Christopher Norris

Twelve years ago this month, Massachusetts released a report of its fiveyear plan to end homelessness. Did it succeed?  

The data clearly suggests that it did not. 

In 2007, there were fewer than 1,900 shelter units administered by the Department of Transitional Assistance for families. The annual cost for family shelter was $86 million. Today, more than 3,500 families sleep in these shelters each night, and the annual cost has ballooned to $179 million. 

There has been some progress in helping certain groups of people, such as veterans and individuals. However, many more homeless families are sheltered nightly than in 2007. At Metro Housing, the majority of the people we serve are families who are at risk of homelessness or who are homeless. So, when it comes to families who are homeless, where were we then? What else can be done now? 

State Doesn’t Meet Needs 

The 2007 report opened with the laudable statement: “Ending and preventing homelessness is possible.” However, it then went on, unfortunately, to say that the commission that wrote the report did not intend “to solve the related and underlying causes of homelessness.”   

“There is no way to end homelessness without creating many more viable housing alternatives for Massachusetts families who have extremely low income, it continued.   

Although Massachusetts is a leader in providing subsidized housing, we are nowhere close to meeting the need. There are more than 300,000 households in Massachusetts with extremely low incomes spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing expenses and not receiving housing assistance. In the past two years the state funded more than 4,100 units in tax credit developments, but only 730 of those are restricted for households with extremely low incomes. 

In 2007, there were fewer than 1,900 shelter units administered by the Department of Transitional Assistance for families. The annual cost for family shelter was $86 million. Today, more than 3,500 families sleep in these shelters each night, and the annual cost has ballooned to $179 million.

Additionallyin this current legislative session the primary housing production bill endorsed by the administration is silent when it comes to housing families with extremely low incomes. Although the 2007 report included a call to “develop effective measuring tools to assess progress,” there is no statewide goal for the production of housing that serves households with ELI or a public goal to reduce the number of families who require emergency shelter and the corresponding shelter capacity. 

Massachusetts needs new housing and to preserve what already exists. However, we must be clear about our policy objectives and goals if we want to measure success.  

If the goal is to reduce barriers to building multi-family housing near transit, then the action will be different than if the goal is to provide housing for families who are homeless. If the goal is to provide housing for households who earn more than $100,000 a year, then the action will be different than if the goal is to provide housing for a single mother with two kids who is earning $15,000 a year.  

There are competing interestsand we need to clearly state what we mean. We cannot just say “build affordable housing.” Tom Brady’s house in Brookline, at its recently reduced price of $33.9 million is affordable to someone just as a two-bedroom below market middle income house priced at $351,400 is affordable to someone. We have to specify who can afford a particular home and not fall for the catch-all term “affordable housing. 

Three Key Strategies 

There are things that the commonwealth can do to achieve true progress. They are not necessarily easy or inexpensivebut these approaches can directly lead to producing homes that are affordable to families most in need and increasing their ability to pay for such housing. 

Commit to increased housing production for households with extremely low incomes. This can be accomplished by adding bricksandmortar dollars like the governor included in his recent budget or by funding new public housing. Production could also take the form of additional vouchers, funded at the city, state or federal levels.  

Provide economic opportunity programs with realistic expectations and definitions of success. Massachusetts is blessed with an abundance of creative and innovative efforts that have been proven to work as well as a cadre of adept and smart community partners. Expand programs that encourage economic mobility such as Family Self Sufficiency, MassLEAP and Family Economic StabilityThis will result in better health, educational, economic and social outcomes. 

Commit to tracking the data for efforts that work. What is being produced now? What do we want to produce? What outcomes do we hope to achieve, and what outcomes are being achieved? Progress needs to be measured and reported on annually so that policy makers can coordinate resources to those outcomes that are a priority. 

The commonwealth and others can continue to issue reports regarding homelessness in Massachusetts like was done in 2000, in 2003, in 2007, in 2017 and likely multiple other times. But, if our policy makers do not step up and allocate the financial and technological resources to implement the suggestions, then with the passage of another dozen years we will be in exactly the same position we are now. However, if we do make changes, then, to quote the 2007 report, “ending and preventing homelessness is possible.” 

Chris Norris is executive director of Metro Housing|Boston 

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