WORCESTER — Charlie Baker, a Republican who has made welfare reform a central issue in his campaign for governor, promoted a controversial program Tuesday that limits how long residents can remain in public housing
if they are not working or enrolled in school.
Under the program, called A Better Life, residents in Worcester public housing face eviction after three years if they or another adult in their household is not employed or enrolled in school full-time. Residents over 55 and those with a disability are exempt.
Public housing residents and federal housing officials have been cool to the program, but Baker said it could be a model for how to move people out of government-subsidized housing.
On Tuesday, he met with Worcester officials who support A Better Life and said he had met previously with some of the residents who have participated in it.
“I’ve never met anybody who’s been in public housing or on public assistance who wanted to be there,” Baker told Worcester Housing Authority officials during a roundtable discussion about the program.
The program, launched three years ago with $1.8 million from the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, got off to a rocky start.
Initially, very few residents wanted to sign up when it was offered to them voluntarily, said Raymond V. Mariano, the executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority.
“We thought we would get hundreds and hundreds, and we would have to select from that pool,” Mariano told Baker. “We couldn’t get 30. As a matter of fact, we struggled for six months to get 30 families.”
After that, Mariano said, officials made the program available to thousands of Worcester residents on the waiting list for public housing, promising them they could move to the top of the list if they signed up.
In exchange, the program provides them a family life coach who would help them find a job and connect them with classes that teach parenting and computer and financial literacy.
But less than 7 percent of the people on the waiting list agreed to take part, Mariano said.
Worcester housing officials then proposed expanding the time limits to all existing residents, effectively making it mandatory. Federal housing officials initially approved that program, but then rescinded their support, saying they had “made an error,” Mariano said.
For the approximately 80 or so residents who are currently participating, the program has been a success, said Mariano, a former Worcester mayor. “We’re getting them jobs, we’re getting them school, and we’re changing their lives,” he said.
Baker said he was not calling for the program to be implemented statewide, but said its expansion should be considered on a “case-by-case basis.” He said he admired the way it works.
“One of the great challenges we face as a state, and probably as a country, is coming up with paths, runways, whatever you want to call them, to help people find their way from dependency to self-sufficiency,” he said. “We should be open to the notion that there is opportunity here to consider and support a new model, a different model, and a different approach.”
Martha Coakley, a Democrat, did not directly say whether she supports or opposes the program, but called it “another big difference between my Republican opponent and I.”
Pointing to foreclosures, high rents, and homelessness, she said, “I start with the idea that there are now, and there always will be, people in Massachusetts who need help with housing, who need help putting food on the table.
“He starts with the assumption that somehow people are cheating the system and that’s going to fix Massachusetts,” she said. “I start from the premise that we’ve just come out of the toughest economic recession in a long time.”