A call for housing help: Easthampton meeting explores challenges, potential solutions to acute state shortage

EASTHAMPTON — Local and state housing advocates, legislators and state agency leaders meeting with seniors earlier this week addressed the acute lack of housing in Massachusetts — especially affordable and accessible housing needed by seniors — hailing a massive state bond bill designed to spur housing production while urging more action at the state and municipal level.

Monday’s forum called by city Council on Aging Director Cynthia Tarail gave community members a chance to learn about the resources available to them as well as projects on local to federal levels aimed at mitigating these issues, which experts say are firmly at the top of the priority list for senior centers statewide.

“More senior center hours (in Massachusetts) are spent assisting older adults with housing than any other social service category,” according to Hayley Wood, economic security and outreach manager for the Massachusetts Councils on Aging.

Wood spoke at the forum, held at Eastworks and moderated by Tarail and Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, on the “lack of housing diversity” facing aging adults in Massachusetts, particularly the shortage of affordable housing that is Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant and offers assisted living accommodations.

“Lack of housing options is a top concern for older adults … rents and property values continue to rise and older adults are outliving their savings,” Wood said.

She recommended that aging adults try to make their current homes more accessible in whatever ways they can, as this is typically the easiest and least costly accommodation available.

State Rep. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton, emphasized the importance of western Massachusetts residents making their voices heard on the issue, especially now.

“Right now, the conversation across the commonwealth is all about housing,” he said. Given the rural setting of the region and the unique challenges it can pose, Carey said, “If we just have Boston making decisions for us, we’re not going to like those results.”

The most common issue expressed by both the panelists and participants was the acute statewide shortage of available housing units. Some respite may come in the form of a new bill that has been moving through the state Legislature.

Answering a need?

Connie Dragon of Easthampton said she attended the forum to find resources for her two cousins, who are struggling to find housing.

“One [cousin] lived in his car, and he’d been living there so long he bought a van so he could have more room,” she said. “The other cousin has three kids and is living with his mother because he has no place to live. Rents are so high, he can’t afford it.”

Many Massachusetts adults struggle with similar housing insecurity, not only due to a lack of affordable housing, but a lack of housing overall.

In 2021 and 2022, Way Finders — a nonprofit organization focused on fostering housing stability and economic mobility in western Massachusetts — conducted research with the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts. According to Keith Fairey, president and CEO of Way Finders, they discovered a supply gap of more than 19,000 housing units in the Pioneer Valley.

“We’re at a critical moment right now for our housing future,” Fairey said.

“More housing will help with the crunch we’re all feeling,” said Emily Cooper, chief housing officer of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs. “The Affordable Housing Bond Act would make possible more housing.”

The bond bill, also known as the Affordable Homes Act, is still making its way through the Legislature after being proposed by the Healey-Driscoll administration in October 2023. The $4 billion plan aims to produce more housing across Massachusetts through both new and rehabilitated units, lowering housing costs statewide. It includes capital spending authorizations alongside policy changes and initiatives, two tax credits, and three executive orders, all aimed at lowering barriers to the expansion of housing in the state.

“We have a moment right now where we have several things coming together,” said Matt Noyes, director of public policy for the nonprofit Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association, regarding the bill. “This is the moment where we can really get a lot done and move forward.”

State Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, emphasized the need not only for more housing but also an expedited development timeline. Even with the new bill, he said, “we need to move the process along faster,” or “we will never get out of this housing crisis.”

“We don’t have enough housing stock,” he said. “Demand far exceeds supply, and that’s at all levels of housing.”

Easthampton efforts

In Easthampton, a number of projects focused on affordable housing accessibility are already underway, many of which are part of the city’s Housing Production Plan. These include affordable housing projects such as One Industrial Lofts on Ferry Street, which seeks to create 96 affordable housing units, and Sierra Vista Commons at the former site of Tasty Top on Route 10, which is a phased, mixed-use project with 10 units set aside for affordable housing.

The city is also working to convert its three former elementary school buildings into more than 60 units of mixed-income housing. Additionally, 53 acres at 385 Main St. along the Manhan River have been designated for a project involving conserving 43 acres of fields, forests and farmland, while using the remaining 10 acres for affordable rental units.

The Easthampton Council on Aging also has an ad hoc Building Committee that is in discussion about the construction of a new senior center for the city.

There are also online resources for those seeking assistance or information on affordable housing. Easthampton Neighbors is a member-driven nonprofit that helps the city’s aging adults by providing assistance in everything from technology and home repairs to transportation. More information can be found at easthamptonneighbors.org.

Housing Navigator Massachusetts offers information about current affordable housing projects, waitlists, and available units across the state. Those seeking affordable housing or housing with certain accommodations can explore their options and get information about eligibility, lotteries, and more through their website at housingnavigatorma.org.

Alexa Lewis can be contacted at alewis@gazettenet.com or on Instagram and Twitter at @alexamlewis.

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