Lack of affordable, decent, and stable housing is inextricably linked to poverty. Lack of housing and housing instability affects peoples’ health, interferes with employment opportunities, disrupts educational access, and creates long-term health, public safety, educational and other social costs.
Massachusetts has the 7th highest housing costs in the country. The average fair market rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the Commonwealth is $1,252 a month. The reality is that many low income and working poor families work multiple jobs, yet are still unable to afford housing in Massachusetts. To afford average rent in the state, a household must include 3 minimum wage earners working 40 hours per week.
MLRI’s Housing Unit focuses on preserving and creating affordable housing and ensuring that families have fair and equal access to safe and stable housing, as well as fair and equal access to the court system. We also focus on protecting the basic rights of public housing tenants and low-income tenants in private rental properties and creating a pathway to jobs for public housing tenants. MLRI's current housing advocacy includes the following initiaves:
Advocating for Statewide Expansion of the Housing Court:
Currently, approximately 30% of the state’s population does not have access to a Housing Court. See www.HousingCourt4All.com. The Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission made statewide Housing Court expansion one of its key priorities and enlisted MLRI to coordinate the strategy. In 2013/2014, MLRI worked with the Commission and the Chief Justice of the Housing Court Department on a legislative proposal seeking the comprehensive expansion of the Housing Court Department to cover the entire state. On February 26, 2014, the Supreme Judicial Court and Trial Court publicly announced the proposed legislation and released it to the Judiciary Committee in the State Legislature. (See http://www.mass.gov/courts/news-pubs/sjc/judiciary-submits-proposal-to-expand-housing-court.html). MLRI will continue to work with Commission, the Housing Court Department, local legal services partners, public health officials, community groups, and a broad base of local stakeholders to pass this legislation.
Creating a Pathway to Job Training and Economic Opportunity for Public Housing Tenants:
MLRI will advocate for the inclusion of meaningful educational and training resources for public housing residents statewide as an essential element of public housing reform. This includes advocating for pre-apprenticeship program based on the Boston Housing Authority's Building Pathways program, where low-income public housing and Section 8 residents get access to a building trades apprenticeship slots that lead to well-paying jobs which can sustain a family. MLRI has developed support for this from MassNAHRO, which represents housing authorities, and the Mass Union of Public Housing Tenants, which represents tenants.
Promoting Fair Housing and Regional Equity:
MLRI continues to be the state’s chief advocate for stronger fair housing policies in the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program (LIHTC) and had made good progress over the years. For years, MLRI has testified, commented on and met with state agencies to reverse the process that results in the creation of LIHTC affordable rental housing units being clustered in low income communities. In order to prevent patterns of de facto housing segregation, there has to be a much more even balance between locating LIHTC units in “high-opportunity” communities and in more challenging neighborhoods. Our goal in FY14 is to challenge the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) decision to site a disproportionate share of tax credit projects in lower opportunity areas (typically poor and minority neighborhoods, arguing that this valuable resource should not be used to essentially re-segregate central cities. A greater share of tax credit resources should be used to develop affordable rental housing in higher opportunity areas and, at the same time, ensure that the new housing created is available to families living in more difficult neighborhoods. Tax credit developments are pretty much the only new affordable housing in the state. If MLRI succeeds in this advocacy, hundreds of affordable units will be sited in higher opportunity areas and made available to households who want to relocate to neighborhoods with better schools, lower crime rates and greater economc opportunities.
Eliminating Discriminatory Residency Preferences in the Section 8 Voucher Programs:
For many years, one of MLRI’s fair housing goals has been the elimination of racially discriminatory residency preferences in the DHCD and local housing authority Section 8 voucher programs. Currently, At least 2/3 of public housing authorities in the state have Section 8 residency preferences that have an adverse effect on non-resident applicants in the metro area, i.e., the preferences have the effect of keeping people of color at the bottom of the list in too many communities. Once Section 8 vouchers start to be distributed again (post-sequester) we will start negotiations with MassNAHRO (National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, which administers the public housing authority centralized waiting list) and with DHCD. If we do not achieve any progress toward eliminating the racially discriminatory residency preferences, we will pursue litigation against individual housing authorities and/or DHCD and NAHRO. There are approximately 100,000 applicants on these Section 8 waiting lists, with new names added every day. Thousands of these households are excluded or made to wait longer for housing vouchers because of discriminatory residency preferences. If we succeed in eliminating the preferences and level the playing field, all applicants for the program will have an equal shot.
Expanding Public and Affordable Housing for Extremely Low Income Households:
MLRI will continue to advocate for the preservation and expansion of state public housing through multiple forums. The state's 45,000 units of public housing are one of the most critical permanent housing resources for extremely low income individuals and families. In 2014-15 MLRI will develop strategies to make the case for the expansion of public housing. We recently requested that the State Auditor survey all 242 housing authorities to determine what public land owned by local housing authorities has been used to develop affordable housing and what land may be available to develop more public housing. In addition, we will advocate for effective public housing legislative reform that holds local housing authorities accountable, creates stronger enforcement paths at the local and state level.
Empowering Public Housing Resident Organizations:
Successful management of public housing requires meaningful resident participation. BRTI, a resident-driven initiative, launched and supported by MLRI in collaborationg with the Massachusetts Union of Public Housing Tenants and with the support from the Boston Housing Authority and the Boston Foundation, provides education, training and technical assistance with and for public housing residents to empower communities and create change from within. MLRI provides technical assistance to develop and deliver nine core trainings focused on state and federal laws, local policies, and organizational issues. Through interactive training presented by residents to residents at their developments, BRTI and MLRI work collectively to remove barriers that impede public housing leaders from participating.
An Example of MLRI's Housing Impact - National Legislation Protecting Tenants in Foreclosed Properties:
MLRI played a critical role in preserving tenancies and preventing neighborhood destabilization and widespread property abandonment caused by the recent foreclosure crisis. MLRI’s housing advocates worked with federal officials to help secure passage of the federal Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act (PTFA) in May 2009. This law states, among other things, that 1) all tenants in a foreclosed property are allowed to remain in their homes for the duration of their existing lease; 2) all tenants without an existing lease must be given a minimum 90-days’ notice before they can be brought to court on an eviction case; and 3) post-foreclosure owners must take over the leases and contracts of Section 8 tenants and those tenants cannot be evicted except for good cause until their leases terminate.