Worcester is opening “micro-unit” housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness

The city of Worcester is celebrating the construction of a new permanent supportive housing project for chronically homeless people, the first of its kind in the state.

The building, called A Place to Live, was developed by and will be managed by the Worcester Housing Authority. It is the first housing authority in Massachusetts to develop housing specifically for people emerging from homelessness, according to local and state officials.

“With this project, the Housing Authority is making a clear statement: We want to help our homeless residents,” said Alex Corrales, CEO of the Worcester Housing Authority. “For some of our residents, it will be a place to be reborn. For others, a place to grow. But certainly, for all of them, it will be a place to live.”

City, state and nonprofit leaders celebrated the completion of construction with a ribbon cutting Tuesday.

The idea for the building originated in 2018, when then-City Manager Ed Augustus, now the state’s housing secretary, convened a task force to develop a plan to expand permanent supportive housing in Worcester with the goal of ending chronic homelessness there.

The group determined that just over 100 additional supportive housing units were needed in the city.

“Certainly, we can all agree that this need is much greater today,” Corrales said. “And although 38 Lewis Street, A Place to Live, does not solve the chronic homeless problem in Worcester, it allows us to get a little closer to the solution.”

The property’s opening comes as Worcester expects a 14% increase in the number of homeless adults this fall compared to last year’s fall.

The building includes 24 “micro units” – very small, fully furnished studio apartments with bathrooms and kitchenettes. An on-site case manager will connect tenants with support services such as mental health care and job training, and a resident manager will remain in the building overnight.

One of the standard units of the building.  (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)
One of the standard units of the building. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

“We know that simply giving our residents a bed without services does not solve the underlying issues they may be facing,” Corrales said. “We need to provide programs and resources that will prepare them to succeed on their own.”

Tenants will pay no more than 30% of their income for rent. Government subsidies linked to the property, known as vouchers, will cover the rest.

The property was originally supposed to be built using modular construction, but complications associated with the pandemic forced a change in plans, and it was built using conventional construction. Total project costs ended up being more than $8 million — far higher than the $3 million estimate provided when the state approved it in 2020 — due to inflation, supply chain issues and other factors.

The project is being paid for with a combination of funding from the state Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities — which funded more than half of the project — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city and the nonprofit Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. . The Housing Authority also obtained some loans.

Worcester saw a 30% increase in adult homelessness from March 2022 to February of this year, according to Leah Bradley, CEO of the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance. The nonprofit runs family shelter and rental assistance programs and is the lead agency for the Regional Care Chain, a regional planning body required by HUD to work on solutions to homelessness.

Each unit has a kitchen and bathroom.  Support services will be available on site.  (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)
Each unit has a kitchen and bathroom. Support services will be available on site. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

Richard Gonzalez, a recovery coach who works for the Department of Health and Human Services in Worcester, said the need for more supportive housing highlighted the toll the city has seen in just the past few days.

Gonzalez said two women he was trying to help, who were living in tents and suffering from addiction, died of overdoses.

“It’s very difficult – even when they have the desire to get up and stay clean – living in a tent with the loneliness, and all the things that you lack in life. It all affects the emotions,” Gonzalez said. “My phone has been filled with pictures of so many homeless people who have died… and the pain is real… we need housing.”

Corrales has been consulting with other housing authorities in the area who have requested more information on how to explore developing permanent supportive housing on land they own.

Joe Finn, president of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Coalition, praised the move.

“Imagine for a moment… if we could engage all of our local housing authorities across the commonwealth to create this type of housing with these services and these resources,” said Finn, who helped lead the Worcester project. “We will certainly be on our way to ending the reality of chronic homelessness.”

The Housing and Shelter Alliance is part of a coalition of advocates, social service providers, developers and philanthropists analyzing homelessness data and developing a proposal to expand affordable housing in Massachusetts. According to the group, an additional 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing are needed by 2030.

But securing funding for such projects is often a long and arduous process. Officials in Worcester have had to apply for state funding several times due to project delays and high costs.

Augustus, the state’s housing secretary and former Worcester city manager, said he hopes the Healey administration’s $4 billion Affordable Homes Act will become law and make such projects easier to develop.

“One of the things we’re doing is trying to get more money so we don’t have to wait (through) multiple rounds of financing. That’s what’s happening (currently). A lot of times you can’t fund 100% of a project,” Augustus said.

The first tenants are expected to move into the new building in about a month. Agencies and outreach workers in Worcester who provide services to people experiencing chronic homelessness are identifying potential applicants for the units.

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