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7 takeaways from WBUR and ProPublica’s investigation of vacancies in state public housing

A housing development and grassy lawns seen from above.
Robin Lubbock/WBUR
Maple Gardens, a state public housing development on Miller Street, in Fall River, Mass.

State-subsidized apartments across Massachusetts are sitting empty, despite the shortage of affordable housing across the state, according to a new investigation by WBUR and ProPublica.

Here are key findings from reporting the story:

1. More than 2,000 state-subsidized apartments are vacant

No one was living in 2,291 of Massachusetts’ low-income units at the end of July, according to state data. Most of the units have been empty for more than the 60 days the state gives local housing agencies to fill vacancies. And more than 730 of the units have not been leased in at least a year. The apartments are in huge demand because they are affordable to low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities. Residents generally pay less than a third of their income in rent, and people with no income only need to pay a minimum of $5 per month. There is a waitlist of more than 184,000 applicants statewide.

2. Local housing officials blame a statewide waitlist for hundreds of vacancies

Massachusetts created a central waitlist four years ago to try to make it easier for people to apply online for anywhere in the state. But since then, the number of requests to keep units empty for more than 60 days has tripled. Some local housing officials say the new system has made it much harder to find qualified tenants.

One problem is that people often fill out the forms incorrectly and there’s no upfront screening to catch errors early. And because people can now easily sign up for housing in multiple communities, it’s common for several agencies to vet the same candidates at once, duplicating efforts and forcing them to compete with each other for tenants. Massachusetts housing officials acknowledge there are problems with the system and recently hired a marketing company to take over some of the screening to try to speed up the process. In addition, local housing authorities rely primarily on U.S. mail to reach potential tenants, even though many people who are homeless or in unstable housing move frequently or have trouble reliably receiving mail.

3. Housing officials say they need more funding for repairs and staff

Some buildings in Adams, Lowell and Fall River were so dilapidated they had to be torn down recently. Others need major repairs or renovations. The average age of the state’s public housing stock is 57 years old. The state estimates there is a backlog of $3.2 billion in necessary repairs and replacements. In addition, many agencies say they don’t have enough staff to find new tenants or quickly prepare units when they become vacant. Advocates pushed the state to double the operating subsidy for state public housing to $184 million this fiscal year. Ultimately, the Legislature approved a more modest 16% increase.

4. At least 121 units are being used for storage, offices and other purposes

Many local housing authorities have repurposed apartments that were originally intended as residences. The Boston Housing Authority converted 11 units to offices for employees and tenant organizations, and set aside another for a children’s program. Nearby, the Somerville Housing Authority repurposed 10 apartments, including one for the agency’s police department. Beverly, Fall River and Quincy turned units into laundry rooms. And the housing authority in Salem took four apartments in a downtown tower for seniors and converted them into offices, including a break room and space for file storage. The state routinely approves local housing authorities’ requests to convert apartments and continues paying them a subsidy.

5. Some apartments sit vacant for years before major renovations or redevelopment

WBUR found Somerville, Beverly and Chelmsford housing authorities stopped filling vacancies for years before they broke ground on major projects. In Somerville, units sat empty as long as six and a half years before demolition began at its Clarendon Hill complex. Local housing authorities gave multiple reasons. Some didn’t want to keep maintaining older buildings they eventually planned to upgrade or replace. They didn’t want to hassle families by temporarily moving them into one place, and then have to move them again a few years later. Or they hold units open to temporarily house tenants displaced by construction. But critics say the housing situation is so dire that many people could have used those apartments in the interim.

6. Massachusetts has an unusual approach to public housing

Cities and towns across the country rely on federal public housing, vouchers or privately run affordable housing. But Massachusetts is one of just four states with its own public housing system – and has twice as many units as the other three states combined. The system was originally set up after World War II to provide affordable housing to returning veterans. Massachusetts now has 41,500 state public housing apartments, in addition to more than 31,000 federal units. Combined, the state has more public housing per capita than any other state in the country. Nevertheless, both the state and federal systems have lengthy waitlists.

7. Massachusetts doesn't have enough affordable housing

The state is the third most expensive in the country for renters, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The state median rent for a two-bedroom unit is roughly $3,000, according to Zillow – more than many families can afford. And shelters are packed. Gov. Maura Healey declared a “state of emergency” in August to deal with rising homelessness. The number of families with children in the state’s emergency shelter system doubled in the past year to 6,386.

This story was originally published by WBUR. It was shared as part of the New England News Collaborative.

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