Aaron Gornstein – Critical of study

Housing advocates lashed out at a think tank’s report that states better management of already-existing subsidized housing in Massachusetts, not the construction of additional units, is needed.

The study, done by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research in Boston, was the focus of a forum last week that drew researchers, housing advocates and politicians.

Sandra B. Henriquez, administrator and chief executive officer of the Boston Housing Authority, called the report a “cheap shot” that focused on past failures of the agency and relied on outdated and inaccurate data.

“Given the reputation of the Pioneer Institute and its board, I am surprised and disappointed in this research, which is woefully lacking in important data and information,” said Henriquez.

“It appears the authors have singled out the BHA to cast a negative light on affordable and public housing in order to further their own ideological agenda,” Henriquez said. Her comments were included in a letter and 16-page response to the report that was sent to the Pioneer Institute.

Aaron Gornstein, executive director of Citizens Housing and Planning Association and a forum participant, was equally critical of the study.

“The central finding of the study is that reducing vacancies and over-housing will free up 1,819 units of public housing. Before building additional affordable housing, the report argues, we should improve public housing first,” said Gornstein. “That’s a bit like saying a carton of unused aspirin has been discovered at Mass. General Hospital so all medical research should be stopped until this newly found aspirin is used up.”

The study draws information from housing agencies throughout the state but focuses extensively on the BHA. According to the study, the BHA has more than 900 vacant units and more than 1,700 over-housed units – units in which the number of bedrooms exceeds the number of residents.

The study also finds that Boston tenants stay in public housing for about seven years, a full year more than the national average. Limiting the number of years that a tenant can live in a subsidized unit is a key recommendation of the report.

The report also questions whether current subsidized housing policies encourage the formation of single-parent households, because many one-parent families already live in subsidized units.

Before state and city officials consider building more subsidized units, efforts should be made to address those issues, according to the study, which is titled “Build More or Manage Better? Subsidized Housing in Massachusetts.”

Howard Husock, one of the study authors, said the report is not intended to “single out” the BHA and its management practices. Husock, a former journalist and the current director of case studies in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said the study features BHA data because the agency keeps good records.

However, Henriquez said the report overstates vacancy rates. The overall vacancy rate is about 6.6 percent, according to the BHA. BHA is working on a three-year plan to renovate the vacant units so they are inhabitable, she said.

The BHA and housing groups like CHAPA have continually pushed for the preservation of existing affordable units.

Married to an Idea
CHAPA released a new report last week that calls for a $1.5 billion investment over the next 10 years to preserve state-aided public housing.

The report, prepared by the Boston and Cambridge housing authorities, also pushes legislation that would enable housing authorities to tap alternative sources – like partnerships with community development corporations – to preserve and create affordable housing.

Several who attended last week’s Pioneer Institute forum, including Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas Finneran, said the argument over whether to stop building more housing and instead focus on better maintenance is flawed. Both should be done, they said.

Finneran said the lack of housing for people of all income levels is a critical issue in Massachusetts, where there is “ferocious resistance” to any new housing construction in many communities. And state funding alone won’t solve the problem, he said.

“We do not have the resources on the state level to build ourselves out of this … crisis,” Finneran said.

Finneran said he agreed with the Pioneer Institute’s recommendations to reduce vacancy rates and over-housing and to create a centralized statewide waiting list for subsidized housing that could be shared by housing authorities and managers of nonprofit and private subsidized housing. Currently, public housing authorities throughout the state have their own waiting lists, and often the same name appears on several lists – inflating the estimates for demand, according to the study

However, Finneran and other housing advocates said they would not support a tenancy tenure limit that forces residents to move out of subsidized housing after a certain period of time.

With average rents for a two-bedroom apartment in Boston running about $1,500 a month and median homes prices hovering around $275,000, many advocates fear tenants would be left homeless if they were forced to move out of subsidized units.

“Where would they go?” asked Henriquez.

Another sticking point for some who attended the forum was Husok’s support of marriage and two-income households as a way to afford housing.

Kathy Brown, a member of the Boston Tenant Coalition, said a minimum-wage earner would have to work 200 hours a week to afford a market-rate apartment in Boston.

“At that rate, a person would need three spouses,” to be able to afford an apartment, Brown said.

City Officials, Advocates Bash New Subsidized Housing Study

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min