As Representative Rushing often reminds audiences, the answer to the question, “Why are people homeless?” is actually quite simple. The answer is, “because they don’t have a home.” Using that logic to solve homelessness, we need two primary approaches- to increase the stock of affordable housing available to families who are homeless and to prevent households from losing their homes in the first place. Our specific recommendations based on the input from Visioning Day are:
- Implement an aggressive and expansive housing agenda which includes deep investments in housing subsidies, access to public housing, new development and zoning reform that promotes increased multi -family housing development
- Develop a more comprehensive and accessible homelessness prevention system that includes flexible resources, services, supports and pathways to opportunity.
MRVP, Prevention and Public Housing were ranked by Visioning Day attendees as the three most important budget priorities. Voucher distribution and access to services were ranked as the top issues for Homes for Families to prioritize. The breakout group with the most attendance was the group on Housing, and the issues of housing and prevention were raised in each distinct discussion group.
MRVP and public housing are 2 of the state’s most effective defenses against homelessness. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2014 Out of Reach report, on average, a minimum wage earner in Massachusetts must work 3 full time jobs in order to afford the average rent of a 2-bedroom apartment. In Boston, 3.5 minimum wage jobs are required. The gap between what is affordable to an SSI recipient and fair market rent is a remarkable $1038*.
MRVP and public housing make housing affordable to households in a market that is often hostile toward their needs and available resources. Bold investments in these programs will assist the state on its path to increased affordable housing development, particularly supportive housing units that will provide wrap around services to increase family and community stability. The implementation of more residential service providers in public housing and private development could also reduce evictions and be used as a leverage point for easing the strict eligibility requirements for families that may have credit, CORI or other negative housing histories.
Zoning restrictions in many local communities often create challenges to the development of housing for low income households. In addition to funding affordable housing programs, elected officials should pass legislation that promotes local land use policies that support the development of small-parcel and/or multi-family development in addition revisiting and enforcing Chapter 40 to allow the state to provide communities with the appropriate tools for planning and development.
You know the stories- the family that became homeless after a layoff, a medical emergency, a no fault eviction without enough savings for first and last- and we know you know the cost argument: Many instances of homelessness can be prevented with a fraction of what will be spent on sheltering that same family. Flexible cash assistance is a vital resource for families that need a short term infusion of money to preserve their tenancy during a short term economic emergency. The challenge is to ensure that programs, like RAFT, are fully funded through the entire fiscal year, and that private, municipal and other prevention programs are coordinated and accessible so that families and case workers don’t need to go on a wild goose chase in the middle of an economic crisis. We also know that mediation and legal representation can be critical in preventing evictions.
However, the long term effectiveness of prevention through short term financial assistance is limited by the vast gap between wages and rent. Without a living wage, a long term subsidy, ongoing gap funding, and/or a social/familial network of means, homelessness may be inevitable. A comprehensive prevention system would also provide the supports, resources and opportunities for long term housing stability. According to DHCD, in fiscal year 2014, 14% of families eligible for emergency assistance were homeless due to eviction. At the same time, over half of eligible families were living in irregular housing situations or in homes where they were not the primary tenant**. Many of the younger families who are in shelter never had their own apartment. Prevention should also consider how to support young parents to live independently.
Resources, supports and opportunities needs to be accessible. Prevention discussions often highlight the need for upstream interventions. The Maximizing Resources group talked about the role of schools and the health care community as core partners in doing outreach and linking families to resources. Participants in the Shelter Breakout group discussed the positive attributes of shelter, including: supportive services, peer support, material goods, trainings and workshops, and housing advocacy. How can prevention programs reach families sooner and incorporate such components, so that families can access the supports and opportunities they need without having to enter shelter?
How do we push this agenda forward?
This is where you come in! What are the specific programs and models that are working? What are the topics that you want to learn more about? What data do we need to make our point? What data is already out there? What are your stories? What are the resources you are willing to advocate for?
*National Low Income Housing Coalition, Out Of Reach, March 2014. http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/oor/2014-OOR-MA.pdf
** DHCD Emergency Assistance Program Fiscal Year 2014, Fourth Quarter Report http://www.mass.gov/hed/docs/dhcd/hs/ea/fy14q4eareport.pdf, July 31, 2014