Earlier this month, the Massachusetts House and Senate unanimously passed its spending proposal utilizing American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Fiscal Year 2021 surplus funds.
The legislation addresses disparities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, aiming to facilitate recovery through one-time investments in housing, environment and climate mitigation, economic development, workforce, health and human services, and education.
I was thankful to partner with Sen. John Cronin to secure a number of Leominster-specific projects: $100,000 for HVAC Upgrades at Bennett School, $100,000 for an Early Education Center Feasibility Study, $150,000 for Water Filtration Updates in the Leominster Public Schools, $250,000 for the repair of Monoosnoc Brook, and $300,000 for portable classrooms for elementary schools in the Leominster Public Schools.
Notably, the GREEN Initiative, which I highlighted in October, is being piloted with $6.5 million. As you may remember from a previous column, this aims to retrofit existing low- and moderate-income housing in Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities, as well as other communities with similar demographics. The retrofitted housing units will be highly energy-efficient, use clean heating technologies such as heat pumps, and where possible include on-site renewable energy generation like rooftop solar.
Health and Human Services: The legislation allocates vital funding for financially strained hospitals, community health centers, behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment services and workforce needs, our local and regional public health systems, and programs that tackle food insecurity.
Workforce Development: The legislation includes premium pay bonuses for low- and middle-income workers who worked in-person during the COVID-19 State of Emergency, enhancements for workforce opportunities through workforce skills training, and investments in vocational and career and technical schools.
Affordable Housing and Homeownership: The legislation appropriates funds for affordable housing, focused on public housing maintenance, new permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals, survivors of domestic violence, seniors, and veterans, homeownership assistance, and the production and preservation of affordable rental housing.
Environment and Climate Change Mitigation: The legislation includes environmental infrastructure and development spending, with a focus on environmental justice communities, climate change resiliency and clean energy, as well as infrastructure for communities to adapt and become climate resilient, and water and sewer projects.
Education: To improve indoor air-quality in schools and support healthy learning environments, this bill includes grants to public school districts with high concentrations of low-income students, English language learners, and communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, along with additional investments in special education, including workforce development, and programs focused on recruiting and retaining educators of color.
Economic Development: The legislation includes $500 million to replenish the Unemployment Trust Fund which will offset businesses’ contributions for unemployment programs, tax relief for small businesses, and grants to support small businesses negatively impacted by the pandemic, with a particular focus on minority-owned, women-owned, and veteran-owned businesses.
Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s column. While my office continues to work remotely, we are still accessible by phone (978-227-5278) or email (Natalie.Higgins@mahouse.gov). We’ve moved our office hours online — Monday nights and Friday mornings. Please email or call to sign up.
The Berkshire Eagle: How should Massachusetts fund its emergency shelter system? Lawmakers vouch for regional equity, 24/7 shelters
As the state eyes a new funding system for homeless shelters, Western Massachusetts lawmakers have said they want funding to be equitable across regions, available for noncongregate sites and sufficient to keep shelters open 24/7 and year-round.
Twenty-three state lawmakers, including the five who represent Berkshire County, signed on to a Nov. 12 letter delivered by email to the state Department of Housing and Community Development. The letter expresses concern that parts of the four Western Massachusetts counties have “no access to shelter at all or are completely full,” and it communicates what it says are common priorities for the region.
Until now, funding for shelters has come through “earmarks,” money requests that lawmakers submit for individual shelters, rather than a standardized state system, said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.
“We’ve been trying to work through this for a couple of years, to have a system where there’s a reliable pot of money for the local needs,” Hinds said.
Louison House was among the organizations that received money during the coronavirus pandemic to house people in hotel and motel rooms, rather than in congregate shelters. A letter signed by 23 Western Massachusetts lawmakers asks the state to set up a shelter funding system to be regionally equitable, include noncongregate settings and provide enough money for shelters to open 24/7, year-round.
The state has not provided Western Massachusetts its fair share, the letter argues, referencing a 2013 estimate that while the four counties sheltered 13 percent of people in the statewide shelter system, they received just 7 percent of the money.
Beyond regional equity, the letter addresses “lessons learned” from the coronavirus pandemic.
While congregate settings long have been the norm, public health concerns and distancing guidelines during the pandemic led to greater use of noncongregate models, especially in empty hotels. The North Adams-based nonprofit Louison House, for instance, used emergency assistance money it received from the state to house people at the Northside Motel in Williamstown.
Noncongregate settings are more expensive but have led to better outcomes in some cases. The letter cites data from Hampden County, where, from July 2020 through September 2021, 52 percent of people in noncongregate sites were rehoused, more than three times the 16 percent rate for congregate settings.
The Department of Housing and Community Development has provided some money for noncongregate sites this year, said Pamela Schwartz, executive director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness. But, the letter asks for the new funding system to ensure a mix of congregate and noncongregate sites.
Separately, a bill filed by state Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, would end the use of congregate shelters entirely over a five-year period, in favor of noncongregate approaches.
Because of insufficient money, many shelters close during the day, especially in the warmer months, and do not allow people to return to the shelter until the night. Emergency funding during the pandemic, Schwartz said, allowed many shelters to remain open for longer hours.
Long-term, providing enough money for shelters to stay open 24/7 and year-round, the letter says, would follow “a true housing-first shelter model.” In that approach, shelter is understood to be the most important support that can help people secure permanent rehousing.
“We need to make sure that this gets cemented into a shelter system so we don’t have the inhumanity of putting people on the street in the day without any infrastructure to support them, and in the spring, summer and fall,” Schwartz said, adding that she believes such an approach “would increase the speed at which people get safely housed.”