Housing advocates in western Massachusetts have wish list for the state's new housing secretary
At the direction of Governor Maura Healey, Massachusetts now has a cabinet-level department focused on housing, which will no longer be combined with economic development.
At his swearing in on June 1, the new housing secretary, Ed Augustus, said it will be important to think outside the box.
“The 'same old' isn’t going to get us where we need to go,” he said. “And so, we need to be creative and we need to be openminded to a lot of different ideas that maybe previously we weren’t openminded to.”
In western Massachusetts, housing officials and advocates say they’re optimistic the new secretary will address needs particular to this region.
To Springfield’s housing director, Gerry McCafferty, the fact that Augustus is former city manager of Worcester means he likely understands housing problems facing mid-sized cities west of Boston.
“I think housing issues in Boston are not the same as those throughout the rest of the state,” she said. “And so, I feel like he will bring just a really deep understanding of what some of the other issues are.”
McCafferty said that means focusing not just on the number of housing units but on their condition. She said Hampden County, which is less expensive and less profitable to invest in than many other regions, has numerous homes in disrepair, especially those that went through foreclosure. In addition, she said. many homeowners can’t afford maintenance.
“And when you don't repair the roof, you get water in and it causes all kinds of damage,” she said. “Over the years, we've lost housing because of that.”
Those losses can worsen the housing shortage, McCafferty said, which is why she’d like the new state housing department to fund programs that help with maintenance.
“It has not been a big priority for the state," she said. "So I would love to see some state focus on housing conditions of low income people.”
That said, McCafferty agreed there is also a need for more new housing units. While the free market tends to focus on single-family homes, which have the highest profit margin, McCafferty wants the state to support more affordable, multi-family units. Support could come in the form of more tax credits, grants or loans for developers.
“When you're trying to build housing at a lower price point, the cost of materials and labor is more than you're going to sell it for," she said. "So you need some kind of funding that will fill the gap in that place."
And, like other housing advocates, McCafferty is frustrated that many wealthy communities end up blocking low-income developments, which she said contributes to racial segregation.
“We know that most people of color are in Hampden County and specifically in Springfield and Holyoke,” she said. “A lot of that has to do with our housing patterns and how we block a lot of affordable housing from many of the other places.”
Pamela Schwartz, who directs the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, agrees. Like McCafferty, Schwartz would like the state to support changes in local zoning laws and procedures.
“Right now in Western MA, only 18 of our 118 ... communities have affordable housing in the pipeline,” Schwartz said in an email. “We need state-level intervention to address this gap.”
Schwartz also hopes the new housing department puts more money into the RAFT program (Rental Assistance for Families in Transition), so that low-income families can afford the scarce units that are available.
“Right now there are over 125 people seeking rental assistance each day in Hampden and Hampshire County,” she said. “Eviction filings are highest this last quarter than in the last five years. We need to do much more eviction prevention to stem the flow of people into homelessness.”
Many of these issues should be easier to address with the new housing department, said Keith Fairey, president of Way Finders, a housing nonprofit in western Massachusetts. Fairey co-chaired the governor’s transition committee for housing.
In the short term, he expects the secretary to help move a new housing bond bill through the legislature, which would fund new partnerships between the state and developers.
“Really looking at regional needs in terms of creating housing supply,” Fairey said, “and making sure the bond bill has adequate resources to fund projects that work across the commonwealth, not just in eastern Mass., but across different communities from rural to urban to suburban communities — I think that's critical."
Fairey would also like Augustus to address the shortage in emergency and transitional housing, especially as more immigrants come to Massachusetts. And he wants an expansion of the state’s rental voucher program, so that — eventually — anyone who is eligible for a state housing subsidy can get one.
“Which is a big-ticket item but is a resource that can help families long-term afford housing in the private market,” Fairey said.
Currently there are thousands of Massachusetts residents on waiting lists for state and federal housing vouchers — and the wait can be decades.