Mass. housing market insiders outline challenges

THINKSTOCK
THINKSTOCK

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 29, 2014…With housing demand driving rents and prices up in some areas of Massachusetts, all manner of construction could serve to relieve the pressure, according to an affordable housing developer in Somerville.

“There is such pent-up demand in a place like Somerville that simply building housing at all levels will help,” said Somerville Community Corporation Executive CEO Danny LeBlanc, during a lobby day for affordable housing proponents. He told the News Service, “My work is on the affordable side, but developers wouldn’t be building luxury condos if there weren’t people to buy them and my general feeling is if we don’t build new housing for that segment of the population, they’re simply going to be seeking to buy existing housing, which will bid those prices up.”

LeBlanc said redevelopment in the city has another positive impact on the housing situation, as 20 percent of 6,000 planned units of housing will be designated affordable.

High rents have forced the Somerville Homeless Coalition out of the city for apartments it rents using federal dollars restricted to units priced at a “fair market rate,” said Mark Alston-Follansbee, executive director of the coalition.

“We can’t find apartments anymore in Somerville that are affordable at our level, so we’re having to put people in Everett and we don’t know where we’re going to go next,” Alston-Follansbee told the News Service. “We’ve had this problem for over a year now.”

Follansbee said landlords have opted out of the program providing 50 leased units to homeless individuals with disabilities because “they know that they can get a much higher rent on the open market.” Placing individuals in Everett adds to travel time for staff who provide services for tenants, he said.

After lauding Rep. Kevin Honan and Sen. Jamie Eldridge, the co-chairmen of Housing Committee, for passage of a housing bond bill, Citizens Housing and Planning Association officials laid out some priorities for lawmakers during a lobby day Wednesday.

At the top of its spending priorities, CHAPA is seeking $87.5 million for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, which they say will increase the number of housing vouchers by 2,000 from the roughly 7,000 vouchers in circulation. Gov. Deval Patrick level-funded MRVP at $57.5 million in his budget recommendation unveiled last week and currently being reviewed by a House committee.

Rep. Antonio Cabral, of New Bedford, and Sen. Benjamin Downing, of Pittsfield, wrote to legislative leadership in January, asking for funding to recapitalize the Brownfields Redevelopment Fund, which finances the cleanup of contaminated properties.

According to the letter provided by CHAPA, the fund began in 1998 and has invested $78 million through more than 630 grant awards, supporting “housing and commercial development on remediated brownfields.” The lawmakers highlighted the conversion of a former tire shop in Haverhill into a parking garage, the construction of the RiverMills senior center in Chicopee, and the conversion of a former coal storage in Plymouth into part of the town’s recreation system.

In June 2013, MassDevelopment reported the brownfields fund had $1 million cash. It had previously been capitalized with $30 million on two occasions.

Somerville Community Corporation owns 116 affordable rental units and additional condominiums, according to its website, and LeBlanc said that without the development of additional housing for people at all rungs on the economic ladder, the demand will continue to drive up the cost of housing.

“At all levels of housing, we’re not building it fast enough. And that runs from private market-rate unsubsidized housing all the way down to housing for homeless families,” LeBlanc said.

The homeless shelters that help the state meet its mandate to provide shelter to those in need have long been overcrowded, making it difficult to find a place for a homeless person in need, Alston-Follansbee said.

“It’s a constant problem because the shelters are over-capacity. Individual shelters have operated at 125 percent capacity for 10 years,” Alston-Follansbee said. He said the problem of homelessness will persist without jobs providing better finances to people struggling in the economy.

In his State of the Commonwealth address Tuesday night, Gov. Patrick said multi-family housing starts have tripled in Massachusetts and described commercial development as “on the rebound.”

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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