By Kim Siebert MacPhail
Although the Bedford Housing Authority (BHA) was prepared for a crowd at its October 16 meeting, less than a handful of residents attended presentation about a proposed “life management” program to be voted upon at Special Town Meeting on November 4.
BHA Chair Gene Clerkin, member Jane Puffer, BHA Executive Director Brenda Peacock, and Community Teamwork, Inc. (CTI) representative JoAnn Howell nonetheless took the opportunity to explain how affordable housing works—in Bedford and in the state— and how the proposed life management program has been designed to help residents move up and out of Bedford’s 100 BHA-administered units by receiving life and work skills training.
The BHA believes that supporting affordable housing residents in this manner also helps the Bedford community because it will increase work options and incomes— and affordable rental rates are tied to those incomes— and because it will break the generational cycle of dependency that keeps families in subsidized housing.
BHA members also emphasized that affordable housing is different from homeless housing such as the Plaza Hotel currently provides.
A short history of the Bedford Housing Authority
According to Executive Director Peacock, the BHA has been in existence since 1948. Peacock was hired in 2003 to administer Bedford’s 100 affordable units.
Of those 100 units, 80 are “elderly and non-elderly”, 12 are “veterans/family” and 8 are “special needs”, divided between Ashby Place, Elm Street, and Railroad Avenue. There are also 19 “Mass. Rental” voucher units that are site-specific to Bedford Village and 6 mobile vouchers that travel wherever the resident goes.
BHA Chair Clerkin said that affordable units are run jointly by the BHA and the State. “They fund us somewhat but we have to scrape for all the income we can— based on [rental] revenue, [minus] expenses. That’s really what we have to use on capital improvements and other things like that. The amount of rent is important.”
Peacock confirmed this. “We don’t receive any subsidy from the State. We run on our rents alone so we really are working on a limited income.”
Clerkin explained that the amount of rent paid is determined by income. “[If you qualify by making 80% or less of the area median income (AMI)], you pay 30% of your income for an affordable unit. You make a dollar, you pay us 30 cents. That’s the beauty—and it’s also the problem.”
Leases are month-to-month, Peacock said, and there are certain rules that residents must adhere to, such as policies about overnight guests, sanitary conditions, noise and other disturbances, and income limits. Currently, there is a 3-5 year waiting list, the length of wait dependent on which category of housing—elderly, veteran, etc.—an applicant is eligible for.
The proposed life management support program
The BHA has spent the last two years devising a solution to the problem of an affordable housing population stuck in place. Residents sometimes live whole lifetimes in subsidized housing and pass those limitations down to the next generation. Not only does the lack of progress affect residents and their children, low incomes keep rental revenues suppressed, making it difficult for the BHA to maintain properties.
To remedy the situation, the Administration developed what it sees as a ground-breaking life management pilot program that, with Town Meeting approval of Community Preservation funds, will provide career and financial literacy training, administered by Community Teamwork, Inc. (CTI) of Lowell.
Executive Director Peacock surveyed 36 of the 100 affordable households to determine interest and received 12 statements of interest. To accommodate this level of response, the pilot program was designed to accommodate 15 participants for two years. As a contracted service provider, CTI would evaluate participants for their individual baseline skills in a “Self-Sufficiency Matrix” that will allow caseworkers to tailor support for the specific needs of an individual or family.
Assistance in obtaining job training and educational certification—such as a high school equivalency diploma or English language proficiency—are focal points of the program.
CTI’s JoAnn Howell stated that the program is largely about eliminating barriers. Besides employment and literacy issues, Howell said the two biggest barriers to success are lack of childcare and the availability of transportation.
To gauge success of the life management pilot, the BHA will look at criteria such as whether income levels have increased, if the Town has collected more rent revenues and whether residents have been able move out of affordable housing entirely.
To fund the pilot program, BHA asked for $ 85,000 from Community Preservation and received a vote of 5 for approval and 3 against from the Committee. [See: https://www.thebedfordcitizen.org/2013/09/24/community-preservation-makes-recommendations-for-november-town-meeting-vote/ ] Taking the proposal then to the Finance Committee, the BHA again received a majority for approval (6 for and 2 against.) The Selectman, however, voted unanimously not to approve the request, based largely on concern about the current “charged atmosphere” surrounding affordable housing and on the sense that citizens need more time to understand the differences between the homeless population and the affordable housing population. [It should be noted here that the Selectmen cannot cause a Community Preservation proposal to be withdrawn.]
Clerkin said that, as a group, the BHA is not ordinarily in favor of going forward with Town Warrant articles that aren’t supported by the Selectmen. However, in this case, he said it makes sense to move on the issue this fall. “We’ve worked on this for two years and we think it’s the right program for the right time. . . . My sense is we should get a vote on this now and see what the atmosphere is.”
“If this passes, it’s huge,” added Peacock. “It’s going to open up a lot of doors.”
Clerkin agreed. “The State is incrementally inching its way toward helping people instead of building more bricks and mortar with Community Preservation funds earmarked for affordable housing use. This will definitely have State ramifications, there’s no question. And honestly, it’s going to integrate social service agencies into the suburban-type of problems, whereas the focus [until now] has tended to be urban.”