Council examines funding housing vouchers

The Boston City Council held a hearing this morning on a proposal advanced by the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants, the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee and the Save Our Section 8/ City Policy Commitee to have the City of Boston fund a voucher program to combat homelessness and housing instability. Back Bay/Fenway Councilor Josh Zakim chaired the meeting, with Council president Michelle Wu, Roxbury Councilor Tito Jackson, Dorchester Councilor Andrea Campbell and Jamaica Plain/West Roxbury Councilor Matt O’Malley were also present.

At-Large Councilor Ayanna Pressley was not present, but sent a statement Zakim read out at the beginning of the hearing, where she said that dealing with homelessness means that “It is critical for us to pursue every strategy.”

Michael Kane of the Mass Alliance for Hud Tenants said that with av City budget of $2.8 billion, there ought to be enough money to start a $5 million voucher program, which could then be funded by $15 million in Community Preservation Act funds. There are also proposals to fund vouchers from DND money.

“The City certainly believes that permanent housing is very important,” said Sheila Dillon, dirtector of the Department of Neighborhood Development.

She told the Councilors that the DND already funds 1200 rental vouchers and prioritizes setting aside affordable units for homeless in its developments. She said that federal funding for vouchers and other forms of rental assistance and public housing was declining. Dillon also pointed out that DND is funded by linkage and other development fees and that a voucher program funded from that would be vulnerable to a real estate slowdown.

According to Robert Garrett of the DND, there’s a cost of $1 million for every 70 vouchers. It’s not exact because the amount of the voucher varies with the person’s income. Dillon said that 500 vouchers would cost $9.5 million a year.

Kane disputed this, saying that in Washington, DC, which the Boston proposal is modeled on, the vouchers are worth $12,000 per unit while the DND’s numbers are $20,000 per unit. He said that costs should be similar for Boston.

This ignores the fact that Washington is much more housing friendly than Boston is. DC has been expanding it’s housing supply much faster and in greater numbers than Boston. In 2015, according to US Census data, DC issued around 5,000 building permits more than Boston. Boston’s median rent is also higher than Washington’s.

Jackson said that a city-funded voucher program could be more sustainable in the long run than the current assistance to homeless people provided by the City. Not only could money be saved from sheltering families in motels at great cost, but the benefits of stable housing could help people get on their feet sooner and need less assistance.

O’Malley agreed and suggested a pilot program could be done.

In fact, the whole hearing ignored the 20,000 lbs elephant in the room: the lack of supply. While the need to build more housing is acknowledged by the Walsh Administration, organizations like the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants have completely ignored the surging demand and incredibly long review process that’s been driving up costs in favor of trying to bring back rent control and expanding voucher programs. Rent control will not expand the supply of housing — it may even decrease it, as existing landlords take units off the market or rush to convert them to condos (something that happens all the time in San Francisco) — and nor will a voucher program. In a sellers’ market a voucher program may do nothing because a landlord will find college students with rich suburban parents or groups of young professionals capable of driving up the amount of rent needed to be covered by a voucher, reducing the total value of the program.

The vouchers would need to be teamed with a substantial increase in housing supply.

Kane said that Mayor Martin Walsh’s housing plan doesn’t produce one net unit of low income housing and reiterated that the City ought to be able to find $5 million in a $2.8 billion budget.

“The crisis is very real,” he said. “You can see it in everty neighborhood.”




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