Out of Reach Worcester

By Etel Haxhiaj, Director of Public Education & Advocacy at Central MA Housing Alliance

“I don’t know if I can afford to live in this city anymore.” said Daisy, who, along with 15 families who were doubled-up, homeless and unable to access shelter, were sheltered at a local hotel for 60 days by the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance (CMHA) and supported by Greater Community Foundation funds. I listened as she listed all the places she called but was unable to afford. People like Daisy, the 34 single women, the 16 families and the chronically homeless, CMHA, LIFT and City sheltered temporarily are just a part of the larger picture. As development has proceeded downtown and throughout Worcester these past few years, there have been ongoing calls for our City leaders to return to a proactive role in addressing housing affordability. Community organizations and nonprofits that have raised this issue have been assured that the increase in housing development in Worcester will address housing affordability. But, what we see at CMHA on the ground speaks to a different reality. Worcester families and people calling our housing counseling line in need of rental assistance and help finding affordable apartments, are struggling to find affordable and decent housing. CMHA, where I work, and organizations, already working to prevent family and individual homelessness, are bracing for thousands of families with children at-risk of eviction and homelessness.

Despite the recent housing developments in Worcester, our community remains out of reach for families and individuals earning low-wages. The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Annual Out of Reach Report includes side by side comparison of wages and rent for Worcester and surrounding areas that shows how much money a family must earn to afford a market-rate apartment. The report paints a troubling picture of where Worcester is heading and how much out of reach it remains for many renters. In order to afford a two-bedroom apartment at $1398 without paying more than 30% of their income in rent and utilities, a household needs to earn $26.88 per hour. The average wage of renters in Worcester is $14.12 per hour. A renter would need to work 76 hours per week to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment. As I write this, I keep hearing Daisy’s words: “How is anyone supposed to afford rent and utilities making $15 an hour?”

It shouldn’t take a lot of science to know that for many Worcester families, already at risk for losing housing due to a reduction of work hours, a layoff, or a medical emergency, affording rent means working multiple jobs or living in overcrowded conditions, which increases the risk of being infected by Covid-19. A study conducted by the City of Worcester Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force shows Covid-19 infections are hitting people of color the hardest. They are concentrated in neighborhoods most densely populated and predominantly Latino and African-American. My colleagues across the housing and homelessness field agree that renters in communities of color and immigrant communities are facing a major public health and housing crisis. It is not news to any of us, of course, that these are Worcester families that are facing job losses, food insecurity and illness and are at risk for eviction and homelessness. The $18 million the City says it has invested in affordable housing is, unfortunately, not trickling down to the families we talk to everyday. Years of reductions by federal, state and local governments, along with the failure to adjust housing subsidies to reflect actual housing costs, have left Worcester renters struggling in the midst of a global pandemic.

So, where exactly does housing for working families and poor people stand in Worcester, if Daisy and other families are ever going to be able to find a place to live? And can someone explain to me why the minimum wage is not a living wage?

Every day at CMHA we hear stories of seniors, people with disabilities, families with low-wage jobs and those leaving our shelters, struggling to find decent and affordable housing in Worcester. My colleagues and I take these stories with us when we advocate for long-term rental assistance, access to eviction and foreclosure counseling resources, and more dollars to shelter families with children. These things are simply not enough to prevent more families from becoming homeless. We also need a local housing policy that makes it a priority to develop and preserve housing that is affordable for families who are paying more than 30% of their income on rent, if Daisy and other families are ever to find a place to live.

Good progress is being made locally to create housing for homeless individuals. The Worcester Housing Authority and other nonprofits are leading efforts to develop a number of housing for the chronically homeless, with support from the City. But we also know that families with children, who make up the biggest number of homeless across the state, including in our City, remain vulnerable to homelessness and housing insecurity. Creating healthy and affordable housing opportunities for them needs to be a priority. The Housing Now Initiative announced by the City Manager and Mayor Petty last October is an important start. Long-term advocates for preventing family and individual homelessness and creating more affordable housing opportunities agree that there are things that can support our City move in the right direction. We can start with two: passing an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance through City Council, which would require developers to work with the City to set aside affordable housing units for families at the low income brackets, and establishing a local Affordable Housing Trust Fund to preserve and invest in more affordable housing for families. These actions would not end homelessness and housing insecurity in Worcester, but they would greatly reduce them.

“The little people that keep the City running, the housekeepers, the clerks, mental health workers, all surviving on $15 an hour, cannot afford a $1300 apartment” is how Daisy ends our conversation. For people like Daisy and many others the future remains uncertain. Many of us working with families and individuals remain hopeful that a robust local housing policy and collective advocacy at the state and federal levels will lead to a future where no one puts their head on the pillow at night homeless or unable to pay rent.