Housing protections needed, low-income residents say
By Evan Lips | March 8, 2016, 18:16 EST
BOSTON – For Holly Marcus, the fear of having to leave her North End neighborhood after nearly 40 years is beginning to feel real.
Marcus was one of dozens of Massachusetts residents who showed up at the State House on Tuesday morning to testify for a proposal that would prevent landlords from acting on expiring federal restrictions that currently shelter subsidized apartments from the forces of supply and demand.
“The city should be accessible for every income and not just for the wealthy,” Marcus told the NewBostonPost before Tuesday’s public hearing, held by the Joint Committee on Housing. “I’m 56 years old now, and the North End has been my home since I was 18.”
Marcus’s sliver of the city, however, is just one of many Boston residences in high demand. According to a 2015 Northeastern University study, rents citywide have risen steadily since 2009 and now average $2,100 per month for a one-bedroom unit.
Tuesday’s hearing saw emotional testimony from disabled and elderly residents and those living primarily on Social Security payments, like Joe Perry, a Marcus neighbor at Mercantile Wharf, an apartment building featuring 85 subsidized units.
“I was lucky to get in there,” Walsh told the committee.
Prior to hearing from Marcus and other residents, state Rep. Frank Smizik (D-Brookline) spoke to the committee. Smizik, who authored the House version of the bill, revisited the enactment of the state’s so-called Chapter 40-T law, a 2009 measure that sought to preserve the commonwealth’s housing stock.
Smizik pointed out that the law gives the state a “right-of-first-refusal” on properties that may be about to emerge from government controls.
“In practice, it has failed to provide the safety net for affordable-housing residents that we’d hoped for,” Smizik said. “Instead, many building owners are not selling their properties but converting them” into market-rate residences.
Smizik said his proposal, dubbed the Enabling Act, would “compliment 40-T” by requiring the renewal of expiring Section 8 housing contracts while still allowing building owners to increase returns through U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs that match market-rate rents.
“This decreases the risk of building owners to decline renewing Section 8 contracts,” Smizik added, noting that his proposal also allows for municipalities to deny building owners’ requests to convert Section 8 apartments into condominiums.
According to Smizik, the state has “lost” more than 2,400 subsidized units since 40-T was enacted in 2009.
“This is critical as more than 16,440 families across the state currently face the expiration of federal HUD and state subsidy contracts on their multifamily apartment buildings by 2018,” Smizik said.
Committee member and state Rep. Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge) expressed concern over the statistics offered by Smizik and said that rents are “out of whack” in Cambridge.
“If we don’t enact this piece of legislation, the question we’re going to have to ask ourselves is, ‘What are we doing to ensure that families don’t go into homelessness?” Decker said. “Once they’re homeless, the cost to the state is far greater.”
Molly Hannan, who lives at Stony Brook Gardens in Roslindale, said homelessness is already at an “epidemic” level in Massachusetts.
“Just take a walk through the Common, you can see all the homeless people,” she added, referring to the city’s downtown public park.
Chuck Rivers of the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee told the panel that the homeless cycle is nearly impossible to break for those who work but can’t afford to rent a home.
“The difference between affordable housing and low-income housing is not just semantics. For affordable housing you have to be making over $40,000 a year,” he said. “If you’re working a job and have to live in a shelter, that’s not affordable housing.”
Others who testified included Yumi Ohi, a Beacon Hill resident who lives in a subsidized apartment on Myrtle Street.
“We all rely on subsidies for our way of life,” she said. “Beacon Hill is our home, despite any sort of stereotypes that only wealthy people live in the area.”
“If these properties were renting at market rate, the effects would be absolutely devastating,” she said.
Somerville resident John Robinson said he remembers the fear he felt when he discovered a spreadsheet showing Massachusetts’ inventory of subsidized housing. A Section 8 agreement covering his complex at Pearl Street Park is set to expire in September 2018.
Pausing to choke back his emotions, Robinson apologized to the committee.
“I get emotional,” he said. “I see too much suffering and deprivation.
“If I come to that point in 2018 where I’m faced with this, I will be homeless because I will not be able to afford market-rate rent on my income.”