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City-funded housing vouchers proposed

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO

Affordable housing and homelessness advocates, along with a majority of Boston city councilors, are calling for the next city budget to allocate $5 million for a new “housing first” voucher program. The city-funded vouchers would provide rental assistance for homeless families and individuals in Boston in the face of continued funding cuts and long wait lists for federal and state voucher programs.

“In the face of reduced federal spending, we need to get creative,” said District 8 City Councilor Josh Zakim. “We are spending on social services for people experiencing homelessness. We have several thousand homeless BPS students, and the city is spending money to transport them to and from school. Five million dollars is not a small amount of money, but given the investment we’re making in our schools, we’re losing part of that if kids are going home to motels at night.”

On the web

City of Boston proposed FY17 budget:

Folder of advocates’ voucher plan documents: edbudget

Zakim was one of nine city councilors to sign an April 7 letter urging Mayor Martin Walsh to include the voucher program in his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2017, which starts July 1.

Echoing the arguments of local housing advocates, Zakim told the Banner that directing funds toward stable housing for currently homeless families and individuals would be offset by reductions in spending on the many problems that come with homelessness.

“With the ripple effect, it will pay for itself,” he said.


Housing first refers to an approach that prioritizes providing homeless people permanent housing as quickly as possible, creating a base of stability from which they can get their lives back on track or utilize other supportive services. A fact sheet distributed by the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants (MAHT), the Save Our Section 8 City Policy Committee and the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee refers to a recent HUD study indicating that “providing rental vouchers for Housing First is at least or more cost-effective in reducing homelessness as either emergency shelters or supportive housing.”

In a voucher program, a government agency pays the difference between what low-income tenants can afford to pay and a “fair market” rent. Tenants typically are required to pay about one-third of their income toward the rent. The city of Boston does not currently have a local voucher program, but administers a limited supply of state and federally-funded (Section 8) vouchers.

The initial $5 million would provide assistance for an estimated 350 to 400 homeless individuals and families in Boston, with a mix of project-based and tenant-based (mobile) vouchers. Advocates hope that this pilot program could be sustained and expanded after the first year. They also say a city-funded voucher program could allow the Boston Housing Authority to set rents and payment standards that more accurately reflect the steep rents in Boston proper.

Not in budget

The mayor’s proposed FY2017 budget presented to the council last month does not include the voucher program, though it includes a $1.3 million increase in other programs to address family and individual homelessness such as emergency shelter, short-term rapid re-housing rental assistance and improved intake assessment of those arriving at homelessness shelters. The council’s Ways and Means Committee is hosting a series of hearings to air various funding needs and concerns. The budget will likely undergo revisions between now and the council’s final approval June 30.

Supporters of the city vouchers cite the model of Washington, D.C.’s Local Rent Supplement Program, in place since 2007 and funded primarily through that city’s general appropriations and administered by the DC Housing Authority. LRSP has expanded to serve 3,248 households earning less than 30 percent of Area Median Income and costs $37 million annually, according to the Boston advocacy groups’ fact sheet.

Michael Kane, director of MAHT and executive director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, noted that $5 million represents less than 0.2 percent of Boston’s $2.8 billion annual budget. He suggested that the Community Preservation Act, if Boston voters approve it in November, would provide a stable funding source to continue and expand the program. The CPA, which Walsh supports, would allow a 1 percent property tax surcharge to raise funds for affordable housing, parks and historic preservation.

Kane questioned the idea that $5 million for addressing homelessness would be a burden for the city, particularly in light of the generous concessions the city made to lure General Electric to relocate its headquarters here.

“Of course they can come up with $5 million if they want to do it,” Kane said.

Sheila Dillon, Boston’s chief of housing and director of the Department of Neighborhood Development, said the DND is pleased with the numbers in the mayor’s budget for housing and homelessness programs so far, but is reviewing the voucher proposal.

“We are analyzing it very carefully,” Dillon told the Banner. “We need to know that whatever funding source we have will be consistent. Once you start providing a family rental assistance, that assistance needs to be sustainable.”

Dillon said that housing vouchers are an eligible use for Community Preservation Act funds, but noted that the CPA has a state-prescribed system for managing the money, with an independent managing committee, so it is unknown what specific funding priorities would be selected.

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