Amid soaring housing costs across the region, advocates in Newton are calling on Mayor Ruthanne Fuller to tap millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid to help create affordable housing to serve the city’s lower-income residents.
The push, intended to take advantage of the federal money, comes as the city has stepped up financial assistance to help families remain in their homes.
Advocates from groups such as Uniting Citizens for Housing Affordability in Newton (UCHAN), the Newton Coalition of Black Residents, and the Newton Housing Partnership said the city must do more to help residents who are struggling to remain in their homes. The health crisis also has disproportionately impacted people of color in Newton, according to the city.
In separate written proposals to Fuller, the local organizations said the city should devote a large piece of the city’s $63 million allocation through the American Rescue Plan Act to creating affordable housing.
“If Newton is serious about caring about low-income people, and serious about wanting to live in a community in which there is economic diversity, then the ARPA fund presents an opportunity,” Josephine McNeil, a longtime housing advocate, said in an interview.
Fuller, who solicited ideas on how to use ARPA funds from residents and local groups, said people are being hurt by the rising housing costs occurring in Newton and across the region.
The median single-family home sale price in Newton was $1.6 million in June, up about 10 percent from the previous year, according to Redfin data.
“I am deeply committed to having additional affordable housing here in Newton,” Fuller said in an interview. “We as a community need it.”
The city has taken steps to help address housing issues, including acquiring land near the Williams School, some of which is to be used for affordable housing utilizing ARPA funds. Money from the federal aid program also has been used to support local initiatives such as emergency housing and utility relief and assistance for residents who faced hardships because of the pandemic.
Beyond ARPA, the city also has spent the last several years working to create affordable housing at the West Newton Armory building. Developers working with the city have proposed 43 apartments for low-income families at the site.
In their proposals to Fuller, UCHAN and the Black residents coalition both said $10 million in ARPA funds should be used to acquire property for affordable housing, and additional funds for housing assistance and other programs.
The affordable housing would be for households earning up to 30 percent of the area median income. That income level for a family of four in Newton was $140,200 in fiscal 2022, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Advocates pointed to a city report that found the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on people of color in Newton.
The report suggested how Newton should spend its pandemic relief funds, including providing residents help with paying bills, meeting mental and physical health needs, and being able to afford services like child care.
The UCHAN proposal also was backed by a group of city councilors and the League of Women Voters Newton.
The housing partnership, in a separate proposal sent to Fuller in November, proposed setting aside $20 million to assist lower-income residents, including for acquiring affordable housing for households earning up to 50 percent of the area median income.
Fuller said the city has allocated about $34 million of its ARPA funds, and she is reserving $5 million for COVID-19 emergencies and any unforeseen needs.
While housing is an important concern, there are also other needs she is weighing, including meeting the needs of students, people with disabilities, local businesses, and nonprofits, she said.
The mayor said she wants to move forward on decisions about allocating the remaining funds in the early fall.
“I purposely prioritize the use of ARPA funds to support low-income residents, residents impacted by the pandemic, and those hoping to live in Newton,” Fuller said.
Emily Cagwin, a member of the UCHAN group, said a wide range of people are coming together in Newton to support more affordable housing.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Cagwin said in an interview. “Housing at a wide range of affordability benefits so many different people.”
The League of Women Voters Newton also supported UCHAN’s proposal for affordable housing funding, according to Marcia Johnson, the league’s president. The league has long supported affordable housing at the national, state, and local levels.
“There are two parts to living: There’s putting a roof over someone’s head, but also giving them the support services to help them sustain themselves,” Johnson said. “That’s where we need to be spending money.”
A group of Newton city councilors also supported UCHAN’s proposal, including Maria Scibelli Greenberg, who serves as the Ward 1 councilor.
“We want the best type of community for all who live here,” Greenberg said in an interview. “We want folks with lower incomes to be able to stay ... they contribute and bring a lot to the community.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.