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'The need has mushroomed': Mass. housing subsidies, local projects can't keep up with rental demand

In this file photo, community organizer Zulmalee Rivera, who received the Massachusetts state voucher, holds a broom and looks out the window in her apartment in Springfield.
Nirvani Williams
In this file photo, community organizer Zulmalee Rivera, who received the Massachusetts state voucher, holds a broom and looks out the window in her apartment in Springfield.

There are a lot of challenges facing people who can’t afford today’s housing and sometimes wait years for government assistance. After you get on the waitlist, it often takes 10 to 15 years to get a voucher for federal Section 8 housing, but once you do, a large portion of the rent is paid for.

Massachusetts also has a voucher program, which has historically been less generous, but sometimes just as hard to qualify for.

Zulmalee Rivera is a community organizer in Springfield who applied for a federal Section 8 voucher from a housing nonprofit. With that voucher, she would have had to pay about a third of her income toward the rent and the government would pay the rest. But she said she never got a response.

So instead she turned to the state voucher program. It was not an easy process.

“I felt like they pretty much wanted my DNA, you know. Like, they wanted everything, super invasive … with my bank accounts,” Rivera said. “I didn't mind giving up any proof of income, but just the paperwork and the amount of things that you have to go through to get it.”

It wasn’t a quick process, either. Rivera, 44, said she applied for the state voucher right after graduating high school, and it took four years just to get a letter saying she was on the waitlist.

For a time, she didn’t qualify, but then she reapplied. While she waited another decade, she rented from a family member who gave her a discount.

“It wasn't easy trying to get an apartment in my price range here in western Mass.," she said. "And finally, this past year in December, I got called saying that I was on the top of the list."

Massachusetts has the largest state-funded rental assistance program in the country, according to a study from the Boston Foundation. But state vouchers serve about 10,000 households, which is only 4% of the quarter of a million who are actually eligible.

Chris Norris is with Metro Housing Boston, which worked on the report. He said it’s time for Massachusetts not only to dedicate more money to its voucher system, but to declare it an entitlement and codify it into state housing law.

“The program only exists in the state budget," Norris said. "So the first step is to create some predictability around how the program works and who it's going to serve."

The Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development declined an interview, but sent an email saying both the number and value of state vouchers have increased in recent years. As of January 1, they ask tenants to pay 30% of their net income and the government pays the rest. The renter’s share used to be up to 40% of their gross income, the department said.

Rivera said she pays $900 towards her $1,100 rent, though that's before the recent change.

“The cost of living is so high that when everything gets weighed out — you know, it's still hard to just keep pushing forward with a system like this,” Rivera said.  

Zulmalee Rivera, who receives a Massachusetts state voucher, walking into her Springfield, Massachusetts, apartment.
Nirvani Williams
Zulmalee Rivera, who receives a Massachusetts state voucher, walking into her Springfield, Massachusetts, apartment.

If someone has failed to get either federal or state vouchers, there is another affordable housing option: apply to live in a building that has deep discounts for low-income renters. Private developers and nonprofits like Way Finders or Valley Community Development get government funding to build below-market-rate housing sometimes as part of a bigger project. But there are often long waiting lists for those places too.

Amber Fitzgerald is a married, stay-at-home mom to a 5-year-old. She said her family has been seeking a new apartment for a year, ever since their landlord raised the rent. She said they’ve been turned down for some market-rate apartments based on her credit score.

“I have Social Security, I have disabilities, and I qualify for low-income and all that,” Fitzgerald said. “But to get into a new apartment, it's crazy now. Everybody, everybody's on a waiting list.” 

Fitzgerald said she’s spent months on waiting lists for several Springfield subsidized developments. She keeps calling, but nobody answers.

“And it's just it's like, where do we go? What do we do,” she said. 

The state said the number of affordable housing projects has steadily increased over the last decade, although the number of new units went down considerably in 2022.

Springfield’s housing director, Gerry McCafferty, said there just isn't enough low-cost housing even though her agency helps create between 40 to 100 new units a year.

“The need has kind of mushroomed,” McCafferty said. “And the lead-up process to do these projects is very long. So no, adding 40 units in a year does not relieve the logjam at all.”

Keri Svendsen, 30, considered herself one of the lucky ones. She moved to Springfield to get a master's degree in social work. At first, she paid market rent, sharing an apartment with roommates.

After a few years, Svendsen, who is blind, qualified for a subsidized development reserved for elderly and disabled people.

“I signed the lease and was happy I finally had my own space,” she said.

But within a year, her salary increased slightly at the community mental health clinic where she works — just enough to push her out of the income limits for public housing. She got a letter giving her a year to move out.

“I can't rent on the normal market. They want you to show three times the rent in your monthly income. I work at human services. We don't get paid that much,” she said.

With most rents for even small one-bedrooms going for $1,200 or $1,300, her salary just wasn’t enough.

So without a public housing option, “I'm going to look at just buying a condo," she said. "I think it's sad. I can get a mortgage easier than I can rent."

Svendsen knows she’s fortunate to have that option. She said many of her clients at the health center are in an even worse situation than she is.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.
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