Housing help is on the way

The general public may not have noticed it in the rush of roll calls that marked the end of the legislative session in July, but advocates for the needy sure did. The Legislature passed–and Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci later signed–a bill to provide almost $300 million to preserve and develop affordable housing throughout the state.

The first housing bond bill in four years spreads $296 million among a variety of state programs ranging from sorely needed renovations of affordable apartment complexes to low-rate mortgages for first-time homebuyers.

Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie, D-Boston, who filed the legislation two years ago as co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing and Urban Development, called the money “a giant first step” toward helping the state’s low-and moderate-income families find safe, decent, and affordable homes.

“In this rich country we live in we don’t need to have people going hungry and people living under highways or seeking shelter in the corners and alleyways,” Richie said. “We are moving away from it, but we still have a problem…. Especially at a time when the economy is doing well, we need to step up efforts to serve those who are the least fortunate among us.”

The state will borrow the money by selling bonds over the next five years and will spend it according to details worked out by the Department of Housing and Community Development.

About two-thirds of the funds–$187 million–will pay to repair and modernize state-owned public housing that has been plagued by leaking roofs, broken windows, malfunctioning elevators, and other problems. The state owns and maintains about 50,000 public housing units. The state housing agency will decide which get upgrades.

Here’s where the remaining $109 million will go:

$35 million to help preserve the affordability of so-called “expiring use” properties–privately owned apartments built with state or federal funds whose owners have the option of pre-paying their mortgages and beginning to charge market-rate rents. In some cases, the money will go to building owners who agree to continue charging below-market rents to offset their loss of income. In others, the money will help tenant groups buy the properties.

$26 million to help fund a variety of affordable rental and homeownership opportunities through the Housing Stabilization and Investment Program. It includes money for the demolition of private buildings and the rehabilitation of 1-to 4-family housing, as well as funds for nonprofit developers to acquire land. It also provides funding for the Soft Second loan program, which gives low-interest mortgages to low-income homebuyers.

$25 million for the Community Development Action Grant program, which pays for infrastructure improvements to support economic development.

$21 million to the Housing Innovations Fund for the development of affordable housing for people with special needs, including people with AIDS, victims of domestic violence, people recovering from drug addiction, grandparents caring for their grandchildren, and the homeless.

$2 million to recapitalize the Massachusetts Housing Partnership Fund, which helps finance the development of affordable rental housing throughout the state. The agency uses private bank financing to make low-interest loans to developers. By law it must have $1 million on hand for every $25 million it borrows.

Meet the Author
The last housing bond bill, which was approved in 1994, supplied about $295 million, most of which has been spent. Under the Dukakis administration, the state had about $1 billion from housing bond bills passed in 1983, 1985, and 1987.

It will be about a year before any of the money from the 1998 bond bill is available, Richie said. And then the Department of Housing and Community Development will have to choose which projects get top priority. The state is currently limited to borrowing $67 million a year for housing, she said. However, that could change. It’s up to the governor to set the cap.