By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
CHELSEA -- Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker wants to implement changes to the state's public housing system to make it a temporary solution for low-income people, give legal U.S. residents priority for available units, and institute a program where unit residents agree to work, go to school or volunteer.
Public housing ought to be a "runway" to achieve economic independence, Baker said Wednesday while outlining his plan. The goal is to move people out of public housing and into self-sufficiency, and make sure resources are provided to people who "deserve it," he said.
Baker toured a neighborhood known as the Box District, which was transformed from mostly unoccupied buildings to a development with both affordable housing and market rate rentals. The state should be encouraging more developments like the one in Chelsea, Baker said.
He was accompanied by Chelsea City Manager Jay Ash, who said he has known Baker for 20 years.
Asked if he was endorsing Baker, Ash said as city manager he is not allowed to back a candidate, but added, "I greatly respect his substantial acumen and I'm looking forward to a Governor Baker, and what he can do here in the commonwealth."
Baker's plan to give priority for housing to U.S. citizens and legal immigrants spurred a Chelsea resident to confront him on the sidewalk.
Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, a non-profit that promotes immigration issues, said public housing eligibility should not be based on someone's immigration status.
Holding the press conference in Chelsea to outline the plan was "disrespectful" to the city's residents because of its large immigrant population, Vega said.
"Are you aware the issue should not be illegal versus citizens? The issue should be expanding affordable housing in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," she said. "A good candidate for governor would promote that. He would not promote illegals, or as you said in the newspaper article, versus citizens. It should be housing equality for everyone, regardless of who they are. Immigrant families have citizen children."
She added, "We won the title of an All-American city because we are inclusive. Your standard is not inclusive. If anything you should think smart about promoting affordable housing that represents everyone in the state of Massachusetts."
Baker quietly listened, and did not respond directly to Vega. When asked about her comments, he told reporters, "We disagree. It is pretty much that simple."
"I believe public housing should be available first and foremost to people who are legal residents, people who have paid into those communities for years and years and years. The fact that you have waiting lists in many communities around the Commonwealth, when you have senior citizens who lived and paid into those communities for years and who can't get into them; veterans, people who served their country and can't get into them, I think that's a problem," he said.
The state needs to align its public housing eligibility requirements with the federal government, Baker said, pointing out federal public housing rules allow preference to be given to citizens and legal immigrants. Baker said with 100,000 people on waiting lists for housing, legal citizens should be given priority, adding he would make it a priority in his administration.
The issue of housing preference for legal residents was recently debated by state lawmakers, with both branches passing similar plans in welfare reform and housing bond bills. In both instances, the proposals did not make it to the final version of the bills.
House lawmakers last year overwhelmingly passed a Republican-backed provision that would prevent people who are ineligible for federal public housing from receiving state public housing. After it was adopted as part of a $1.4 billion housing bond bill, the amendment was removed from the final version of the bill.
As part of a welfare reform bill last year, the Senate also passed a similar proposal that would align Massachusetts with federal public housing rules that give priority to citizens and legal immigrants. The proposal did not make it into the final version of the legislation.
The fact it passed in both branches shows there is bipartisan support for prioritizing citizens and legal residents for public housing slots, Baker said.
"I certainly hear that when I'm out talking to people to, that public housing ought to be available to the folks that have paid into the community, been part of the community, and that they ought to be prioritized," Baker said.
Baker said the state should adopt federal standards for public housing in most aspects.
"If you talk to people who are on the ground who every day have to work with the differences between state standards and federal standards on this they'll say it's enormously confusing. It's confusing for administrators; it's confusing for advocates; it's confusing for families as well. And I think the best thing for us to do on this is adopt the federal standard," he said.
Preference for public housing would also be given to those who agree to sign a lease that requires them to go to school, work or provide community service, under Baker's plan, with exceptions for those who cannot work of volunteer. The Worcester Housing Authority instituted a similar program, Baker said, calling it a successful model that can be implemented statewide.
People would not have to participate in the program, he said, but those who do sign up would be given priority when housing becomes available.
"I think the idea here would be you'd want to make sure everybody who could do something did do something," Baker said. "But you'd use discretion on that and work with the housing authority to pursue the strategy that made the most sense for people on an individual basis."
Baker's plan also calls for creating a program to identify fraud, such as underreporting or not reporting income, and attempt to recover state money spent. The recovered money would then be used to fund self-sufficiency programs, such as child care, Baker said.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates reacted to Baker's public housing plan.
Don Berwick, a pediatrician and former Medicare and Medicaid administrator, said Baker's plan is "shortsighted" and not constructive.
"Overall, it is an example to score some cheap political points," Berwick said in a telephone interview.
Politicians need to rethink how to approach housing and homelessness, Berwick said, specifically by working to increase the number of federal housing vouchers available.
Steve Grossman, the state treasurer, said in a statement, "Charlie Baker claims he's changed, but this sure sounds like the same angry candidate from 2010, who wanted to demand immigration papers at the doors of homeless shelters. Governor Patrick recently signed sensible welfare reforms into law that fight fraud and abuse while also helping our most vulnerable residents transition into the workforce, but the key issues going forward are creating good jobs and rebuilding the middle class, which I'll do as governor."
Other elements of Baker's plan include making housing and health and human service agencies coordinate at the local level to ensure people receive the services they need to become self-sufficient, and to better utilize homelessness prevention and "rapid re-housing" strategies to help homeless people.