Massachusetts Launches Ambitious Plan to Tackle Vacant State Public Housing Crisis

In an effort to address a persistent crisis of vacant state public housing units, Massachusetts housing officials have unveiled an ambitious “90-day push” initiative aimed at reducing vacancies by the end of the year. The urgency of this action follows a joint investigation conducted by WBUR and ProPublica, revealing that nearly 2,300 of the state’s 41,500 publicly funded apartments remained unoccupied at the end of July, with some vacant for extended periods, despite a severe housing shortage that Governor Maura Healey has labeled a state of emergency. Massachusetts is one of only four states in the nation offering state-subsidized public housing, and with a waitlist of approximately 184,000 individuals seeking these units, the problem is of paramount concern. Unlike state-subsidized housing, federally funded public housing is more common across the United States.

The state’s comprehensive plan focuses on providing financial and logistical support to local housing authorities responsible for maintaining and operating these apartments. Fatima Razzaq, acting director of the public housing division within the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, emphasized the importance of this initiative, stating, “We recognize the shared responsibility in tackling this challenge and are therefore initiating a 90-day push to assist with reoccupying units.”

The new initiative has garnered praise from housing authorities, such as the Chelmsford Housing Authority, whose Executive Director, David Hedison, previously voiced concerns about state policies hindering local agencies. Hedison expressed his satisfaction with the state’s commitment to reducing vacancies, stating, “It appears to me now that all hands are on deck, and if there’s an issue, they’re going to be highly responsive.”

Among the measures outlined in the state’s plan is assistance with covering employee overtime costs for localities with high vacancy rates that receive budget exemptions. The state will also fund contracts with other local agencies to aid in tenant selection and preparing units for new occupants.

In particular, the state will closely monitor local housing authorities with vacancy rates exceeding 10%. State housing management specialists will conduct weekly check-ins and provide technical assistance to address these issues effectively.

Furthermore, state housing officials will visit local agencies where units have remained vacant for more than 60 days—the maximum allowable time for filling a vacancy under state regulations—due to the need for specific repairs. As of the end of July, WBUR and ProPublica discovered nearly 1,800 vacant units, including some with at least three bedrooms, that had remained unoccupied for over 60 days. Approximately 730 of these units have not been rented out for at least a year.

The state’s payment system for local housing authorities requires compensation whether units are occupied or not. As a result, vacant apartments represent a significant waste of Massachusetts taxpayer dollars, stemming from delays and mismanagement at both the state and local levels. Contributing factors to these vacancies include a flawed online tenant selection system developed by the state and underfunding for maintenance, renovations, and staff. For instance, the Watertown housing authority, located in a Boston suburb, operates with just six maintenance workers for 589 units, prompting the executive director, Michael Lara, to seek additional maintenance staff in response to the state’s initiative. Lara commended the state’s announcement, recognizing its commitment to addressing the issue.

In a recent interview, Governor Maura Healey emphasized the importance of the public housing system in tackling the housing crisis. She assigned Housing Secretary Ed Augustus to lead efforts to rectify the problems and centralized the screening process for individuals on the waitlist. The state has also enlisted a marketing firm to expedite the applicant screening process.

Governor Healey pledged to unveil a new bond bill providing additional funding for public housing, although specific details were not disclosed at this time. The state has estimated a backlog of $3.2 billion in repairs needed for public housing units, with some units in such disrepair that they have been condemned or demolished.

In 2018, the Legislature allocated $600 million over five years for capital expenditures in public housing, but it falls short of covering all necessary repairs. The Legislature approved a 16% increase in operating funds for public housing this fiscal year, allocating a total of $107 million, which, while an increase, does not meet the 100% increase advocated for by some housing advocates. Governor Healey had initially proposed maintaining funding at the same level as the previous year, $92 million.

During a recent meeting with David Hedison, the director of the Chelmsford housing authority, Secretary Augustus acknowledged the need for additional funding for repairs and is working on a bond measure.

The challenges faced by local housing authorities in filling vacancies and maintaining units have prompted the state to take these critical steps to address the issue. While some skepticism exists about the need for more staff and funding for repairs, the state’s proactive approach signifies its commitment to addressing this ongoing crisis and ensuring that public housing remains a viable solution for those in need.

The average age of state-funded public housing is 57 years, highlighting the need for comprehensive renovations and repairs to maintain these crucial housing units. The state’s initiative to reduce vacancies represents a significant step forward in providing stable housing for its residents and revitalizing public housing systems to meet the demands of the 21st century.

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