Clerkin Presents Proposal to Prevent Homelessness

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Eugene Clerkin, member of the Bedford Housing Authority and Chair of the Community Preservation Committee, presented a proposal to the Selectmen at their meeting on September 17th that would increase the level of support given to those in Bedford’s public housing who are in danger of becoming homeless.

Using a small percentage of the $600,220 that has accumulated in the town’s Community Preservation (CP) reserves that must be used to address affordable housing issues, Clerkin proposed that Bedford pioneer a movement away from using CP funds for only bricks and mortar projects, as the state now specifies.  He recommended, instead, using $30,000 for a one-year pilot initiative to establish a “life management program” for the targeted population living, currently, in the Housing Authority development on Elm Street.

Saying that recent changes to CPA language lead him to believe some flexibility in fund uses might be acceptable, Clerkin advocated that the town submit either a “home rule” petition to the state to formally broaden the act’s language or, alternately, take the less complicated step of embarking upon a local program to set up a model of providing preventative services that could ultimately have far-reaching beneficial effects across the state.

Bedford currently has 16.9% affordable housing stock, well over the 10% threshold that the state has set for communities across the Commonwealth. Since this wealth of affordable units removes the imperative to use CP funds to create or acquire more affordable housing, the percentage of Community Preservation funds that must be set aside for affordable housing continues to accumulate. Communities who have signed on to the Community Preservation Act must set aside at least 10% of CP funds annually for each of five categories as established by the state: Recreation, Land Acquisition, Historic Preservation, Open Space and Affordable Housing. If the money isn’t used in the first year, it carries over until it is needed.

In the case of Bedford’s affordable housing CP funds, Clerkin believes that there is an opportunity to be proactive to prevent homelessness by increasing Bedford’s ability to provide services to those in need. While the town has contracts with support service providers for those who are already homeless, no such support exists for those who are on the verge of becoming homeless.

In Clerkin’s vision, the services that would be included in the life management pilot program are:

Case management that provides family assessment and planning;

Medical, dental and vision services provided by a registered nurse practitioner as part of a well-family clinic;

Transportation services;

Mental health and substance abuse counseling;

Temporary housing and medical services related to abuse and neglect;

Legal services;

Employment assistance and referral;

Child daycare, support and child assessment services;

Money management and budgeting education.

With 12 public housing units on Elm Street, $30,000 for the one-year pilot program represents $2,500 per family. If the funds were approved by Town Meeting, the money could potentially be allocated to the Municipal Housing Trust which would then administer the program through a service contractor associated with Bedford Youth and Family Services.

The Bedford Housing Authority, on which he serves, viewed Clerkin’s proposal favorably, although the Community Preservation Committee that Clerkin chairs was less unified.

The Selectmen discussed the proposal from several different perspectives. The home rule petition route seemed a “slow and convoluted” option compared to making the decision locally to launch a pilot, although the petition and the pilot could be initiated simultaneously.

Selectman Mark Siegenthaler expressed concern that not all communities participating in the Community Preservation Act would welcome the propose change of language, especially those who have not achieved the 10% affordable housing threshold. “This would require a much broader conversation on the state level,” said Siegenthaler.

About filing a home rule petition, Selectman Bill Moonan cautioned that it is a process fraught with many obstacles. If the project moves forward, he recommended working locally. On the town level,Moonan was concerned about the possible loss of CPA funding in the future. “We are always hopeful that the town will continue to support the maximum amount but some year that might not happen. Does the fact that the funds might disappear influence your thoughts about this?” Moonan asked Clerkin.

“It’s not money we can count on in perpetuity,” responded Clerkin. “That’s why we set the bar very low. We’ll see how it goes. This is just for basic social services to get people organized.”

Chair Cathy Cordes said, “I think what Gene is trying to do is admirable….The people who are in the affordable housing that we have now—particularly the extremely low income people—often need to have access to services that are multi-faceted. It’s not just mental health issues or substance abuse or things like that,it’s also financial management and how do you pay your bills? There are agencies that provide that menu of services but they only provide them to homeless people. You can wait until a family fails entirely and then gets these services, or you can find a way to bring the services to the families while they are still living in the home, in hopes that the services will give them what they need to move out of the affordable housing and be able to move up.”

Cordes went on to explain that while the CPA does not allow spending for these kinds of services, it does allow the Town to give funds to the local Housing Trust.

“That group could decide that this was something that they wanted to do and they would issue an RFP [request for proposals] that would be managed through Youth and Family Services. Then, just as we have a contract with Eliot Clinic to provide mental health services to anybody in town, we would also have a contract to provide services to [people in this group.]”

“Are there other ideas out there for ways of using this money,” Selectman Margot Fleischman asked Clerkin, “like foreclosure relief? Other out-of-the-box thinking in addition to what it is that you’ve put together? Especially with the uncertainty of the funding [in the future], and the fact that we have a considerable amount of money [now], it would be important to do some strategic thinking about how to allocate that if we had a choice of different ideas to choose from. How we might set aside a certain amount for, maybe, future condo buy-downs or expiring uses and then certain amounts for more targeted or experimental ideas and think about it holistically….What is the current thought about communities like ours that have money [in the affordable housing reserves] that they can’t spend?”

Clerkin responded, “Every town has a different scenario going on…The only way that the towns can really react is to propose different language, get the ability to do things that are targeted and of interest to your town and just run with it.”

“But you can help people with mortgages,” said Cordes. “That’s brand new language but you can help individuals now, under the law. So there things like that that can be done.”

Siegenthaler added that although the primary idea of community preservation is dominated by physical assets and improvements— like land, buildings, and tangible resources—taking care of people is another form of community preservation.

“I have no problem with this as a pilot,” said Siegenthaler. “I’d be much more interested in just trying to figure out whether or not there’s a way in which we can do it, using the language that we’ve got, using the resources that we’ve got.”

Town Manager Rick Reed reported that he’s submitted Clerkin’s proposal to the Town’s legal counsel to get an opinion about whether it is consistent with that CPA law and whether or not the Municipal Housing Trust is authorized to provide services. Pending responses to these questions, the proposal would go again before the Community Preservation Committee and then, if supported, back to the Selectmen for endorsement before being presented to Town Meeting for approval.

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September 29, 2012 3:57 pm

I respect the intent of Gene Clerkin’s effort, and am neutral on the mechanics of it (although on the face of it, teaching life skills is so unarguably preserving our community). There are many programs that work with remediating or preventing homelessness. Some are more successfuly than othersd. I would need to see Bedford Youth and Faily Service’s proposal before being able to judge if the $30,000 is well spent.

Brenda Peacock
September 25, 2012 11:03 am

I would like to reply to Selectman Margot Fleishman’s question, “Are there other ideas out there for ways of using this money?” Yes, another idea is to focus on the most fragile of our community, the low-income Elderly and Disabled currently living at Ashby Place. There are 80 units located at Ashby Place where the kitchens, bathrooms, plumbing and electrical are original to these almost 50 year old buildings. While we are doing our best to keep up with maintenance issues, the Bedford Housing Authority could most definitely use funding to begin upgrades of these buildings to make them more energy efficient and comfortable for our residents.

Lynne Wolf
September 21, 2012 10:51 am

Kudos to Gene Clerkin for a well thought out proposal. I agree with Mark Siegenthaler’s view that taking care of people is another form of community preservation, and would add that it is probably the best form! I hope that it is possible for this proposal to be put before TM.