Housing shortage ‘an existential threat’ in New Bedford, other South Coast communities

Housing shortage ‘an existential threat’ in New Bedford, other South Coast communities

DARTMOUTH — At a roundtable “listening session” at UMass Dartmouth on Tuesday, Kristina da Fonseca, the founder of South Coast Fair Housing, told policymakers about a New Bedford woman evicted from public housing for less than $300 of rent shortfalls.

The ordeal left this woman with nowhere to go, and da Fonseca said the cause was the Housing Authority and local housing court failing to provide pressing communication in Spanish.

“At various entities there’s a bias built into the system,” da Fonseca said. And failing to communicate in the language of tenants “is a decision that multiple people have made.” 

Other advocates and nonprofit leaders gathered to share their perspective with the state’s housing secretary, Ed Augustus, who was visiting the South Coast as part of a 14-stop listening tour for the $4 billion Affordable Homes Act.

The bill, which was recently referred to the House committee on Ways and Means, would be the largest-ever state investment to solve the housing crisis. It would provide hundreds of millions for affordable housing construction, tax incentives for private developers, and other cut-backs on regulations.

The housing shortage “is an existential threat to the future growth and viability of our communities,” Augustus told The Light in a sit-down interview. The outflow of working-age residents, large companies declining to expand, and everyday people struggling with the cost of living were all consequences that Augustus highlighted. (The full interview, edited for length and clarity, is printed below.)

Before listening sessions began for the advocates and community leaders to discuss local challenges, Augustus’ staff presented about the “severe” housing shortage facing the South Coast. 

The numbers include a 1.3% vacancy rate; which falls far below a “good” rate of 7-8%, and is also below the statewide average of 1.6%. 

The bottom line is that homes are scarce; an Augustus staffer said that there are three times fewer homes for sale in the South Coast today than in 2019. 

Even for those who find somewhere in a tight market, prices are rising. In New Bedford, more than 20% of households are severely burdened by their monthly payments — which means paying more than half their income on housing. That number is higher for renters.

A roundtable session of housing advocates and community leaders provides insight on local housing struggles on Tuesday. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

Other advocates shared stories about the local families they work with, and raised transportation, education, and jobs as related issues threatening communities. 

John Hansen, a town planner in Swansea, said that without bus connections to Fall River’s new MBTA station, low-income people won’t have access to the same job opportunities. Taylor Perez, an advocate from the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District, said that some “affordable” options in the area were still too expensive for local residents. And Steve Gandt, of the Metro Housing Partnership, said that accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — also known as “in-law apartments” — should be allowed without restriction.

Augustus agreed that runaway expenses were a weight on the commonwealth, saying in later remarks, “We need to, for our own competitiveness, bring down our cost of living.” He also commented on rising homelessness, especially among senior citizens: “I can’t imagine a scarier thing than at that stage of my life being in that situation.”

Q&A with state housing chief Ed Augustus

New Bedford Light: What does your partnership look like with New Bedford? For example, New Bedford has come up with a housing plan and its own priorities. Are you looking to supercharge the city’s priorities with state funding or come in to fund your own priorities? 

Ed Augustus: We want the community to identify what its priorities are. We know what we need as a state, which is 200,000 more units. As for how we get there, we want to work in partnership with our local communities. And I think New Bedford is showing some leadership by creating a housing plan. 

I was at the Whaling Museum this morning talking to the New Bedford Economic Development Council about that plan. There’s some good energy in that room about how to tackle the plan. And I think what the governor is doing with the Affordable Homes Act is coming in and saying, ‘You’ve got a plan, and you’ve got partnerships. We’ve got some resources to support the implementation of your plan.’

Places that have alignment, I think, are the places that are really going to use some of our resources and get their plan implemented.

New Bedford Light: New Bedford is getting an MBTA station, and advocates today brought up transportation as a related issue. How are housing needs coordinated with other community needs? How will the bill ensure that new housing is built so people can still get to schools or get to commuter rail stations?

Ed Augustus: Yeah, I think that’s probably what the MBTA Communities Act is about. New Bedford stepped up and said, even though we don’t have the stop online yet, we want to participate in this. 

We want to create more dense, multi-family zoning in areas proximate to where the station’s going to be. I had a chance this morning to meet with some city folks and look at a building that’s city-owned that developers are interested in — because you can literally see the train station from where this building is. So the market’s responding, saying, ‘Yeah, we get it now. People can live here and walk across the street and grab the rail.’ 

[City officials] talked to us specifically about market-rate housing in that location and zoning changes. The investment in commuter rail is creating opportunities for folks to now take buildings that have been offline for years and take different subsidies that we can put in.

New Bedford Light: In New Bedford there’s been pushback as well. Even some members of the City Council don’t agree on zoning changes near the commuter rail. How do you work with communities — not just when you align — but when there’s pushback?

Ed Augustus: Part of it is we need to make sure people are armed with facts. I found a lot of the debates that I’ve heard in different communities in opposition to either zoning changes or actual development projects are not always the most informed. They might’ve said, ‘This means there’s going to be tons more kids in school, and that means we’re going to have to pay more taxes and build more schools.’ And yet we look at the demographics and we know school enrollment is down, because people are having smaller families. Growing housing and bringing more families into the community may be a way to preserve the funding that you have for schools as opposed to driving up the cost of schools.

When I was in Worcester we tried to use housing as an economic development strategy, putting housing in places like our downtown where we were looking for density and already had the infrastructure in place. If you’re trying to bring retail back, well retail needs people. [There could be] people coming home to downtown at the end of the day, replacing the people who are going home to another neighborhood.

Part of being informed is also just showing up to planning boards, the zoning boards, or town meetings in smaller towns. And that’s where we need some of the less traditional voices around housing. More than housing advocates and social service agencies, we need business leaders to say: ‘This is the impact it’s having on me being able to do my business and create jobs and keep this business in your community.’

New Bedford Light: One of the stats we heard today is that the South Coast has lower housing availability than statewide. It’s 1.3%, and it could be lower still in New Bedford. How do you characterize how dire the situation is in a place like New Bedford?

Ed Augustus: I think it’s an existential threat to the future growth and viability of our communities that need to keep growing. New Bedford is growing in terms of its population, but it doesn’t have enough housing to meet that demand and the changing nature of families. More people are living by themselves or as couples versus larger families. We need housing to meet that change — as well as continuing to attract people to your communities. 

The other statistic from today is that many suburbs have flatlined in terms of new housing. Places like New Bedford have been building housing, but a lot of our suburban communities haven’t. When you have some communities not building housing, you see municipal employees or preschool teachers or people on the lower end of the income spectrum increasingly having to live in other places [outside of where they work]. I think that’s the challenge. We need all of our communities to be doing their fair share. Smaller communities need to do a small amount, but they need to do something. Everybody has to do something.

New Bedford Light: If you call the housing shortage an existential threat to some of these communities, how hopeful are you that this bill could solve that?

Ed Augustus: I’m hopeful. It is the biggest housing plan in the history of the state: $4.1 billion with 28 different policy changes.

With recommendations like ADU as a right [that is, accessory dwelling units without restrictions, also known as “in-law apartments”], we conservatively estimate 8,000-10,000 units of new housing can be produced in the first five years. That’s at no cost to the state.

So what we need to do is, yes, subsidize more and use the tax credits. We’re tripling the amount of dollars going into public housing capital improvements, because we’ve got 43,000 units of state-owned housing. We can’t lose that. That’s an important safety net system, but a lot of it hasn’t been invested in for a long time. 

New Bedford Light: You said there could be 8,000-10,000 new units just from new accessory dwelling units at no cost to the state. How does that work?

Ed Augustus: Maybe you’ve got a room above a garage or a basement unit you can convert to get a little income and stay in your home longer. Maybe you are able to keep mom or dad closer to you. There’s a lot of benefits that come from ADUs, and that’s just a policy change. It’s not a big funding proposal.

We looked at California, where they did ADUs by right a number of years ago. Of course the scale is much different, but they created tens of thousands of units across the state and in some of the smaller communities. For people who want to stay in their communities, now there’s someplace to go. Then a house gets freed up for a family that needs the three bedrooms and a yard. It creates movement in the housing ecosystem that we’re not seeing with a 1.3% vacancy rate.

New Bedford Light: What else can New Bedford expect from this proposed legislation?

Ed Augustus: I think New Bedford really is doing a lot of things right. They’ve got a can-do attitude about development. So again, proactively embracing the MBTA community law, even before they were required to. Creating a housing plan laying out their challenges and what they need to do. And working with the state — we’re trying to come with a bigger toolbox to say, ‘Let us help you get there, because it helps us as a commonwealth.’

A lot of credit goes to New Bedford that they’ve been focused on housing, and those are the kind of partners the state’s looking for to move the needle on this housing crisis.

Email Colin Hogan at [email protected]

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