Housing Quality and Health: Revealing the Connections, Addressing the Challenges (Part 4)

Revitalize CDC in Springfield improves housing conditions by performing assessments and interventions for adults and children with asthma to safely remain in their home. (Photo credit: Revitalize CDC)

MACDC has long supported its members in their work to improve housing quality. In recent years, MACDC worked with it's members to establish health equity work as a defining characteristic of the contemporary community development movement in Massachusetts. We are now in the beginning stages of an initiative to link these two strands of our work. We would like to engage with as many stakeholders as possible in this process, and, therefore, are publishing this series of blog posts to share out ideas and get your feedback.

 

Current Initiatives Targeted at Neighborhood Disinvestment and Climate Change 

In our most recent blog, the third in our series, we examined current programs focused on addressing property-level distress. These programs including ones that confront lead hazards in homes, poor indoor air quality, and other unsafe housing conditions. In the current blog, we focus on current efforts to address two broader factors: neighborhood disinvestment and climate change. Attention to these “underlying conditions” is necessary for efforts to address property-level distress to succeed. 

Addressing neighborhood disinvestment:

As noted in our prior blog, many lower-income neighborhoods in Massachusetts—most notably, but not solely, in the state’s Gateway Cities and some rural communities —struggle with the challenges of weak real estate markets, with low rents and declining or stagnant home values. In these neighborhoods, too often property owners lack economic incentives to invest in these structures for long-term sustainability, making neighborhood-or community-wide interventions necessary. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problems associated with neighborhood disinvestment. As author Alan Mallach from the Center for Community Progress noted in his June 2020 Report: Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst: Addressing the Aftermath of the COVID-19 Pandemic in America’s Struggling Neighborhoods, “one thing we can expect is that the effects will be much more severe in struggling cities, lower income neighborhoods, and communities of color.” 

Fortunately, there are a number of promising programs and interventions: 

Local Code Enforcement as Neighborhood Stabilization: Municipal governments can enforce the State Building Code and Sanitary Code, to incentivize owners to maintain their properties, and sanction those who do not do so.  This can be challenging, as many lack the resources to identify problem properties and maintain current records. Fortunately, Massachusetts will receive approximately $.5.3 million in Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), that will address both lost revenue and pandemic-related costs, and thereby strengthen the capacity of local governments to enforce codes.  

Receivership: Receivership is a tool by which the Court can appoint a person or organization to temporarily manage a property (occupied or vacant) to enforce the state Sanitary Code and respond to an irresponsible or absentee landlord.  For occupied buildings, Receivership can address needed repairs and prevent a building from deteriorating, to provide better living conditions for tenants. For abandoned properties, the MA Attorney General’s Neighborhood Renewal Division is a resource for municipalities in utilizing Receivership. Many CDCs have supported these efforts. For example, OneHolyoke CDC has acted as a Court-Ordered Receiver in Holyoke, and Worcester Community Housing Resources has operated a Receivership loan fund in addition to serving as Receiver itself in some cases.   

Liabilities to Assets (LTA) Program to Address Abandoned Homes: The MA Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) is administering a $7.5 million, five-year pilot program to work with a CDC, NewVue Communities, to acquire and rehabilitate more than 40 abandoned homes in North Central Massachusetts, and then sell the homes to low-and moderate-income homebuyers. An energy efficiency consultant recommends steps that can be taken during the rehab to make the homes more efficient and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center will help to defray the cost of some of the upgrades. Despite numerous challenges (often due to the deteriorated condition of many vacant properties), LTA provides a promising model for a broader statewide initiative. 

The Commonwealth’s Neighborhood Stabilization Initiative is modeled on LTA. MACDC, working with MassINC, MassHousing, and other public and nonprofit partners, has launched an initiative intended to put vacant housing back on the market, restore poor quality housing to good condition, and improve the quality of life in struggling neighborhoods and communities across the Commonwealth.  While there are several components to this initiative, implementation of The Neighborhood Hub, supported by more than $2 million in state funds, and staffed by MassHousing, is well underway. The technical and financial assistance to improve capacity on the local level will soon be accompanied by state capital dollars to support property rehabilitation. 

Other Initiatives to Address Neighborhood Disinvestment: 

  • CDCs in Gateway Cities, and in small towns, have long taken an active role in neighborhood stabilization initiatives.  Their housing development efforts and housing rehab programs are often part of a neighborhood-wide strategy.  
  • While limited, affordable homeownership development efforts in these weaker market areas have several goals: providing low-and moderate-income first-time homebuyers with affordable homeownership, providing these homebuyers with the opportunities to build wealth, and stabilizing disinvested neighborhoods. As an example, the State’s Commonwealth Builder Program, administered by MassHousing, provides funding for both new construction and adaptive reuse to turn vacant factories or schools in Gateway Cities into affordable home ownership opportunities. 
  • The MA Public Health Association is partnering with Neighbor to Neighbor on an initiative to improve housing and transportation in Springfield and Worcester. They are currently convening residents to get their input, and then will decide on advocacy strategies.  

Addressing climate change: 

Climate change impacts many aspects of our lives. Efforts to combat climate change, and its impact, are underway in Massachusetts, including passage of legislation to dramatically reduce climate emissions. Nonetheless, the harmful impacts of a warming climate are already being felt, in homes and neighborhoods across the Commonwealth.  

The broad scale of the climate crisis, and its already devastating impacts on residents and communities, require urgent, comprehensive, and aggressive strategies.  Currently, there are several such initiatives: 

Energy efficiency and renewable energy: 

Energy efficiency programs mitigate the impacts of climate change, including extreme temperatures.  These programs additionally lower utility costs to enhance affordability and can directly address health hazards, such as windows containing lead-based paint and poor ventilation. 

Massachusetts is in the process of developing its 3-year Energy Efficiency Plan, for calendar years 2022 through 2024, funded by utility ratepayers and guided by a public process overseen by the MA Department of Public Utilities (DPU). Under the current 3-year Plan, the Mass Save Program offers income eligible households in 1-4 family homes no- and low-cost energy efficiency upgrades. Furthermore, through the LEAN Multifamily Program, owners of multifamily projects where at least 50% of the households have incomes at or below 60% of area median income can access no-cost energy upgrades.  

CDCs have used available resources to provide energy efficiency retrofits: 

  • In Calendar Year 2020, CDCs reported energy retrofits on 1,135 units in their rental portfolios. The combined dollar amount of these energy retrofits was $5.3 Million. 
  • In the communities they serve, in CY 2020, CDCs provided funding for energy efficiency improvements for more than 1,500 homes, for a combined amount of $3.9 Million. 

Other initiatives address the need for energy efficiency and renewable energy: 

  • The MA Clean Energy Center, a state economic development agency, provides information, referrals, and resources for everything from weatherization to renewable energy technologies. 
  • Resonant Energy, LISC Boston and MACDC have launched the Solar Technical Assistance Retrofit (STAR) program, designed to remove barriers and dramatically increase the adoption for solar PV across the Commonwealth. 
  • LISC Boston, MACDC, and New Ecology have formed the Clean Energy Cohort, a peer learning group for affordable housing professionals to network, learn, and share information.  

Decarbonization: 

LISC Boston, MACDC, and New Ecology are using our established partnership as a springboard to launch the Decarbonization of Affordable Subsidized Housing (DASH) project. In FY2022, DASH will focus on two main areas: (1) education and technical assistance for CDCs and others in the affordable housing field on the need to decarbonize the affordable housing sector via deep energy retrofits and electrification of new and existing buildings, and (2) policy advocacy to remove barriers, provide incentives, and drive resources to the affordable housing sector so owners can meaningfully accelerate decarbonization. 

The goal of DASH is to get affordable housing a proverbial seat (and meal) at the electrification and building decarbonization table. Toward that end, we intend to surface – and start generating potential solutions for – the financial, technical, and knowledge barriers that are getting in the way of affordable housing fully participating in an all-electric, carbon free future. 

Policy advocacy: 

The Housing and Environmental Revenue Opportunities (HERO) coalition is a diverse coalition of environmental and housing advocacy organizations that are pushing for major new state investments to address the affordable housing and climate crises. HERO urges the Massachusetts State Legislature to enact legislation that would double the current Deeds Excise Tax, upon the sale of real property in Massachusetts, to generate approximately $300 million in new revenue each year, to be split evenly between Affordable Housing and Climate. 

This new revenue would create or preserve additional housing for 18,000 working-class homeowners and renters over 10 years; finance hundreds of millions of dollars in competitive, flexible grants to localities for climate resilience and mitigation; and assist between 3,500 and 6,500 additional extremely low-income families per year with housing vouchers or project-based rental assistance. 

Through a combination of property-level interventions, along with a commitment to and expansion of these programs aimed at addressing climate change and neighborhood disinvestment, we can move the needle on housing quality and associated health outcomes in Massachusetts. In our fifth, and final, blog post, we will suggest ways we can scale up and better align current efforts addressing both underlying conditions as well as property-level distress. Our goal is to identify how a more coordinated, data-driven and better resourced approach can tie together disparate threads to create healthier homes, resulting in healthier communities and healthier residents of those communities.