By Chris Lisinski
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 16, 2023…..Bishnu Tamang’s home in Massachusetts has always been infested with cockroaches.
After immigrating years earlier from Nepal, Tamang moved to a public housing apartment in Brookline in 2015 with her four-year-old son, where she found not only pests but cracked tile floors and grease-caked cabinets. Tamang did not intend to wear shoes at home, but she recalled being told to do so “to protect us from asbestos.” The cockroaches are still there today, she said, even though the floor has been fixed and the cabinets painted.
When Gov. Maura Healey was on the campaign trail last year, Tamang told the Democrat about her experience, and Healey replied that the living conditions she described were “unacceptable,” according to Tamang.
Tamang was surprised, then, to find that Healey’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal unveiled this month kept the line item for subsidies to public housing authorities level-funded at the same $92 million as this year.
“Based on the conversation we had in August, I hope this was a mistake,” Tamang told housing reform activists gathered outside the State House on Thursday.
When Tamang pointed out that Healey’s budget does not seek any increase in public housing authority subsidies, the large crowd booed.
Activists want Healey and the Legislature to double that appropriation to $184 million next year, one of several requests they rolled out as the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization kicked off a new housing justice campaign aiming to blunt the sharp edges of a statewide housing crisis and prevent people from being pushed out of their communities or into homelessness.
A sea of activists — organizers say they had more than 300 attendees — rallied on Beacon Hill to mark the campaign’s start, accompanied by a brass band and wielding signs with calls for legislative action on a new housing bond bill, real estate transfer tax authorization, and shelter supports for people transitioning out of prisons and jails.
Their energetic, vocal event took place as the House and Senate were adjourning for a long weekend following another light week of work.
“We see the tumbling, crumbling downfall of our housing,” said Rev. Lydia Shiu, director of social justice and action at Reservoir Church in Cambridge. “This is a basic human right. Why, in our great nation with a powerful economy as it seems, are we seeing so many struggling on the streets, struggling to pay rent, struggling to buy a home? This is not just a housing crisis. It’s a human crisis.”
In 2018, lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker agreed on a five-year, $1.8 billion housing bond bill, and advocates say money from that package is running out.
Now, GBIO wants Healey to file another five-year bond bill with a significantly larger $8.5 billion authorization to fund overdue maintenance and capital needs in the state’s public housing system.
Kelley Cronin, president of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials Massachusetts chapter, said a Harvard study in 2005 estimated the cost of operating state public housing at $105 million per year, which was never fully met and has now swelled to $184 million due to inflation. Cronin added that a third-party assessment of the public housing stock identified “$4 billion worth of components were long past their life cycle.”
To address both the pressure of inflation and the backlog of overdue maintenance, GBIO will press for Healey to file a new five-year, $8.5 billion housing bond bill, legislation that one activist said they expect to see from the governor after she creates a housing secretariat later this year.
“Our residents are retired, fixed-income seniors, people living with disabilities and families that provide the workforce to Massachusetts. They deserve to live in safe, decent, affordable housing, not having leaky ceilings, leaky roofs, mold,” said Cronin, whose group represents 242 housing authorities that together provide 43,000 units of state public housing, 38,000 units of federal public housing and 58,000 vouchers.
Another legislative priority advocates highlighted Thursday is the latest version of a perennial bill allowing cities and towns to impose fees on real estate transfers above a certain value and use the revenue for housing investments (H 2747 / S 1771).
Municipal leaders, including Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, have pushed for state permission to impose some kind of real estate transfer tax to help fund new housing development. The idea has so far found little traction on Beacon Hill, where real estate interests have longed kept such proposals bottled up.
“For decades, our housing production has not kept up with our job growth,” said Phil Hilman, a strategy team leader with GBIO. “This has resulted in skyrocketing rents, huge increases in housing prices. If you are low-income or middle-income, the dream of homeownership has become a nightmare.”
Advocates also called for lawmakers to take action to provide inmates being released from incarceration with priority access to state-funded housing and vouchers (S 878) and guaranteed state identification (S 1506).
GBIO leader Mark Jones said when he left prison three years ago, the biggest question on his mind was, “Where am I sleeping tonight?”
“Let me tell you, for every returning citizen, that is their number-one question,” Jones said. “Without an ID, you are not going to find a place to sleep. You’re not getting into a shelter. You’re not getting into a halfway house. You’re not getting into a sober house. You’re not checking into a hotel, and you’re sure as hell — you sure aren’t renting an apartment.”
A new Legislature and governor were sworn in back in early January, and while there’s widespread agreement about a “housing crisis” in the state, there’s been little action on housing policy so far this year.
At one point Thursday, a speaker implored Healey, House Speaker Ron Mariano of Quincy and Senate President Karen Spilka to work with housing advocates on the proposed package of reforms.
“We’re here waiting for you,” one attendee shouted from the crowd in response.
Shiu made a personal appeal to each member of the so-called Big Three, all Democrats who now wield trifecta control of state government for the first time in eight years.
Her message made explicit mention of the governor’s state budget PR pitch.
“Your Instagram last week said that at its core, this budget is about helping people. So let’s do it with real dollars that will really better the lives of the people,” Shiu said. “People in public housing, which 70 percent of them are elderly, are counting on you.”
“Senate President Karen Spilka, I get so stoked when I see women in some of the highest places of power. We ask you to use that power for good. Over 800 units in Framingham and close to 400 units in Natick are counting on you,” she added, mentioning two of the communities in the Ashland senator’s district. “House Speaker Ronald Mariano, we know you are a force to be reckoned with, and your force is needed now. You are a key component in making this possible. A transfer fee can generate $1 million a year for Quincy for affordable housing, and over 900 state-funded homes in Quincy are counting on you.”
Healey filed legislation this month (H 43) to split the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development in two and create a standalone housing secretariat she believes can provide a greater focus on the issue. Top House and Senate Democrats have not outlined a timeline for action on that bill, and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll previously signaled the new office might not be up and running until the summer.
In the meantime, with production of new units sluggish and supply constrained, rents and home prices have continued to soar to new heights.
“The median price of a single family home in Greater Boston: $900,000. Who can afford that?” one sign thrust into the air at Thursday’s rally read, referring to a June 2022 report from the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.
The region’s median sales price has fallen more than 20 percent since then, standing at $707,250 in January, according to GBREB’s latest report.
Another real estate analyst, The Warren Group, estimated that the median sales price for Massachusetts as a whole reached $510,000 in December 2022, up from an even $500,000 a year earlier. Median prices varied by region, with Suffolk County at $706,000, Plymouth County at $499,800 and Franklin County at $287,500.
Another handmade sign carried a more blunt message: “I can’t afford to live here.”