Boston Poor Forced to Find 2017 Apartments at 2005 Rental Rates

Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Bianca Vazquez Toness
WGBH

We’ve all heard about rising rents in Boston. According to Zillow, the average two-bedroom apartment in the city goes for $2,300. Imagine someone helped you to rent an apartment, but they said you can only rent a place that costs what an apartment did in 2005.

“With no rent control, it is extremely hard,” said 35-year-old Ashesha Rockette.

Rockette receives a state housing voucher that helps subsidize her rent. She is required to pay a third of her monthly income — $211 — toward the rent while the state kicks in the rest. Two years ago, that meant the state was paying the difference between her third and a cap of $1,392 — the maximum amount she could spend on rent. Rockette was not able to find an apartment at that rate. She eventually negotiated a better deal with the state, but many people who rely on these vouchers are still locked into the cap, which was set back in 2005.

“It’s not fair,” Rockette says. “I work hard. Why should I have to move out of this city? The city is all I know.”

Rockette said finding a two-bedroom apartment for less than $1,400 was impossible.

More than a thousand Boston families depend on the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program to rent homes. The program was once a model for helping low-income families choose their own housing, but after deep funding cuts, the vouchers are frozen in time.

The vouchers are “almost worthless at this point,” said Emilee Gaebler, an attorney representing tenants at Greater Boston Legal Services.

“If you need to stay within a certain community or near your family or medical providers, you can’t find a housing unit that’s within the rent range that you need it to be,” Gaebler said.

That’s how Rockette felt when she was searching for an apartment. She and her son couch-surfed at friends’ homes. Rockette had some rough years, including run-ins with the law almost a decade ago, but she believes it was the spending limit that kept her from getting an apartment. She pleaded with the nonprofit that administers her voucher, Metro Housing Boston, for additional funds.

“Rent had went up,” Rockette said. “So I had to fight with Metropolitan Housing to give me more money on my voucher so I could have somewhere to stay,” she added, referring to the organization by its old name.

She said Metro Housing Boston bumped up her subsidy by $250 so she could find an apartment that costs up to $1,650. Rockette’s not the only one to get her subsidy increased.

Metro Housing Boston, which administers the Massachusetts Rental Housing Voucher program in the Boston area, requests waivers or increases for more than 50 percent of recipients to make them “more usable for folks,” said executive director Chris Norris.

Norris’s nonprofit doesn’t set policy for the state’s voucher program.

“The programs need to accurately reflect what the market is doing,” Norris said. “And to take the steps necessary to allow families true opportunity and housing choice for where they need to live in order to maintain their safety net, their job, and school for their children.”

The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development would not comment on the funding levels for the voucher program. The state slashed the budget in the 1990s. Over the last few years, they’ve restored some funding, but that’s gone to increasing the number of vouchers, not the subsidy amount.

“We’re okay with that because we think you can distribute more vouchers if you keep it at that rent level,” said State Rep. Kevin Honan, who co-chairs the Massachusetts legislature's Joint Committee on Housing.

To live on that, Honan admitted, “You have to be creative. There’s no question. You have to work really hard. There’s a lot of onus on the tenant to search the region. May not be able to get it in the neighborhood in Boston that you want.”

At 2005 rates, you may also struggle to find a safe, working apartment that meets state housing standards, said Rockette.

When Rockette eventually found a place in Hyde Park for $1,650, it was far from perfect. Last week, the water was turned off. There’s mold, and rodents. Her mailbox has never locked properly, so she misses important mail.

She’s afraid to complain too much, because she doesn’t want to lose her place and face finding another below-market-rate apartment in Boston.

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