“A Disaster Waiting to Happen” by John Edward

John Edward, who teaches economics at Bentley and UMass Lowell, frequently contributes columns on economic issues.

The following exchange occurred during a public hearing for a proposed affordable housing development in Chelmsford. Someone asked whether any units would be reserved for the elderly. Reasonable question, but the answer was no. He then asked if any units would be reserved for the handicapped. It was another reasonable question, but again the answer was no. As he walks back toward his seat the questioner poses a rhetorical question to the audience: “who other than old people or the handicapped would need affordable housing in Chelmsford.”

That is just one example of the lack of awareness of the fragile living conditions for many families living in Chelmsford. In response I offer the following data points and real life stories that expose a crisis in affordable housing. (Editorial note: the stories told in this column are true; the names have been changed to preserve anonymity.)

Disclosure: I serve on Chelmsford’s Housing Advisory Board.

Jeff served his country by fighting in the war on terrorism in a land far from home. The return to civilian life brought hardship. Due to war injuries he is disabled. His wife Marie tried to work while undergoing cancer treatment. They could no longer afford the Chelmsford apartment they were living in with their children. They went to town officials. The Chelmsford Housing Authority tried to help. No lower-rent options were available. As this “goes to press” the fate of Jeff, Marie, and their children is unknown.

The Chelmsford Housing Authority reports that the number of Chelmsford residents on the waiting lists they maintain has doubled since 2011. The first phase of Chelmsford Woods residences will be opening very soon. The state classifies all 58 rental units as affordable. Over 300 households have submitted applications.

Bill lives with his younger wife and much younger child. At least they used to live as a family. They had an apartment in Chelmsford. The landlord evicted them when they could no longer afford the rent. When they have money they live in a hotel. When they do not have money they spend time in 24-hour businesses. When that happens the family splits up to protect the child. Bill does not think of himself as old but he is old enough to qualify for some housing assistance. However, receiving aid may require the family to split up permanently.

A search for available section 8 subsidized housing units in Chelmsford came up empty. According to The New York Times, in Massachusetts there was an 11% increase in rental eviction filings between 2010 and 2013.

Laura and George have lived and worked in Chelmsford for a long time. Then the Great Recession hit them hard. They were both self-employed. They both lost their jobs. Home for Laura and George is now the family car.

This year the Lowell Transitional Living Center (LTLC) experienced a significant increase in clients seeking emergency bed services. LTLC serves Greater Lowell. Over 1,100 adults have had to look to them for housing and meal services in the last year.

Christine, better known as Chris, used to live in Chelmsford Commons, better known as the trailer park. She worked two jobs, one on an on-call basis. She took classes in her “spare time.” Chris was one of the more affluent trailer-park residents. She decided to move out. Her decision was driven by an increase in her housing cost due to change in the town’s tax policy regarding trailers. She wanted to stay in Chelmsford. However she could not find an affordable rental property. Chris now lives in a nearby town.

According to the Census Bureau, 1 out of 5 renters in Chelmsford pay more than half of their pre-tax income on housing. The guideline for affordability is no more than 30%. Hundreds of renting households in Chelmsford are extremely housing burdened.

Clare is from Chelmsford – born and raised. Clare loves Chelmsford. Clare loves her parents. Clare is still living with her parents. However she is in her twenties and does not want to live with her parents forever. She has been looking for a place she could afford on her own. Now her parents want to downsize to a place they can afford in their retirement years. Odds are good none of them will be living in Chelmsford much longer.

A study commissioned by the town characterized Chelmsford as an “affluent” community. The evidence of affluence was an average household income of $105,000. The same study reported that one-third of households in town made less than $35,000.

Bob lives in a nearby community. He lives in a housing development where he does not feel safe. Every year, like clockwork, he inquires as to available housing in Chelmsford. He sees Chelmsford as a more secure place to live. Every year Bob is turned away, disappointed and insecure.

A search on an apartment finder web site showed 51 apartments for rent in the Chelmsford area. Only a handful of them were actually in Chelmsford. None of the Chelmsford apartments were affordable to a household making $35,000.

Sarah thought she was lucky to own an “affordable” condo. Based on her low wages affordable meant she could “manage” the mortgage payments. Managing to pay the mortgage meant telling the kids to bundle up because they could not afford heat. She encouraged the kids to spend time at school and the library. It was much easier for them to study someplace where the electric bills were always paid. Foreclosure seemed inevitable. It was. It happened. I do not know where Sarah and her children are now.

Foreclosures in Chelmsford spiked during the Great Recession, peaking in 2010. Banks are still foreclosing on homes at an alarming rate. According to the Northern Middlesex Register of Deeds, there were 94 foreclosures in Chelmsford during the last 5 years. During the first 5 years of the previous decade there were only 20.

Brian is a recent college graduate with a Masters Degree in Electrical Engineering. He has a job with a prestigious research facility. The apartment he was renting in a nearby town was getting too small for him, his wife, and two small children. He tried to find an affordable home to purchase in Chelmsford. He could not find anything. Luckily Brian was able to move his family into a larger apartment in another nearby community. I talked to a Human Resources representative for his employer. Highly talented researchers and engineers reject their job offers because of the high cost of living, in particular housing.

The Massachusetts High Tech Council has a dashboard where they compare Massachusetts to other states on factors related to doing business in the Commonwealth. We do fine on the “Business Tax Climate” – we are right in the middle of the pack. For “Hiring Difficulty” we rank as the most difficult state in which to hire high-tech talent.

Pam is in her 70s. Like many her age she is on a fixed income. She was lucky enough to live with her daughter in Chelmsford. That is until her daughter had to move and sell the house. Pam wanted to stay in Chelmsford and was healthy enough to live on her own. She asked friends, and searched everywhere she could think. She could not find a place she could afford. In desperation she accepted emergency help from the Chelmsford Housing Authority. That makes Pam one of the all-too-rare stories that do not end badly.

Summer Place is conveniently located in the center of Chelmsford (although there is no longer a supermarket nearby). It provides independent living for people at least 55 years of age. The lowest rate available is over $2,000 a month.

During debate over a recently approved Inclusionary Housing Bylaw, the issue of a density bonus provision took center stage. With the bonus, a housing development in very limited areas of town could grow in size, for example from 8 to 10 rental units. One member of the Board of Selectmen referred to the provision as “punitive” and a “disaster waiting to happen.”

When I think disaster I think of 9/11 or Katrina. I think of a person living in an apartment with the thermostat set to 50 in the winter. I think of someone not getting his or her prescriptions filled. I think of the family one financial setback away from eviction, foreclosure, or bankruptcy. I think of someone living in a car or a Laundromat.

I think of the stories told here, and the many untold stories of families struggling to make Chelmsford their home. They are the ones punished by opposition to affordable housing. The disasters are happening right now.

We need more affordable housing. We need people in Chelmsford to speak up for families facing disasters. We need people to show up and support efforts to make more affordable housing available. The people whose stories I told, if they are still living in Chelmsford, are too busy dealing with personal crises. They need your support.

2 Responses to “A Disaster Waiting to Happen” by John Edward

  1. judy says:

    Spot-on article. Thanks for posting Dick. I live in Chelmsford and see this first hand. Fighting cancer and losing my job sent me in financial spiral as well. If it wasn’t for a caring landlord, I would have been another example here. People assume that the folks that live in Chelmsford are all wealthy, but they forget that a lot of us are aging and will no longer have robust careers.

  2. John Skinner says:

    in 1974 I married the love of my life. I’m from Arlington an she is from Lexington. in 1976 after renting just outside of Lexington center we started shopping for a home to own. after realizing we could not afford a house in Arlington, Lexington, Bedford and most of Billerica, we found a starter home in North Chelmsford that we spent more than 20 years at before moving to our present home. My point here is simply having to find a location that you can afford should not make it any community’s responsibility to make sure everyone who cannot afford housing costs be given some kind of assistance so they can live where they cannot afford to live. I am happy where I am now and still can’t afford Lexington or Arlington, so what?