scorecardresearch Skip to main content

In Mass. race to shelter homeless families, some local governments balk. The state is moving to change that.

When a Best Western in Concord was picked to serve as an emergency shelter, some residents said the move opened their eyes to the lack of affordable housing.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Facing pushback from some communities, the Healey administration is adopting a new housing code that explicitly exempts emergency shelters from certain state sanitary code requirements that could by used by towns to prevent hotels, motels and other properties from being used to accommodate the swelling tide of homeless and migrant families.

While many communities have pledged to welcome those families, a number have bristled at hosting a surge of new residents, even temporarily. Some point to local ordinances that restrict the length of hotel stays or cite the lack of funds for schools that would be stretched with an influx of new families.


The resistance from the towns adds another roadblock to the state’s effort to house homeless families amid a housing shortage that makes it difficult and very expensive to provide shelter.

“We need every community to be part of the solution by welcoming families into shelter and building more affordable housing so we can address the root cause: a sustained, substantial housing shortage,” Samantha Kaufman, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Community Development, said in a statement.

The state’s 1983 “right-to-shelter” law obligates officials to immediately house eligible families, pushing officials to find shelter options on short notice. At the same time, the number of migrants arriving from troubled places such as Haiti is escalating.

On Tuesday, 23 new families eligible for shelter entered the state system, and the number of families staying in hotels or motels climbed to 814, more than double that in late January, according to state figures.

The state has converted around 20 hotels into temporary emergency housing, and is actively identifying hotels, vacant college dormitories, or other potential solutions.

The housing agency and its nonprofit partners “will continue to explore more options to ensure families have access to safe shelter and we are committed to maintaining constant communication with impacted communities,” Kaufman said.


But the efforts to expand that portfolio have been inhibited by local ordinances, which officials say make it difficult to move quickly.

Chelmsford adopted an ordinance in 2015, shortly after then-governor Charlie Baker took office, that limits how long a family placed in emergency shelter can stay in a hotel. A family of four, for example, can stay in a room for two months, or three months in one with a full kitchen. The town can fine the hotel owner $50 a day or more for breaking the rule, and $300 or more for subsequent violations.

Milford and West Springfield have strict zoning codes that say that once somebody stays in a building for more than 30 days, the building must be zoned for residential use (hotels usually occupy nonresidential property).

West Springfield recently put a local hotel on notice that it had violated the town code by hosting occupants beyond the 30-day period. The hotel had contracted with the state to house homeless and migrant families as part of the emergency assistance program. In three separate, strongly worded letters, West Springfield ordered the hotel to “cease and desist” from using the structure for the shelter program, according to copies of the letters provided by state officials. The town gave the hotel until May 15 to clear the place of all occupants who had overstayed the 30-day limit.

West Springfield officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.


The Healey administration’s new housing rule is intended to address provisions such as those, exempting temporary shelter from a section of state law that dictates housing and occupancy standards under the Department of Health. The change, which was made in October, goes into effect May 12. State officials said the change should ameliorate some of the trouble it has had with certain towns.

The new rule clears up language that state officials say some municipalities have misinterpreted when enforcing state law. The change means that municipalities will no longer be able to try to shut down shelters for failing to meet statewide sanitary requirements that apply to dwelling units but not homeless shelters, state officials said.

Even without an explicit code, some local leaders have pushed back against shelters in their communities.

Marlborough Mayor Arthur Vigeant said he’s warned hotels that if they participate in the shelter program, the city can’t promise them help with staffing or supplies, as it has in the past. He said the state has not communicated enough with local governments or provided easier ways to build affordable housing.

“Everyone can point the finger to someone else,” Vigeant said. “But the communities are the ones who are actually dealing with it.”

And in North Adams, some officials oppose using a vacant dorm at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts to shelter homeless families, even though the college itself supports it.

State Representative John Barrett, a Democrat who represents the city, called the state’s emergency shelter response a “reactionary” one.


“It’s causing havoc in a lot of areas,” he said. “We can’t continue to burden communities across the state with this problem.”

The common refrain from communities is that shelter occupants would clog traffic, overwhelm schools, or threaten public safety.

To advocates, the real reason behind local resistance arises from knee-jerk concern that shelters will negatively affect property values.

Amy Dain, a Newton-based consultant and researcher who studies urban planning and housing policy, said the current opposition is but the latest in a century-old tradition of what she called “socioeconomic sorting.”

“These are long trends that go through all of history,” she said.

To combat some of that criticism, the state has attempted to sweeten the deal for cities and towns.

In March, Governor Maura Healey signed a supplemental spending bill that includes $85 million for the emergency assistance program, including nearly $22 million for schools that experience an influx of children from shelters.

“We need to counteract some of the local opposition and misunderstanding around what the community impact would be by welcoming families,” said Kelly Turley, who has long advocated for such funding as director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.

And that work has made an impact, Turley said.

When a Best Western in Concord was picked to serve as an emergency shelter, some residents said the move opened their eyes to the lack of affordable housing. In Salem, where the state converted a vacant Salem State University residential complex into shelter housing, local leaders welcomed the project. In Westborough, the state recently identified a vacant building that could potentially house 20 homeless families, according to the town.


In Newton, where the state is considering the closed Indigo Hotel as a possible shelter site, some residents asked if they could volunteer their time or help, even as others raised concerns during a recent town meeting about the property. State housing officials expect the hotel would reopen as early as August for two years.

Housing undersecretary Jennifer Maddox explained to residents that the intensifying housing crisis is dramatically affecting the shelter system, and that “some of this is bigger than us.”

“Right now, the shelter system is in crisis,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly characterized the impact of the state’s new housing code. The new housing code clarifies that homeless shelters are exempt from statewide sanitary requirements that apply to dwelling units.

Samantha J. Gross can be reached at Follow her @samanthajgross.