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Massachusetts has a huge waitlist for state-funded housing. So why are 2,300 units vacant?

Deb Libby is running out of time to find a place to live. Libby, 56, moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, four years ago, in part to be closer to the doctors treating her for pancreatic cancer.
Deb Libby, who poses in Worcester, Mass., on Aug. 21, 2023, has been on the state waitlist for public housing for almost a year. In a state with some of the country's most expensive real estate, Libby is among the 184,000 people — including thousands who are homeless, at risk of losing their homes or living in unsafe conditions — on a waitlist for the state's 41,500 subsidized apartments. (Jesse Costa/WBUR via AP)

Deb Libby is running out of time to find a place to live.

Libby, 56, moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, four years ago, in part to be closer to the doctors treating her for pancreatic cancer.

But the landlord wants her out by the end of the month and she can’t find anything else she can afford. She earns only a little more than minimum wage at a hardware store and often has to take unpaid time off because of health problems.

Libby thought she found a potential solution nearly a year ago: She applied for state public housing, a type of subsidized housing that’s almost unique to Massachusetts. But she’s heard nothing since.

“It’s frightening,” she said. “I seriously don’t know what to do. It’s like the system’s broken.”

In Massachusetts, which has some of the country’s most expensive real estate, Libby is among the 184,000 people on a waitlist for the state’s 41,500 subsidized apartments.

Yet a WBUR and ProPublica investigation found that nobody is living in nearly 2,300 state-funded apartments, with most sitting empty for months or years. The state pays local housing authorities to maintain and operate the units whether they’re occupied or not. So the vacant apartments translate into millions of Massachusetts taxpayer dollars wasted due to delays and disorder fostered by state and local mismanagement.

As of the end of July, almost 1,800 of the vacant units had been empty for more than 60 days. That’s the amount of time the state allows local housing authorities to take to fill a vacancy. About 730 of those have not been rented for at least a year.

Doris Romero, a housing coordinator at a Boston shelter, was stunned to hear about all the vacant apartments.

“Honestly, that’s a travesty,” she said. “The commonwealth should be ashamed.”

Ed Augustus, the state’s new secretary of housing, who was sworn in at the beginning of June, said there’s no justification for so many empty units.

“I think it’s unacceptable,” he said.

Augustus said the state is making changes and he expects improvements soon.

In most states, low-income residents seeking affordable housing rely on federal housing, vouchers for private housing and other assistance. But Massachusetts is one of four states — alongside New York, Connecticut and Hawaii — that also has state funded housing. And the Massachusetts system is by far the biggest state funded housing system in the country — with more units than the other three states combined.

The vacancies in state-funded housing are aggravating a housing crisis in Massachusetts. Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency in August to deal with the wave of homelessness. Massachusetts reports that the number of families with children staying in shelters has almost doubled in the past year to 6,386. Massachusetts spends $45 million a month to house people temporarily at hotels, shelters, college dorms and a military base.

WBUR found there are several reasons for the vacancies in the state-funded housing system, including a flawed online waitlist, insufficient funding for staff and repairs, and apartments being used for things other than housing.

Local housing officials blame the state’s online waitlist system for hundreds of the vacancies.

“I think it’s the most horrible, horrible, inefficient program,” said David Hedison, executive director at the housing authority in Chelmsford, a town 30 miles northwest of Boston. He said the agency spent six months contacting 500 people who were on the waitlist for a three-bedroom apartment, before it finally found one who responded and qualified for the unit.

Historically, local agencies with state-funded housing each managed their own small waitlists of applicants. People interested in housing had to apply to separate local housing agencies, often in person. Advocates complained it was too cumbersome. So Massachusetts launched a new system four years ago to make it easier for people to apply anywhere in the state online.

Since then, Hedison and other local housing officials have cited a litany of problems.

Applicants often fill out the lengthy forms incorrectly. And because there’s no upfront screening, housing officials only catch the errors late in the process — when they are already holding open apartments for people who don’t qualify for housing or need to be moved lower down the priority list.

People desperate for housing are often applying for housing all over the state. Housing officials all draw names from the same central database, so it’s common for multiple housing authorities to screen the same applicant at the same time, duplicating efforts and delaying the process. Some people wind up applying for towns too far from their family or work, and ultimately don’t accept the units.

“It’s an exercise in futility,” said Maureen Cayer, the housing authority director in Agawam in Western Massachusetts, where four units have been vacant for more than two years as of July.

To speed up the application process, the state hired a marketing firm to take over some of the screening of public housing applicants, starting this month.

In addition, hundreds of other apartments can’t be filled because they’re undergoing repairs or because local housing authorities lack the staff or funding for vital repairs.

Advocates pushed the Legislature to double the operating budget for public housing this fiscal year, but lawmakers approved a smaller 16% increase to $107 million.

In the meantime, local officials say it routinely takes them months to turn over units because they don’t have enough workers.

Neglected repairs have piled up for so long that units in the town of Adams, in the Berkshires near the New York state border, were condemned. Housing officials have razed dilapidated apartments in cities such as Lowell, northwest of Boston, and Fall River, near the Rhode Island line.

The state estimates there’s a $3.2 billion backlog for renovations.

Healey said the state is working on a bond bill to address the infrastructure problems, but declined to provide details.

Across the state, housing authorities have also converted at least 121 state-subsidized apartments for uses including offices, storage areas, laundry rooms, and even a police station — further shrinking the pool of units available for low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities.

Meanwhile people like Libby, the Worcester woman facing eviction at the end of September, are desperate to find affordable housing.

She was surprised to hear about all the units sitting vacant across the state.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “It’s maddening.”


With additional reporting by WBUR’s Beth Healy and Paula Moura. Read more stories from this investigation here:

Todd Wallack And Christine Willmsen, Wbur, The Associated Press