Advocates push for city-funded housing voucher program

The Boston City Council held a public hearing to explore the possibility of a city-funded housing voucher program. The hearing comes in the wake of diminished federal funding for housing assistance, and housing advocates have actively proposed a model similar to D.C.’s program.

Specifically, advocates are pushing for the city to spend $5 million of 400 vouchers. They note that’s only 0.2 percent of the city’s $2.8 billion budget. While city councilors seemed interested in the possibility—11 out of 13 approved the hearing—officials are more tentative and predict a costly program.

“It will cost up to $9.5 million per year to create 500 new vouchers,” Sheila Dillon, chief of Housing and the Department of Neighborhood Development, said to the council. She was also concerned about the stability of the program, which would need a steady funding source from elsewhere in the city’s budget. D.C. uses a real estate tax linkage for their vouchers, but Chief Dillon isn’t sure that’s a good fit for Boston.

“If the real estate market gets soft, we get less linkage and less inclusionary development. We’re going to have to spend more of our production money, perhaps, on keeping these 500 new households in their homes,” she said. “So it could negatively impact our ability to use our funding for affordable housing capital.”

Michael Kane of the Mass. Alliance of HUD Tenants disputed the numbers the city provided, which comes out to about $19,000. “The D.C. program averages $10,000 for project-based vouchers and 14,000 for tenant-based vouchers,” he said, adding that D.C. has a comparable housing market. Kane also proposed the Community Preservation Act, which is currently awaiting passage, as a possible linkage source that could provide $15 million to the housing budget.

Even with debates on the cost and stability, everyone agreed that the loss of federal funding was a pressing issue, one that calls for a strong, stable and smart city response. “Housing authorities are now funding at 85 percent of what HUD says is needed to operate,” said Bill McGonagle, interim administrator of the Boston Housing Authority. “The funding is gone and it’s not coming back.” He also called the federal government’s retreat from funding “irresponsible.” However, McGonagle believes the existing funds are still stable enough to warrant waiting for a more palatable plan and also believed the program would be pricier than what advocates pitched, and he worried about stretching the budget too thin.

Other advocates stressed just how important and helpful affordable housing is. For example, Aubri Esthers was homeless for five years, and it took her nine years to get her Section 8 voucher. “I spent nights in shelters, but not many… shelters felt like jail to me,” she said. She lost her housing again when her voucher expired, and she resorted to squatting in abandoned buildings and drug use before Long Island programs (now closed or relocated) helped her get clean. Eventually, she got her Section 8 voucher back, which improved her quality of life. “If there was a program like this… when I was 18, it could have saved me a lot of heartbreak and pain,” she said.

“The stress it causes, the health consequences, the difficulty of finding a job when you’re just trying to find a roof over your head—the impacts are far reaching,” President Wu told Boston News Network. “Housing underlies so much of quality of life.”

“I applaud the advocates for the work they did,” Sheila Dillon told Spare Change News. She still stressed the need for a long term, stable linkage source: getting people vouchers and housing isn’t the challenge so much as providing the support to keep them there. However, she also said she’s willing to meet and speak with advocates again as plans develop. Currently, the city funds 1,200 vouchers and has created 1,100 affordable housing units, including units for the homeless.

As an aside, public testimonies were briefly halted when a wheelchair-bound woman fell forward while going down the ramp. She fell from her seat, hit her head on a table that was placed in front of the ramp and had a gash on her forehead. Councilors and advocates ran forward (city officials had left some time ago) and tried to help her. While waiting for the ambulance, she recovered and started speaking—she was telling the surrounding councilors her testimony, according to Zakim. She was eventually wheeled out by paramedics, and a Facebook update from MAHT says she has recovered and is doing well.

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