Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, started his job a year ago, charged with expanding affordable housing and reducing homelessness. Globe reporter Jenifer B. McKim spoke with him about his first year on the job and his forecast for 2013.
Last month, you announced plans to phase out, by June, 2014, the costly and controversial program that houses homeless families in motels at a hefty cost to taxpayers. Is that really possible?
I’m optimistic we will be able to do this. We are intensely focused on reducing the number of families having to stay in motels and hotels. This has served as our overflow shelter system. We are going to be working with families on housing plans as well as with our providers to free up affordable housing units and using resources the Legislature provided to us.
Why have the numbers of needy families increased so much over the past several years? There were 771 families living in motels in December 2010, and almost 1,700 at the end of the December 2012.
The recession. There’s a lot of families having difficulty finding employment. The numbers have gone up, but in the past several months they have leveled off and now we are starting to see a decline. We are going to build on that. It takes everyone working together.
After 22 years working as an advocate and leader of the private nonprofit Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association that pushes for affordable housing, what has been the biggest difference for you in transitioning into government leadership?
Working inside state government I am coming at it from a different vantage point and I have to be mindful of all of the stakeholder groups that are involved in any decision. I have to be mindful of the budget and how much funding we have.
What have you learned over the last year that you didn’t know a year ago?
It is a great challenge to work with such a diverse set of interests and stakeholders represented by the department and all of its partners. They include the emergency shelter system, municipal officials, private developers, nonprofit organizations, and community services agencies that run fuel assistance.
What worries you the most in your new post? What keeps you up at night?
I can’t point to any single issue. There is just a tremendous need for affordable housing in the Commonwealth and I think about that every day and how we can help people get back on their feet, lead a better quality of life in a more permanent setting in the community. It’s a tremendous challenge. We don’t have all the resources we need to solve the problem because we have to rely on the federal government as well. States can’t do it alone.
In November, Governor Deval Patrick detailed a plan to produce 10,000 multifamily housing units a year through 2020 in an effort to keep young professionals from leaving Massachusetts. This, of course, depends on cooperation from local communities. Do you think you will get it?
I believe there is strong support to increase housing production. People are increasingly recognizing that our state’s economic competitiveness is directly linked to expanding housing options for middle-class families and for low- and moderate-income households.
Housing sales picked up in 2012 after a very slow year in 2011. What do you foresee will happen this year in the state’s housing market?
I am not an economist. But I think there is going to continue to be a strong market. There is pent-up demand. There are younger families who want to take advantage of relatively stable prices and low interest rates.
There are seniors or baby boomers who are in the process of downsizing and are going to buy a condo or a townhouse. I’m hopeful that the trends are going to continue. The housing market is fundamental for the overall economic success of our state.