There are 160,000 people in Massachusetts on waiting lists for public housing, according to housing authority representatives who visited the State House Thursday to ask for more state funding and a larger role in helping the state tackle its affordable housing problem.
Speakers at the lobby day held by the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (MassNAHRO) also called for the production of more public housing units.
MassNAHRO’s members, which include 242 local housing authorities and four community development agencies, own or manage 43,000 state public housing units and 38,000 federal public housing units.
“What we have here is what we already know, is that we have an affordable housing crisis in Massachusetts and throughout the country, and when I think of these staggering waiting list numbers, I always say to myself, what’s the solution?” said MassNAHRO Board President Brian Costello, the executive director of the Watertown Housing Authority. “And for me, it always comes back to Kevin.”
That’s not Housing Committee Co-chair Rep. Kevin Honan, Costello noted, but actor Kevin Costner – more specifically, Costner’s character Ray in the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams,” who hears a mysterious voice in his cornfield instructing him, “If you build it, he will come.”
Costello said there is an “absolutely phenomenal” demand for affordable housing in Massachusetts, and building more affordable housing is part of the solution. The message Costello said he hears, whispered by his housing authority predecessors, is “If you can build it, they’re already here.”
“The mission of MassNARHO, the mission of this state legislature, is to build, and we need to be creative and innovative,” he said.
Gov. Charlie Baker last week filed a bill that aims to spur housing production in communities across Massachusetts by lowering the threshold for certain municipal zoning changes from two-thirds to a simple majority. He filed a similar bill last session that never got a vote in the legislature. Critics of the governor’s bill say it needs more explicit requirements to ensure the production of affordable housing.
Susan Bonner, the tenant board member on the Nahant Housing Authority, said she has always thought public housing provides “the best bang for your buck” in addressing housing concerns, particularly for those she said occupy the “last three rungs on the ladder” – people who are low-income, on a fixed income, or earning no income.
“They can build all the houses they want for deluxe models; however, I don’t know who’s going to pay to live in them,” Bonner said. “But we all still need a place to live in the meantime.”
Members who visited lawmakers on Thursday asked them to boost the funding for state subsidies to public housing authorities to $72 million in fiscal 2020. In his spending plan for next year, Baker recommended an appropriation of $65.5 million, the same amount included in this year’s budget.
According to MassNAHRO, this year’s budget included the first hike in subsidy funding after six years of level-funding at $64.5 million.
“As you know, and what you want to tell your legislators, thank you for the extra from last year, that million dollars is something,” Donna Brown-Rego, MassNAHRO’s executive director, told lobby day participants. “But the documented actual need is closer to $120 million, and maybe that’s not even enough.”