Forum Draws Attention to Need for More Affordable Housing in Area

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Charlie Breitrose

Undersecretary of Housing and Community Development Chrystal Kornegay spoke at a homelessness and affordable housing forum in Belmont recently.

Undersecretary of Housing and Community Development Chrystal Kornegay spoke at a homelessness and affordable housing forum in Belmont recently.

Charlie Breitrose

Undersecretary of Housing and Community Development Chrystal Kornegay spoke at a homelessness and affordable housing forum in Belmont recently.

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.”

2 thoughts on “Forum Draws Attention to Need for More Affordable Housing in Area

  1. I’d like to comment on Ms Van Campen’s comment at the end of the article about people “not wanting to live next to it” Let me tell you what…I lived “next to it” the “it” being housing that Jennifer ran. There were a bunch of good people that lived there that truly needed the assistance. BUT there was a few people that didn’t care about anything or anyone and had no intentions of trying to work their way out of trouble. These weren’t local families that needed help. They were people that came here from other states and countries because Massachusetts makes it easy to live on the dole if you don’t want to do anything to help yourself. That being said I grew up in section 8 housing. And wanted better for my young family. I work 2 jobs and my wife works full time so I could buy my own home next to Jennifer’s property. My land was destroyed, my wife was threatened with physical and verbal abuse. This lead to physical confrontations. Picking up cigarette butts every day in my yard, people parking in my driveway, then yelling at me or my wife when they were told it wasn’t ok to park there. My driveway was blocked by cars so no one could get in or out and this is the short list……this was all DAILY! Like I said it was only a few people. But enough to force me to sell a house I bought on my own as a young man and was so proud of. I had plans of raising my family there but had to move when things got physical. I did not want to raise my kids in that environment. After the first incident I went to Jennifer’s office and we had a great talk. She said I could call her for anything. So I did. That was the last nice conversation we had. She did absolutely nothing about any of my concerns. The only answer was “oh….well…feel free to call the police..” The police can only do so much. The problem is with the management. Jennifer Van Campen is a terrible manager and did nothing for the neighbors of this property. Do not listen to this women. She once told me she knew what I was going through because she lived near a church…..Really????? Physical violence threatened against my wife by a grown man compares to living near a church????? Now I’m confused!
    This housing is much needed for sure. In Watertown and all over the state. It needs good management as well. I have worked in a lot of subsidized,section 8,and state funded housing all over Boston and Framingham and have never seen problems like I saw with my neighboring housing in Watertown.
    Thank you for taking the time to read.

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