WESTFIELD – The lack of affordable rental units in the city was one of the main topics Feb. 12 during a fair housing conversation.
Westfield’s Community Development department hosted the conversation and dinner Wednesday in City Council chambers for residents and interested organizations.
Community Development Director Peter J. Miller said the conversation will be included in a Housing & Urban Development (HUD) report in conjunction with Springfield, Holyoke and Chicopee, as a part of the Community Development Block Grant requirements.
Participants from area organizations, including the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute on Economic & Policy Research, Mass Fair Housing, DOMUS, the Forum House, the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, and several translation professionals who came to observe the meeting, spoke mainly about the lack of affordable rental units. Few residents attended the meeting.
Miller said previously that Westfield, Holyoke, Chicopee and Springfield have done separate reports, but due to increased discussion at HUD about fair housing in recent years, “we see the value in doing a deeper dive,” he said, adding, “It makes sense for all of us to do it together. Each community has very different challenges.”
Some of the challenges brought up in the discussion included how few apartments are advertised to the general public. Miller said the college community is a factor, because there is a captive market of students who are willing to settle for apartments that are not up to code.
Sally English of the Forum House agreed that there is a high demand and low inventory, which leads to additional barriers for people seeking apartments. She said at open houses, 20 people will attend for one apartment, which makes it very easy to have inadvertent discrimination.
English said rents also keep going up. A couple of years ago, a one-bedroom apartment was $760, now the cost is $900, which is over the Fair Market Rental price, and keeps people with most vouchers for rent subsidies out of the apartments.
Miller said that the inventory for subsidized housing in Westfield is at 8.4%, below the target of 10%, and most of it is in DOMUS housing and at Powdermill Village. He said the supply is also restricted by zoning that allows for multi-family dwellings. “They’re all close together. Everything seems to be focused in the lowest income neighborhoods,” he said.
Ann Lentini of DOMUS said a lot of people apply for their apartments and are put on a waiting list. She said the other issue is if a slot becomes available, people on the list still must get out of their current lease, which is not always possible.
“Right now, we’ve filled up 23 apartments at Moseley (their newest apartments in the former elementary school) and put others on a long waiting list,” Lentini said, adding that for the 23 apartments, they had over 400 applicants.
“The market is so opaque, it’s really hard to find apartments,” Miller said.
DeCoursey asked how people find apartments. One resident said she found hers through someone she knew, and other people find them through Craig’s List, which is not always reliable.
English said there are also very few multi-bedroom apartments available for families. Restrictions on apartments, such as no smoking, no drugs, no animals were also discussed.
State Data Center Manager Carrie Bernstein of the Donahue Institute showed some data on Westfield regarding affordable housing availability. She said while there is an adequate number of units for low income residents, availability becomes an issue when people who can afford more don’t vacate them. She also said that there is a gap in units for very low-income and extremely low-income individuals.