QUINCY – Hire more legal aid lawyers to help low-income renters fighting eviction; build more multi-family housing that’s affordable for working families and the working poor; and beef up daycare subsidies for low-wage workers.
These are some solutions that could reverse the trend of the growing numbers of homeless families and individuals in Massachusetts, say state legislators from the South Shore.”We’ve clearly spent more money, but at the same time, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in homelessness,” said Sen. Brian A. Joyce (D-Milton). “We have this extreme disparity in America where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.”
Homelessness has declined nationally by nine percent since 2007, but in Massachusetts the ranks of the homeless have swelled by 25 percent during the same time period and now total more than 19,000 people, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Joyce, who once headed the Legislature’s housing committee, described the state’s housing crisis – from the rising number of evictions to the severe rent burdens shouldered by one-in-four renters – as a complex problem requiring not just a government response but also society’s.
“People suggest that we just build more affordable housing, but most will object if that housing is built near them,” he said.
While Joyce still sees the benefit of the state’s Chapter 40B law to allow developers to create denser housing developments in exchange for creating affordable units, Rep. James Cantwell (D-Marshfield) said that law only “encourages a stalemate” and has not succeeded in meeting the demand for more affordable housing.
But Cantwell is also worried that most housing development on the South Shore is high-end.
“These condos are not serving the purpose of helping get homes for more modest earners,” he said. “We need to amend 40B to make it more responsive to communities’ and society’s needs … and we need to encourage more in-law apartments.”
Joyce and Sen. James Eldridge (D-Acton), who heads the Legislature’s housing committee, both praised Gov. Deval Patrick’s action last November to back a $1.4 billion housing bond bill aimed at creating and preserving affordable housing in the next five years.
Eldridge is pushing for more solutions in the next fiscal year, including spending $25 million to add 3,000 more rental vouchers for low-income residents.The short-term goal would reduce the numbers of homeless families living in shelters or in motels, said Eldridge. More than 2,000 homeless families are currently living in motels paid for by the state.
Last May, their numbers totaled just more than 1,200 families.In fiscal year 2013, the state spent more than $135 million to shelter the homeless, and $46 million of that amount went toward motels.Eldridge’s long-term solution would revamp building and zoning laws statewide.
“How do we build more housing for the working class and the working poor? The problem is that many suburban communities are zoned so they don’t encourage or allow multifamily housing,” he said. “If you don’t have every community doing their part to build, that drives up rents.”The legislation would clear the way for more multifamily housing while requiring developers to put at least 10 percent of the units within reach of low-income renters, said Eldridge.
The lawmakers agreed on two other strategies to fight homelessness. One would add $4 million to the state budget for legal aid lawyers.Lonnie Powers, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, said that increase would translate into 40 lawyers who could handle 6,620 more cases in a year.
Thirty percent of legal aid cases deal with housing, and those lawyers could prevent eviction and homelessness and save the state more than $6 million, argued Powers.”In a democratic society, there’s a fundamental belief that people ought to be treated fairly,” he said. “If you’re facing eviction, you’re not going to be treated fairly if you don’t have access to legal representation.”
Joyce and Eldridge both said they’d back the initiative by Powers, which has also won support from Roderick Ireland, the chief justice of the state’s highest court. Also critical to fight homelessness, legislators said, is a multi-pronged approach that doesn’t address just housing but also daycare, job training and other social services.
Eldridge said the housing bill signed by Gov. Patrick last fall included $45 million for early education and daycare.But he was critical of the state for falling short on promises to address the range of challenges facing homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless.
“There was a lot of talk about providing support for job assistance and social work for homeless families,” Eldridge said. “But I don’t see it being increased in the budget.”
Chris Burrell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Burrell_Ledger.