How New Shelter Length of Stay Limits Impact Families

When it’s working as intended, Massachusetts’ Emergency Family Shelter System functions as a vital safety net for families. Shelter providers offer families experiencing homelessness safe, stable places to stay until they are able to find permanent homes, along with comprehensive support to get back on their feet. At its best, this system offers safety, dignity, and support that leads to families finding stable, affordable housing and moving beyond homelessness for good. And, families can count on that safety and stability, remaining in shelter until they are able to find and maintain permanent homes. 

During their time in shelter, families work closely with staff to secure affordable, permanent housing through every option available to them, as quickly as possible. This process typically takes approximately one and a half to two years for families at Hildebrand, often involving complex housing and voucher applications along with finding jobs, childcare, and other essential components to achieving long-term stability. Once families secure a permanent home and move out of shelter, Hildebrand’s Stabilization Services team works with families to remain housed. Hildebrand’s approach works—families find affordable homes, move out of shelter, and stay housed in the long term. More than 90% of families are still stably housed two years after moving out of shelter.

New restrictions imposed by the legislature, however, will soon interrupt this proven approach. Effective this July, some families will be required to leave shelter before they’re ready. With a record-high number of families in the state’s emergency shelter system, the Massachusetts legislature recently passed significant new restrictions limiting the time that a family can stay in shelter to nine months, with the possibility of two 90-day extensions for families that meet certain criteria. Once enforcement of these limitations begins in early July, the state anticipates terminating 100-150 families from shelter per week. Advocates for vulnerable families are very concerned about the impact this will have on children and families.

This change significantly impacts how the shelter system supports families—and jeopardizes this critical safety net at a time when we’re experiencing an intense housing shortage and affordability crisis in Greater Boston. In its 2023 Greater Boston Housing Report Card, The Boston Foundation reported that rental vacancy rates in Greater Boston are “stubbornly low” compared with other large metro areas and continue to decline, while the portion of renters who are cost burdened—paying more than 30% of their income towards rent—has reached a record high. Sending 100-150 families per week out of shelter and into this environment is unsustainable and will only serve to fuel this crisis.

Families need more support to navigate an increasingly limited and expensive housing market, not more restrictions. Pushing hundreds of families out of shelter and into a highly expensive and competitive housing market before they’re ready is not a solution. Amid these drastic changes, though, one constant remains: Hildebrand and its partners remain steadfast in working to achieve our vision that every family has a home. We won’t lose our focus on prioritizing families first and foremost.

This Fair Housing Month, Let’s Recommit to Fair Housing

The Fair Housing Act marks a monumental milestone in the fight for civil rights and housing access in the United States. Enacted in 1968 in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on race; color; national origin; religion; sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity; familial status; and disability. Massachusetts has additional legislation in place that expands on these protections by prohibiting discrimination based on the source of a renter’s income, including whether they have a housing voucher.

At the time the Fair Housing Act was passed—56 years ago this April—it represented a significant opportunity to ensure everyone would have fair access to housing after many decades of institutionalized discrimination. However, despite the Fair Housing Act, discrimination still runs rampant across the housing market. The Boston Foundation’s 2020 report, Qualified Renters Need Not Apply: Race and Voucher Discrimination in the Metro Boston Rental Housing Market, documents pervasive discrimination based on both race and voucher status in Greater Boston.

Today, discrimination in the Greater Boston housing market persists. Four years after The Boston Foundation’s report was published, the non-profit Housing Rights Initiative (HRI) conducted testing and determined that discrimination based on voucher status continues to be widespread in Boston. HRI filed a lawsuit against 20 landlords, property owners, and real estate companies for discriminating against voucher holders. The lawsuit alleges instances of blatant discrimination, such as a realtor sharing with a prospective tenant that the landlords “don’t do Section 8,” and it documents more subtle forms of discrimination, like ghosting.

The lawsuit brought forth by HRI is a noteworthy example of accountability for those who are perpetuating discrimination in our communities. But, a single case isn’t enough to uproot a decades-long pattern of ongoing, systemic discrimination. As HRI founder and executive director Aaron Carr says, the findings of their investigation are “the tip of a very discriminatory iceberg.” The federal Fair Housing Act and state-specific fair housing laws are only effective if they are consistently enforced. In order to ensure fair housing for all, we need to recommit to holding accountable all who carry out discriminatory practices in our communities.

When we hold those perpetrating discriminatory practices accountable, our whole community benefits. At Hildebrand, the vision that we share with our many partners, supporters, volunteers, and friends is that every family has a home. Housing discrimination impedes our progress towards achieving that vision. It exacerbates the housing crisis by further limiting an already extremely tight housing stock, making it difficult for families to move out of homelessness and prolonging their stay in shelter. Discrimination also reinforces racial and socioeconomic segregation in Boston by limiting housing options for people of color outside of neighborhoods that are highly segregated by race, and limiting options for voucher-holders outside of neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty.

As we seek to address Massachusetts’ intensifying housing crisis and entrenched segregation, let’s start with the solutions that are already in front of us. We need to ensure that existing protections, including the Fair Housing Act, are being consistently implemented and enforced. And, we can do more. By changing local zoning laws to allow for multi-family housing, for example, we can open up pathways for families to find homes in our communities. As this Fair Housing Month comes to an end, let’s recommit to fair housing and take the next steps towards ensuring that every family has a home.

Inclusionary Zoning: Making Communities Work for All Families

As a provider of emergency shelter and affordable permanent housing to families, Hildebrand Family Self-Help Center is on the front lines of both the housing and shelter crises. We are deeply concerned that some communities will choose not to comply with the MBTA Communities Act, as we’ve recently seen in Milton and several others throughout Greater Boston. 

This resistance affects families who are transitioning out of homelessness and anyone else who is seeking affordable housing in our communities. The lack of affordable housing directly contributes to the length of stay in shelter, now averaging 15 months, and the state’s spending on the shelter system. Massachusetts cannot expect to hold down the cost of shelter and resist building more multifamily housing, so we’re all in this together.

The massive housing shortage and exorbitant housing costs mean families across Greater Boston are left searching for somewhere to live that’s safe and affordable. Across the state, more than 7,500 families—the maximum that the system can hold—are currently staying in emergency shelters such as Hildebrand, and there are currently more than 700 families on the waitlist.

Families in shelters are eager to find housing, and they work closely with Case Managers and Housing Specialists in this effort to do so as quickly as possible. Yet, a shortage of housing options means finding a permanent home is increasingly difficult, and limiting housing availability with restrictive, exclusionary zoning laws only fuels this crisis. Adopting more inclusionary zoning laws in Milton—and the other towns and cities served by our MBTA system—will help open up pathways for families to move out of the cycle of homelessness.

Current residents will benefit from more housing options, too. While Milton has a high median household income—$170,531—there are many families in Milton whose incomes are significantly less. Nearly a quarter (24.4%) of households in Milton make less than $75,000/year. Further, close to 37% of Milton’s existing renters are paying more than 35% of their income in rent, meaning they are considered rent-burdened. 

Implementing more inclusionary zoning will allow for more housing options in towns and cities like Milton, making it easier for current residents to stay in the communities they already call home. With more housing options available, including units that are more affordable, lower-income-earning families won’t have to face a choice between spending a high proportion of their income on housing or leaving their communities. Teachers, restaurant workers, first responders, healthcare workers, and others who are essential to keeping our communities running will be able to live in the communities where they work. Small businesses that are vital to the local economy will gain customers and new potential employees. 

As we make decisions about the future of our communities, context is key. These zoning decisions are not taking place in a vacuum. Historically, zoning in Boston’s suburbs—including Milton—was deliberately designed to exclude families on the basis of race and class, as found in Boston Indicators’ 2023 report Exclusionary by Design: An Investigation of Zoning’s Use as a Tool of Race, Class, and Family Exclusion in Boston’s Suburbs, 1920 to Today. 

The legacy of these decisions remains today. Milton has higher incomes and housing costs than other communities in the same metro area, as well as a higher proportion of white residents and lower proportion of Black residents than contiguous communities like Mattapan. The exclusionary zoning in so many of our cities and towns not only exacerbates the housing shortage crisis, but it reinforces segregation by income, class, and race across Greater Boston.

We have the opportunity to make our communities work for all families, and adopting more inclusionary zoning will bring our communities one step closer to making this a reality in Greater Boston.

Woman in a suit in a discussion on stage.

The American Justice Summit

On January 29th, one of our clients, Ada, spoke at the second annual American Justice Summit at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, NY. She describes her experience with guns and a wrongful conviction that separated her from her children and forced her to restart her life. Despite all that, and with a little help from her daughter, she’s advocates against gun use to young girls as the Latino Field Organizer for Operation L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K (Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killing).

Watch her speak about her experience at 2:06:26 to 2:15:51.

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