City officials pushed to educate Boston’s renters and residents on the city’s housing lottery system at Saturday’s Fair Housing and Equity Open House in Dudley Square.
The open house featured information tables from municipal housing agencies and private community development organizations, as well as two workshops; one on tenant rights and another on affordable and income restricted housing lotteries.
Although it is an annual event, this year’s open house marked 50 years since the enactment of the Fair Housing Act, a piece of federal anti-discrimination legislation signed into law just a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the housing lottery workshop, Affirmative Marketing Assistant Danchen Xu, in the Office of Fair Housing and Equity, said the program aimed to make what would otherwise be an entirely first-come, first-serve system more equitable. The system is not entirely random; before the randomized sorting process applicants are ranked with preference given to those who meet certain criteria, such as current Boston residents, people with disabilities, and households with at least one person per bedroom listed.
“We want every neighborhood in Boston to reflect the diversity of the city as a whole,” Xu said.
The wait for public housing or rental assistance vouchers from the Boston Housing Authority can reach 10-15 years, and the lottery system serves to randomize applicants for certain Boston Public Development Agency or Department of Neighborhood Development affordable housing units. The program is not an opportunity to “win” a home and there is no single lottery. Hopefuls in an eligible income range submit applications to buy or rent individual properties, and being selected in a lottery essentially allows them to jump what would otherwise be a very long line. Lottery listings can be found on the city’s Metrolist site, as well as newspapers and websites like Craigslist or social media platforms.
Massachusetts’ Comprehensive Permit Act sets a goal that at least 10 percent of any town’s housing should be classified as affordable, meaning it can be rented or owned by households making at or below 80 percent of the area median income. While recent data shows 19 percent of Boston’s housing is affordable, the majority of the state’s cities and towns don’t meet this standard.
Chief of Housing and Neighborhood Development Sheila Dillon said this disparity contributes to the backlog of applicants for affordable housing in Boston and strains resources.
Although those who successfully find housing through the lottery have a much shorter waiting time than those seeking BHA housing—usually a matter of months between the application process and their move-in date—it can still present a struggle for those in urgent situations, and the application process itself can be daunting.
Kathy White said she became homeless last year when she had to abruptly leave her building in Jamaica Plain because mold in the walls was making her sick. She applied for the housing lottery last fall while staying with family.
“There were no shelters, there was no place for me to go,” she said. “The process with the [BPDA] is excruciating; it needs to be condensed.”
White found an apartment through the program and hopes to move in this spring, but felt there was ample room for improvement and simplification.
BPDA Housing Policy Manager Tim Davis said they have moved to accept online applications and are working to develop a centralized portal to streamline the process.
Boston resident Gany Rodriguez attended the lottery workshop because he wants to buy his first home. He said he was encouraged by the program and thought it could help him move forward.
“I didn’t realize how the lottery worked,” he said. “I definitely am considering applying.”
Outreach Coordinator for the Mayor’s Office of Financial Empowerment Herb Bond was one of many at the open house chatting with attendees from behind his organization’s table. He said credit is a frequent barrier to finding affordable housing and a factor that can perpetuate income inequality.
“Our [office’s] main goal is to repair credit,” he said. “The average person, through no fault of their own, doesn’t necessarily understand certain nuances of finances.”
Dillon did indicate that some things were looking up in Boston’s housing situation, saying her office has seen a recent downturn in eviction rates.
“We’re seeing a slightly hopeful trend,” she said.
Detailed information on eligibility for affordable housing and how to apply for the lottery can be found on Metrolist.