It’s Time to Discuss: Residency Requirements and Tying Motels to Unemployment Rates

Bill H.1159188th (Current)

An Act relative to emergency hotel/motel housing requirements

By Mr. Speliotis of Danvers, a petition (accompanied by bill, House, No. 1159) of Theodore C. Speliotis and Joan Lovely relative to emergency hotel or motel housing requirements. Housing.

Sponsors: Theodore C. Speliotis 
Status: Referred to Joint Committee on Housing
  Hearing Scheduled for 6/4/2013 at 10:00 AM in B-2 

SECTION 1. Notwithstanding any general or special law or any rule or regulation to the contrary Chapter 23B of the General Laws is hereby amended by inserting after section 30B the following new section: Section 30BB: Any participant in the Department of Housing and Community Development’s emergency housing program shall be eligible for said program if such participant constitutes a resident of the Commonwealth, as defined in section 1 of chapter 176J of the General Laws, for not less than six months prior to the Department of Housing and Community Development placing said participant in a hotel or motel for emergency housing purposes. SECTION 2. Notwithstanding any general or special law or any rule or regulation to the contrary Chapter 23B of the General Laws is hereby amended by inserting after section 30BB the following new section: Section 30BB1/2: In the event that the unemployment rate of the Commonwealth, as reported monthly by the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, is less than or equal to six percent, the Department of Housing and Community Development shall suspend its placement of participants in hotels and motels pursuant to its emergency housing program; provided, however, in the event that said unemployment rate exceeds six percent, said program shall continue. SECTION 3. This act shall take effect upon passage.

The HFF Response:

Homes for Families supports S598, S597, H1156 and H1161 and any efforts to preserve housing, protect families/tenants, and prevent homelessness.  But we are here today to speak in opposition to H1159.

The bill is well intended and we appreciate Representative Speliotis’s leadership and concern on the issue.  However, the bill is not realistic.  It aims to do two things- implement a strict residency requirement and end motel use.

First, beginning in FY13 a residency requirement was implemented, to the extent of what is permitted by the constitutional right to travel and pursue opportunity.  We have discussed the “out of state/community” issue with National Groups, who explain that all communities feel they are a “magnet for homelessness.” Yet, the data shows a baseline rate of 10-13% of out of area applicants in any community.  Massachusetts has traditionally had about 10% of out of state families, putting us at the low end.

There seem to be two reactions to out of state families- to exclude them- which is unconstitutional and puts families and communities at risk.  If families are here- be it seeking better opportunities, for medical care, or fleeing domestic violence- they are here.

Or, the reaction is not to talk about it.  Instead, we should be monitoring the numbers, the reason, and the communities of origin and looking at trends so that we can address the issue proactively, allocate resources accordingly, support families with an appropriate response and be able to use the data for federal advocacy.

We have to recognize that there are legitimate reasons for coming here and legitimate reasons for leaving Massachusetts- such as seeking cheaper rent.  We cannot put walls up between our states or communities.

As for motel use.  Again, the intent is good.  We all want out of motels, but we must be careful not to over-regulate. Motel use can add flexibility to the system if utilized strategically.  It is not motel use that is the issue, but long term stays and over reliance- which is what we are facing now.  Yes, we want to stop needing to use motels, but the unemployment rate is not the right mechanism to determine when or how.

The primary reason for homelessness is the fact that wages have not kept pace with rent. For example, Home health aides, medical technicians, the service industry, and even the human service industry don’t pay workers sufficient wages to cover the high cost of rent.  Even if we had enough jobs and pay scales in line with the housing market, we still need to consider families that have disabilities, long and short term health issues, domestic violence and abuse and other barriers such as limited English, skills levels and CORI issues.

Homelessness is most often caused by failures in other systems- the education system, child protection, health care and structural inequalities.  Until we fix those other systems and reduce the rent/wage gap there cannot be a single mechanism or gauge to determine the appropriateness of motel use.

Instead, we need to look at solutions.  We recommend the following imperatives to meet our shared goal of reducing reliance on motels:

  • Continued investment in housing and prevention
  • Services to families in motels
  • Expand shelter capacity

Expanding capacity is not ideal; we’d rather expand the affordable housing stock.  But if we want to get out of motels, it must be considered.  However, to ease the pressure on the Emergency Assistance program, expansion should be considered in other systems- we need more stock and/or alternative programming for teen parents, parents aging out of DCF, domestic violence programs, substance abuse programs and mental health programs and for families with medical needs. Increasing these programs will ease the stress on the EA system and provide more appropriate environments to subpopulations struggling with housing stability.

We would love to hear your response and thoughts on the matter.  We can’t ignore these issues, let’s discuss!