By Colleen Quinn

State House News Service

BOSTON -- With more than 4,000 Massachusetts families living in motels or emergency shelters, a few lawmakers suggested Wednesday it's time to look at the state's zoning laws to encourage construction of more affordable housing.

During a legislative oversight hearing to examine a rise in homelessness, Sen. James Eldridge, co-chair of the Housing Committee, said most people agree that housing people in motels and hotels is not a solution for homeless families, but said there is not enough affordable housing available to prevent the problem.

The Department of Housing and Community Development spends roughly $1.1 million a week on shelter, a figure that ticked up when the number of homeless families began rising over the summer despite increased spending by the Legislature and the Patrick administration to address the problem. The number hit an all-time high in October when 2,038 families were housed in emergency shelters. It has hovered around the same since, according to DHCD.

"The alternative is those families would be literally living on the streets," Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton, said during the hearing.

If the state wants to solve the homelessness crisis, there needs to be more federal and state funding for construction of affordable housing, Eldridge said during the hearing.

Many suburban communities place restrictions on affordable housing that contribute to the homelessness problem, with some prohibiting construction of multi-family units, Undersecretary of Housing Aaron Gornstein told lawmakers on the committee. "There is a tremendous need for more multi-family housing," he said.

"We do need to build more housing, more affordable housing, as well as more market rate housing," Gornstein added.

In November 2012, Gov. Deval Patrick announced a goal of creating 10,000 multi-family units each year. As of October 2013, there have been 6,268 building permits pulled for multi-family homes, compared to 3,777 during the same time in 2012, according to DHCD.

Eldridge asked if 10,000 units were not enough to address the problem. Gornstein described the figure as "ambitious."

Affordable housing is expensive to build, and the federal government has walked away from building housing projects during the Reagan administration, advocates said.

Currently 100,000 people are on a waiting list for federal Section 8 affordable housing assistance, according to Peter Gagliardi, executive director of HAP Housing, which provides housing assistance to people in Hampshire and Hampden counties in western Massachusetts.

Gagliardi said the state is facing a systemic problem that is much larger than the 4,000 people currently in shelters and motels. There are 200,000 people in the state living at the federal poverty level and at risk of losing their homes, he said.

Before the oversight hearing began, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker outlined his plan to move families living in motels into more permanent housing within his first year in office if elected.

His short-term plan calls for sending "multi-disciplinary assessment teams" to work with families in hotels and motels to develop a plan to stabilize their living situations

He also called for better communication between state agencies to assist families on the brink of homelessness, greater flexibility for regional public and private agencies, and "sensible" changes to state laws and regulations that he says push people into homelessness.

Gornstein said the state cannot solve the problem alone. He said one of the major challenges has been the recent increase in the number of families needing emergency shelter.

Nationwide, states are seeing a surge in homelessness driven by the recent recession and foreclosure crisis, according to Gornstein. Massachusetts is not alone in facing the problem that necessitates an aggressive approach on several fronts, he said, including affordable housing and job training.

"We need a good strong federal partner to be able to produce even more units of affordable housing," he said.

David Hedison, executive director of the Chelmsford Housing Authority and CHOICE INC. - a non-profit subsidiary of the Chelmsford authority - said many communities cannot afford land to build affordable housing. Expensive land means municipal officials need to think more creatively about ways to build, including regional projects or borrowing, he said.

He added communities cannot rely on private developers to build much-needed affordable housing.

About a year ago, Hedison said he pretended to be a homeless person looking for an affordable unit. He called building managers at a development that received tax credits and other state assistance to build a certain number of affordable units. The building managers told him they were not accepting any names for the wait list - it was full.

The following week, he visited the development and introduced himself as the executive director of the Chelmsford Housing Authority. He told them his mother needed an affordable unit. He was told they had three available, he told lawmakers.

Hedison said public housing officials are held accountable, and "anyone receiving dollars to create affordable units also needs to be held accountable."

Other advocates said policymakers need to solve the underlying problems that create homelessness, like job training and education.

Chris Norris, executive director of Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, said the Patrick administration's two-year-long HomeBASE program worked by keeping thousands of families in homes. However, there was not enough job training available to keep low-income people afloat.

"Families were housed for two years. We did that effectively. Not many of them saw their incomes increase," Norris said.

For example, 15 families who lost their HomeBASE rental assistance dropped out of job training because they lost their homes and were forced to move, according to Norris.

There were approximately 5,400 families enrolled in the state's HomeBASE rental assistance program that started to roll off the program. The assistance is scheduled to end for all recipients by June 30, 2014. Since July, assistance already ended for approximately 3,000 families. DHCD is issuing 500 state rental assistance vouchers under the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program so some of those families have housing, Gornstein said.