The following was distributed earlier today as my weekly Substack newsletter on Lowell politics. If you’d like to receive this weekly update by email in the future, sign up here.
Although not on the agenda for Tuesday’s Lowell City Council meeting, the possibility that migrants in need of emergency shelter will be housed in the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center (ICC) was discussed at length under a point of personal privilege by Councilor Corey Robinson. For the most part, Councilors were opposed to the concept.
In the aftermath of the meeting, the Lowell Sun reported that state officials are “allegedly looking at UMass Lowell’s Inn & Conference Center as a possible housing site for migrants fleeing unrest and violence in Haiti and Venezuela.” The same day (Wednesday, August 23, 2023), UMass Lowell posted a notice on its website saying that students originally assigned housing at the ICC were being relocated “to residence halls located on the University’s East and South Campuses.” The notice goes on to say that while the state is considering acquiring the ICC for migrant housing, that decision has not yet been made. However, if it did happen and students already living at the ICC then had to move, changing dormitories mid-semester would be much more disruptive for students than doing it now, before the term begins.
As the Sun reported back in June, the entire University of Massachusetts system has seen a three year downward trend in enrollments. The decline at UMass Lowell for this fiscal year alone was projected at nearly one percent. Since many of the building projects commenced when Marty Meehan was chancellor at UML included new dormitories, UML likely has more dorm rooms than it does students to occupy them.
When Governor Maura Healey recently declared a state of emergency “due to rapidly rising numbers of migrant families arriving in Massachusetts in need of shelter and services,” state officials presumably did an inventory of all possible resources including unused dormitory rooms in state colleges and universities. If UMass Lowell replied (hypothetically), “we have 7,500 students enrolled for September who will be housed in dormitories and 7,800 dormitory rooms,” the rational and fully understandable response from the state would be, “great, give us a plan that allows those 300 surplus dormitory rooms to be used for emergency shelter.” Although UML has made good use of the ICC since it acquired ownership in 2010, freeing itself from the costs of operating the facility may have been the best of a series of bad options for the University in the face of FY24 budget cuts. In fact, the Sun reported yesterday that the entire ICC, including its function facilities, will close completely on September 13, 2023.
Healey’s declaration cited two factors that have caused this ongoing situation to be elevated to a formal emergency. A big cause is the Federal government’s inability to issue work permits to migrants in a timely manner; without the ability to work, they can’t rent apartments and get on with life. The second big cause was the critical lack of housing that plagues Massachusetts. While this affects most of us in the form of higher mortgage or rent payments, it is a big contributor to homelessness and the need for more shelter space. For instance, a year ago in Massachusetts, there were 3,100 families who required emergency housing; now there are 5,600. Many both now and a year ago are migrant families but not all are. Others are long term residents who simply can’t afford to rent an apartment.
Although state law does grant the Governor extraordinary powers (such as the ability to seize private property) during a declaration of emergency, Healey made clear that she has not yet activated any of those laws. Instead, the declaration’s intent seemed designed to draw much-needed attention to this crisis while at the same time accelerating state government’s inventory of resources (like unused state college dorm rooms) that can help with the crisis.
But while the state’s response seems prudent in the face of a huge problem, much of the Council response was reactionary. City Manager Tom Golden tried to provide context for an admittedly ambiguous situation, but he soon seemed worn out by the barrage of negativity from Councilors. Golden said, “A lot of this is just conjecture” and that much of the buzz began two weeks ago with news that the state was considering the former St. Jeanne d’Arc School in Pawtucketville as an emergency shelter. (The state has since said the idea was considered and rejected). Golden said that the Governor had asked everyone – the Archdiocese, state colleges, hotels, and other entities – to report what properties they had that conceivably be used for emergency housing. He said repeatedly that he just doesn’t have the answers right now and can’t say whether the ICC plan is going to happen or not.
Besides the reactionary comments (“The ICC should house our own homeless before migrants live there” or “It was different when my ancestors came to this country”) there was some remarkable revisionism about Lowell and the arrival of refugees from Southeast Asia in the 1980s. Rewriting history, a couple of Councilors declared that back then, “housing was plentiful, jobs were abundant, the schools were prepared to receive new non-English speakers, and the city received cooperation and resources from every level of government.”
That is so contrary to what happened that time and space doesn’t permit me to address it here, but it’s a critically important part of Lowell’s story and, as the misinformation that flowed from Councilors about it makes clear, it’s a story that needs to be better known.
But back to the ICC. It seems inevitable that the state will utilize it as an emergency shelter. There’s a critical need for temporary housing. A vacant, 251-room state-owned building that was designed and built as a hotel seems like a logical part of the solution. That won’t make it any easier for the city to absorb its new residents. Certainly, Councilors should demand additional resources from the state and federal government to help. But the “send them someplace else” vibe coming from the Council on Tuesday was the wrong approach and contrary to every lesson we should have learned from our history.
When the Irish came in the 1820s, the Yankees didn’t want them here. When the French came in the 1870s, the Yankees and the Irish didn’t want them here. When the Greeks came in the 1890s, the Yankees, French, and Irish didn’t want them here. The list goes on and on. Yet today, Councilors flock to the annual flag raisings held by each of those groups and celebrate their contributions to the city.
The new people coming to Lowell now – and City Manager Golden said that more than 6,000 migrants have already settled in the city over the past few years – will inevitably make the city a better place regardless of the challenges that were faced when they first arrived.
About two and a half hours into Tuesday’s Council meeting, a refreshing dose of rationality intervened with an update on the Lowell Forward Housing Production Plan from a representative of the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments (NMCOG) which has partnered with the city’s Department of Planning and Development to produce this housing plan.
A memo from NMCOG explained that once the city adopts a “Housing Production Plan” it will give the city “preferred status” for a variety of grants and programs. Perhaps more importantly, the plan will also provide a road map for the entire community to address not only housing availability but housing insecurity and homelessness. In his remarks to the Council, NMCOG’s Christopher Hayes said that another goal of this plan “is to build consensus on solutions” and “provide data for decision making.”
Hayes emphasized that “housing insecurity is a continuum.” As people move from stable housing to “unstable housing,” those already in unstable settings get pushed into more dire circumstances.
The NMCOG study estimates that in Lowell, 8,023 households (that’s households, not individuals) are “severely cost burdened” which means they are paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing; and another 8,802 are “moderately cost burdened” which means they are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing. The remaining 25,460 families in the city are considered “not cost burdened.” That’s 60 percent of the city which means the other 40 percent fall into the cost burdened category.
Another slide showed that over ten years (adjusted for inflation), Lowell incomes have increased by 12 percent; rents have increased by 15 percent; but the cost of a single-family home has risen by 60 percent. Because housing is indeed a continuum, the people who can’t afford a single family house continue to rent apartments which means there aren’t apartments available for those in marginal circumstances and so on, all the way down to the local tent encampments.
The NMCOG/DPD study is ongoing and continues to see community input including a brief online survey that everyone is invited to answer. (Responses will be received until September 8, 2023).
There is no regular City Council meeting next week but the much-anticipated Special Council Meeting on the proposed Accessory Dwelling Use (ADU) zoning amendment is scheduled for tomorrow night (August 28, 2023) at 6:30 pm. The latest version of the ordinance is available on the city’s website.
In honor of Labor Day, next Saturday, September 2, 2023, UMass Lowell history professor Bob Forrant will lead a Lowell Walk on Labor History. The walk begins at Lowell National Park visitor center at 246 Market Street at 10am and will last 90 minutes. It’s free and requires no advance registration.