With housing in the Boston area one of the most expensive in the nation, the need for more affordable housing has become critical, said presenters at the Tri Community Coalition to End Homelessness event last week.
Chrystal Kornegay, Undersecretary for the State Department of Housing and Community Development was the keynote speaker at the event organized by groups from Watertown, Belmont and Waltham, and was held at St. Joseph’s Church in Belmont.
Kornegay said the Boston area has the fourth most expensive housing prices in the United States and the ninth highest rents.
A person or family spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing is considered housing “burdened.” The average rent for a two-bedroom unit in the Boston area is more than $2,800, and to afford their share of that, a person would have to make $50,000 a year or $25 an hour.
While jobs are being created, she said that many of those people won’t be able to afford the average rent. The technology industry is one that drives the region but those are not the only jobs coming to the Boston area.
“For every one high tech job, five jobs are created. Two are professional – doctors and lawyers, but those tech workers also go out to eat, take cabs and buy coffee,” Kornegay said.
Story of Homelessness
While people have an image of what a homeless person looks like, many people who are or have been homeless do not fit that image. Gabrielle Vacheresse now is the Housing Search Program manager at Homestart Inc., a group committed to ending and preventing homelessness.
She and her husband both had jobs, but suddenly they both found themselves unemployed – she had a high risk pregnancy and he seriously hurt his back on the job.
They stayed with a friend for a while, but soon after she gave birth to her daughter, Vacheresse said she found herself homeless, and in a shelter in Boston, 40 miles from her home on the South Shore. Her husband was placed in a shelter 40 miles the other direction from their hometown.
“We had a lot of firsts in the shelter,” Vacheresse said. “She learned how to walk, how to talk, my first Mother’s Day and her first birthday.”
She applied for public housing and found a new direction in her life – working to help people find affordable housing.
“Homelessness does not have a face, it is a symptom,” Vacheresse said. “So many things could happen to make you homeless. It is not something that defines them, it is something that happens to them.”
Lack of Affordable Housing
Watertown has a significant amount of affordable housing run by the Watertown Housing Authority, with 326 units for the elderly, 240 family units and more than 150 Section 8 units around town. Executive Director Brian Costello said, however, he cannot keep up with the demand.
“Last year we had 44 vacancies and a waiting list of 2,323,” Costello said. “If you were at the end of the list it would take 52 years before you could walk in the door.”
The affordable housing does not mean it is free, Costello emphasized. The average income of residents is between $14,000-15,000 and they pay an average rent of $356 a month. That raises $2.7 million a year for the Watertown Housing Authority, and covers 75-80 percent of the WHA’s budget.
The taxpayers pay an average of $10 a day for a family to be in public housing, Costello said, but he says that is a good deal. Many families in Massachusetts end up in hotels and motels paid for by the state when they need emergency housing to prevent being homeless. That costs $80 a day or more.
Finding More Funds
A group in Watertown has started the campaign to pass the Community Preservation Act in town, which would add up to 3 percent to local property taxes and the funds can be used on projects to create open space, historic preservation and create affordable housing.
Jennifer Van Campen, executive director of Metro West Collaborative, is also working with Invest in Watertown – the group advocating for the CPA. An effort to pass the CPA in Watertown failed several years ago.
If passed, the CPA would get about $1.7 million a year in Watertown to spend on those areas. A Community Preservation Committee would be formed to decide on which projects the money should be spent. At least 10 percent of the money must go to each area, but the rest can be focused on a particular area, Van Campen said.
While the money is needed to create more affordable housing, Van Campen told people at the forum that she needs their help to get it built.
“It is not because of the dollars that it doesn’t happen. It is because people don’t want to live next to it,” Van Campen said. “People come out of the wood work to oppose it. You have to come out and support it at the planning board, the zoning board. It won’t happen otherwise.”