State officials have long vowed to stop using hotels and motels as housing for homeless families. It’s debilitating for parents and their children, and costly for taxpayers. During his campaign for governor, Charlie Baker set what he called an “ambitious goal” — ending the practice within a year of taking office. That deadline was not met, but the number of families in hotels and motels has since dropped sharply — a trend for which his administration, and the outside agencies it works with on housing for the homeless, deserve credit.
The Globe’s Joshua Miller reported Monday that 538 families now call a hotel or motel home, down from 1,500 in January 2015 when Baker took office — a reduction of nearly two-thirds. The Republican governor came into the job seeking to decrease the hotel-motel population by making it harder for families to qualify for a room, but that initial get-tough thinking was blocked by Democrats, and Baker has since made progress by taking a more humane approach.
Through a program called HomeBASE that was started under the administration of former governor Deval Patrick, qualified families receive a one-year subsidy of up to $8,000 to go toward apartment rent and other housing-related expenses. The goal is to make families’ lives less transient, and that appears to be happening — 85 percent of those who have participated remain out of the emergency shelter system, according to state officials. It also stands to be more economical than renting out rooms at about $90 each a night. This fiscal year, Massachusetts will spend nearly $200 million on hotels, motels, and shelter space, compared with $151 million six years ago.
An apartment, even a rundown one, is almost always preferable to a cramped and dank motel room without a kitchen, adequate privacy, or play space for children. But $8,000 for housing doesn’t go far, especially in the Boston area, where the average monthly rent topped $2,000 at the end of last year. What happens when families that received housing allowances for 2016 don’t get them next year? For some, the one-time subsidy might be enough for them to stabilize their lives; for others, it might buy only temporary respite, and they’ll tumble back into homelessness without other forms of support. The problem, which greatly worsened during the recession and never abated, is compounded by the fact that there still are thousands of families living in shelters across the state. They, too, need stable housing.
“The gap between wages and rents is so high that we’re not going to get out of this with short-term resources,” says Libby Hayes, executive director of the nonprofit Homes for Families, whose mission is to put people in permanent housing. Hayes suggests making HomeBASE subsidies renewable annually for those who consistently meet the program’s requirements.
HomeBASE is one tool in what Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development spokesman Paul McMorrow calls “a multipronged approach to reducing family homelessness.” Finding a long-term solution also requires maintaining other government assistance, such as monthly Section 8 rental vouchers, and state-sponsored job-training programs that increase families’ ability to earn more money. But even those measures won’t be enough to compensate for the region’s sky-high apartment rents. That’s why it’s critical to accelerate the expansion of the state’s affordable and low-income housing stock, something Baker aims to do through an initiative he detailed on Monday. Under a five-year, $160.5 million plan, he wants to build and rehabilitate housing for lower-income residents, and redevelop existing public housing complexes. Meantime, the governor and the Legislature have an obligation to sustain, and even increase, funding for HomeBASE, which will cost about $34 million this year. Massachusetts will never be inexpensive, but it should at least be liveable for everyone who calls it home.