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State-funded housing too precious to be left vacant

A complicated application process and overdue repairs share blame for keeping units offline.

The view overlooking the courtyard at the Brookline Housing Authority Trustman Apartments complex in Brookline on April 11, 2023.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The single statewide application for public housing seemed like a good idea at the time: Why should Massachusetts residents desperately in need of low-cost apartments have to go from town to town to apply for units in what is, after all, a state-funded program for low-income families and individuals?

In addition, the local housing authorities that used to dole out those precious housing units were sometimes known to take care of their own (and on more than one occasion take care of themselves too, with lavish salaries and perks). The situation was so bad a decade ago that then-Governor Deval Patrick suggested doing away with local housing authorities completely — consolidating some 240 separate authorities into six regional ones.


But local housing authorities maintain considerable influence on Beacon Hill and the only part of Patrick’s sweeping reform proposal to survive was a common application for the housing program and a statewide waitlist — a list that now runs to 184,000 people — for the state’s 41,500 subsidized units.

So you’d think that with a waitlist of such enormous proportions — many of those on it homeless, living in shelters, or at risk of being homeless — every one of those units would be a precious commodity. But, according to a recent investigative report published by WBUR and ProPublica, as of the end of July some 2,300 of those units remained vacant. Almost 1,800 units — including a number of highly sought after three-bedroom units — had been empty for more than 60 days. About 730 of them had been vacant for at least a year.

Meanwhile the state continues to pay the local housing authorities its share of the rent, which translates into millions of wasted tax dollars to support empty apartments.


So now let the finger-pointing begin. The local housing authorities blame the relatively new common application and waitlist — introduced in 2019. Applicants are permitted to apply under the system to more than one community and out of desperation often include towns too far from the services — favored schools or medical care — they need. State officials say the average applicant lists about 20 communities as part of their search. Local officials told WBUR and ProPublica that they don’t have nearly enough staff to contact and vet applicants when a unit becomes vacant.

The statewide number of requests from local authorities for waivers of the usual 60-day deadline for filling vacant units confirms that something has gone horribly wrong. That number, according to state data cited in the report, has tripled since 2018 — the year before the new system was implemented.

The executive director of the housing authority in Chelmsford said his agency contacted some 500 applicants on the waitlist for one three-bedroom unit before finding someone who qualified and responded to the offer.

The universal waitlist — a system that cost the state $6.8 million to implement and arrived three years behind schedule — has been the source of complaints from the beginning. A memo from the state Department of Housing and Community Development sent out Jan. 30, 2019, insisted the department believes the problems are “a one-time, acute administration challenge” and that the additional screenings “may require additional staff time.”

Four years later, the system remains problematic — and the 26-page application isn’t exactly helping the situation. Agawam used to use an eight-page form, officials there noted.


The statewide application process, however, is only part of the problem. WBUR and ProPublica reported that the majority of the waivers that were requested for units that were vacant as of July 31 were because a unit needed to be renovated or repaired. That again is a matter of a lack of resources — money and staff time.

Again, that problem isn’t new but was noted in a 2006 state audit report that concluded:

“LHAs cannot remain solvent and avoid bankruptcy when DHCD does not budget sufficiently to provide adequate contributions to meet annual operating and maintenance costs and instead encourages under-budgets and causes delays in providing timely periodic subsidies for LHAs to pay their bills.”

The Healey administration is expected to file a major new housing bond bill that certainly ought to address an estimated $3.7 billion backlog in repairs at the local level — including such costly items as replacing roofs and bathrooms. Local officials say the real number is double the figure cited by state officials. Clearing that backlog wouldn’t create any new units of housing but might keep more from going offline.

And then there are the occasional conversions of housing units to other purposes — some 121 units were lost to other purposes, according to the ProPublica report. Some of those purposes were worthy, like room for an after-school program, but others seem harder to justify, like the conversion of four units in Salem for offices, a break room, and file storage. The latter is the kind of thing that makes state officials skeptical of local authorities and their stewardship of a scarce commodity.


Some fixes, however, are obvious: A streamlined application, a better initial vetting process at the state level (an outside firm has recently been hired to cull the existing waitlist), and perhaps a realistic limit to the number of communities an applicant can select.

Equally obvious is the need for funds for long overdue repairs. Massachusetts simply cannot afford to lose a unit of housing because a toilet needs to be replaced, and it certainly can’t afford to lose multiple units to a leaky roof. The state’s public housing program began just after World War II, and it’s critical that the state helps localities maintain — and keep occupied — units that remain part of Massachusetts’ proud history of caring for its most needy.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.