In many ways, Lynn, Massachusetts suffers from its proximity to Boston. As rents and housing competition rise in Boston, people move to communities such as Lynn — which, in turn, creates housing pressure there. Landlords raise rents; affordable apartments become scarce; even two-income families may find it hard to afford housing.
These circumstances increase the likelihood of homelessness; they also create difficulties for those dedicated to housing the homeless.
Consider Centerboard, a nonprofit human services organization located in downtown Lynn that provides housing and support services for the homeless. “We house about 275 families,” says Centerboard CEO Mark DeJoie. “We rent 200 of those units from landlords in Lynn, Haverhill, Peabody, Salem…but the rental market has exploded. I can’t find any units in the city of Lynn right now. They have all been gobbled up.”
At the same time, there is a tremendous need for Centerboard’s resources. DeJoie explains, “Massachusetts is a right-to-shelter state; the state has to provide shelter to anyone with a child under 18. And if we don’t have enough units, the families go to hotel rooms. Sometimes they live there for years — one room, two beds, and a hot plate. That’s just not right.”
By comparison, Centerboard apartments are fully furnished, including kitchenware and bathroom supplies. DeJoie says, “You can’t tell the difference between one of our units and one across the hall where they are paying market rate.” The problem is, there just aren’t enough of these units to meet the demand.
Now, with $1.9 million in financing from BlueHub, Centerboard is taking control of their situation, buying 46 two- and three-bedroom apartments to be used as emergency shelter housing for families experiencing homelessness. In addition to stabilizing Centerboard’s housing stock, this helps the organization build equity. It also eliminates many potential landlord-tenant tensions. “We keep the units in good repair; that takes down the temperature with the families and helps them focus on what’s important: being rehoused.”
For Centerboard’s clients, finding permanent housing isn’t always easy. “The state projects that a family will stay in a shelter for seven to 10 months; the average stay is actually 17 to 23 months, and we have families that have spent upwards of five to seven years with us,” says DeJoie. Many of those families face specific circumstances that make it harder to find permanent housing. “If you have a family of five, among those five people there may be a bunch of things going on: substance use issues, mental disabilities, physical disabilities.” Centerboard works with every family at least twice a week, providing services from financial literacy and resume writing to parenting skills and youth mentoring to mental health advocacy — and, of course, support in finding permanent housing.
Now, the pandemic is adding extra pressure.
“Demand is going to explode,” observes DeJoie. When the eviction moratorium is lifted, DeJoie believes it is only a matter of time before people who have been unable to pay rent for months are turned out on the streets. He bases this opinion both on experience in the aftermath of the housing crisis in 2008 and on observation of current events. He’ll be ready.