Board of Health Confronts Short-Term Housing Needs as Some Seek Refuge in Town Motels

They are just under the radar in a prospering community with high real estate values, assorted rental options, and an impressive inventory of units defined as affordable.

Some individuals and families in Bedford are navigating housing insecurity.

Katharine Dagle, assistant director of the Health Department, told the Board of Health this week that she is involved with seven open housing complaints from tenants. She said this total is higher than she has seen in Bedford before.

“I think Covid made a lot of the residents in the community much more aware of the Health Department and services we are able to provide, and that makes them more aware to call us,” Dagle observed on Wednesday.

The board also heard Heidi Porter, Health and Human Services Director, acknowledge that the two motels on Routes 4 and 225 are refuges for people with short-term housing needs. That is prompting questions about licensing and enforcement, she said.

Dagle said on Wednesday that she responds to complaints in order to enforce the state sanitary code, which details “minimum standards for human habitation.”

The Health Department regards some individual cases as human needs as well as code violations. Dagle said that when appropriate, one of the department’s social workers accompanies her on the inspection and reaches out to the household with information on services that may be helpful. “That has been working wonderfully,” she said.

Although there isn’t empirical evidence, Dagle said she and her colleagues suspect that the situation has ties to the Covid-19 pandemic – specifically the state moratorium on evictions, which ended several weeks ago.

Although she has only dealt with one actual eviction situation, Dagle said the issues engendering the complaints may have been festering for months, with occupants hesitant to call or owners either deliberately ignoring complaints or unable to finance repairs.

“These are not conditions that I haven’t seen before – conditions that obviously need to be corrected,” Dagle said, adding that she never has had to order occupants to leave because of health or safety deficiencies.

She issues an “order to correct” letter and follows up with a re-inspection. The next step after that, “if they haven’t made a good effort,” is Housing Court. There are no such cases pending, she said.

Porter did not mention the names, but she was referring to the Bedford Motel and the Bedford Plaza. (She did say there is less of an issue at the Doubletree.) They are currently licensed as hotels or motels, but “in many cases, they are serving as rooming houses because folks are living there longer—folks who are unhoused.”

There are evictions; people are struggling to remain in their apartments or houses, Porter said, and “they often use the motels as bridge housing. So we want to ensure that people have that opportunity.”

“But there are incidents happening from a police perspective that we need to mitigate,” the director said.

Porter, in answer to a question, said she doesn’t have an exact count, “but we know from a social service perspective we have eight or nine active clients seeking services through us living in one of the hotels.”

The town, she said, doesn’t have “a real strong handle on how long the stays are. We want to have that dialogue with the hotel and motel owners and figure out where they are with all of this.”

She said there are questions about the licensing process. “We’re looking to try to determine if we need to establish stay limits at some of these locations,” she said. Reports that the maximum of 31 days to qualify as a hotel appear to be “anecdotal.”

“Those are the kind of details we are trying to sort through and establish a policy in the community,” Porter said. She acknowledged that “folks are relying on this, and we want to be taking that into consideration.”

“We want to work with our other town partners,” Porter said. Asked later about other agencies’ roles, Town Manager Sarah Stanton wrote in an email, “Legally, the town cannot speak on the motels at this time. Conversations with our code enforcement team (police, fire, health, code, and planning) and town counsel are ongoing.”

Porter said it is hoped to have a resolution by the end of the year when permit renewals are due.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763

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