metro Housing Boston. "Several researchers talk about housing as a social pre-determinant of health, and it’s clear that if a family with kids or individuals are not stably housed, if they’re living in a shelter or they're doubled up in an apartment, they aren't tending to the basic needs."

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