Daily Hampshire Gazette – Finding a solution to homelessness: advocates come together, strategize

HOLYOKE – After a truck accident left Jocephus Grant unable to work, his wife moved and the bank foreclosed on the house he bought in Springfield in 2009.

The bank sold his house to an investor “for pennies on the dollar”, the investor moved to evict him and his family, and he has been fighting the bank and the investor in court since 2018 without legal counsel.

After enduring a complex process, Grant, who is now a board member of local housing group Springfield No One Leaves, is awaiting a decision from the Court of Appeal.

“I’ve navigated a court system that was never meant for me to navigate,” Grant told a gathering of housing advocates from across Western Massachusetts on Friday.

His case highlights just one of the problems faced by people who lose their homes – the lack of access to legal advice.

Mayors, lawmakers and a state Cabinet secretary gathered at Holyoke Community College for the eighth annual meeting of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness.

According to a January count, the number of homeless people in the four western counties has increased since 2021, rising 17 percent last year to 3,862, with nearly 3,000 in Hampden County and 312 in Hampshire County.

The number of homeless families has increased 46 percent in the three-year period, Springfield Housing Director Gerry McCafferty said, and rents have increased 31 percent since 2020 in Berkshire County and 23.3 percent in the other three western counties. .

The point number of homeless people in the four counties (as of Jan. 31 of this year, McCafferty said) was 259, up 224 percent from 2021, when pandemic assistance was available. Eviction filings rose from 787 to 1,302 per quarter over the past 12 months.

“It’s really bad,” said Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness.

Look for solutions

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia said homelessness hasn’t improved in his city despite big spending and the efforts of many. The number of homeless people rivals that of Springfield, a city with four times the population.

While funding is a big part of the solution, it’s not everything, he said.

“We’ve been throwing money at it in Holyoke for decades.”

Significant affordable housing developments are underway, but underlying forces such as corporate greed and systemic racism must also be confronted, he said.

Blacks and Hispanics make up 35% and 36% of the homeless population, respectively, a much higher proportion than in the general population.

Schwartz, Garcia and other speakers said they have hope for the Affordable Housing Act, Gov. Maura Healey’s $4.1 billion bond bill now awaiting passage out of a legislative conference committee.

Speakers also voiced support for a number of related initiatives, such as a more useful property transfer tax that can be adopted by municipalities to raise money for affordable housing and the promotion of accessory dwelling units.

“Housing is the best possible response to homelessness,” Schwartz said. “(The act) gives us a path forward, and we’re excited to work with our legislators to make it even stronger for western Massachusetts.”

The housing coalition is calling for lowering the $1 million threshold for the property transfer tax, automatically sealing eviction filings in certain cases and de jure permitting of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), among other steps.

“We need to make this investment and we need to make it now,” said Keith Fairey, CEO of Way Finders.

Housing Secretary Ed Augustus said his new department, Housing and Livable Communities, is working on the state’s first housing plan in 40 years.

Money in the housing bond bill will double the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to $800 million, he said, and help strengthen public housing, which houses 70,000 people in Massachusetts.

“The first job is to protect what we have,” he said, with a backlog of deferred maintenance that needs attention.

He also approved the transfer tax and ADUs, saying 10,000 housing units could be created over 10 years at no cost to taxpayers.

Addressing housing needs isn’t about doing one thing, Augustus said — “it’s about doing everything.”

Coping with homelessness

Lifetime Springfield resident Felicia Wheeler said she was facing eviction from her rental home of 20 years when it was sold to a new owner. Despite an agreement with the previous owner that allowed her to stay, her new owner served her with an eviction notice in December. He has to leave by the end of June.

To find a new home, she said, she needs a credit score of 650, an income that’s three times her rent plus application fees, “and that’s before I have to explain the eviction on my record of housing,” Wheeler said. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

State Sen. Adam Gomez of Springfield said he struggled with homelessness when he was first elected to the City Council.

He called for continued attention to the issue, noting that north Springfield and Holyoke are two of the poorest communities in the state.

“We need to do more,” Gomez said.

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton described a day in housing court, with the waiting room full of people facing eviction, attorneys in attendance.

“Judges do their best, but these cases are very difficult,” she said.

It’s not just housing, she said — mental health issues and isolation are often involved, too.

“We need to know people’s stories,” Sabadosa said. “This will take more than a bill.”

State Rep. Carlos Gonzalez of Springfield said he didn’t think of the issue as a housing crisis.

“Income inequality is the real crisis,” he said.

Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield said Healey’s creation of the new housing department, separate from economic development, was “a big win for all of us.”

Senator Jo Comerford encouraged lawyers to “hold us to account”.

“Government can work,” she said. “You make us better.”

She asked people to call or email legislative leaders without delay to urge them to pass the housing bill.

“Things can’t move without your voice attached to them,” she said.