Would $10 million make a dent in Fall River's housing crisis? Advocates say yes.

·6 min read

FALL RIVER — The city desperately needs more affordable housing along with assistance for renters and low-income home buyers, as the crisis of housing affordability reaches a fever pitch, organizers said during a public forum on Wednesday.

“Not knowing where you will sleep at night affects everything: your education, your work, your physical and mental health,” said Odete Amarelo, a board member for United Interfaith Action of Southeastern Massachusetts, which organized the event.

About 100 people filled the pews of First Baptist Church on North Main Street during Wednesday’s forum.

Rachel Martin, a teacher in Fall River Public Schools, said she came to listen to potential solutions and show support for her students who struggle with stable housing.

“They come in without coats, they come in hungry,” she said.

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According to a presentation from United Interfaith Action, 5,689 people are on Fall River’s waitlist for Section 8 housing; 3,337 are on the wait list for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program; and 4,136 are on the wait list for public housing. On average, someone on one of those lists waits five years for housing.

Surge in homeless population

And, the city’s homeless population has surged during the pandemic. The 2022 annual Point-in-Time count that records people in the city living in shelters, in transitional housing or on the street found 361 people, including more than 100 who were living on the streets. The 2021 count recorded 89 people who were living outside. In the last few years before that, the number of people living on the streets had hovered around 50. And, more than 800 students in Fall River do not have stable housing.

Mayor Paul Coogan speaks at the United Interfaith Action housing community action meeting Wednesday, June 29, at the First Baptist Church in Fall River.
Mayor Paul Coogan speaks at the United Interfaith Action housing community action meeting Wednesday, June 29, at the First Baptist Church in Fall River.

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State data shows that Bristol County has one of the highest rates of evictions of any county in the state, comparable to Suffolk County, which includes Boston.

Rev. Jim Hornsby, of St. Luke’s Church in Fall River, said most developers aren’t invested in the idea of providing shelter, just in maximizing profits, he said.

“We simply need more housing,” he said. “But, most of the housing that’s being built seems to be for the more affluent.”

Rapidly rising rents lead to instability

Rapidly rising rents and home costs have left many unsure of where they'll live next year or even next month. Hornsby said he recently heard from a parishioner that her monthly rent was increasing from $800 a month to $1,400.

“And the train is coming,” he said, alluding to the likelihood of even higher rents.

Colleen O'Neil tries to ask a question at the United Interfaith Action housing community action meeting Wednesday, June 29, at the First Baptist Church in Fall River.
Colleen O'Neil tries to ask a question at the United Interfaith Action housing community action meeting Wednesday, June 29, at the First Baptist Church in Fall River.

Rev. Jamie Spriggs, the pastor at First Baptist, said the issue of housing is an urgent one. The church has a long-standing program that gives out clothes to the needy. In recent years, they’ve begun to also pass out supplies like tents, tarps and sleeping bags because so many people who came to them were living on the streets, including in dangerously cold weather.

“I don’t want to be giving people tents,” she said.

Two people who were living outdoors in Fall River froze to death in February of this year, in two separate instances. Officials said both people dealt with substance abuse issues that kept them on the streets and not in available shelter.

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Luciana Medeiros gets emotional while giving her testimony at the United Interfaith Action housing community action meeting Wednesday, June 29, at the First Baptist Church in Fall River.
Luciana Medeiros gets emotional while giving her testimony at the United Interfaith Action housing community action meeting Wednesday, June 29, at the First Baptist Church in Fall River.

The forum included time for people who’ve faced homelessness and housing instability tell their stories. Luciana Medeiros, speaking through a translator, said help from UIA with rent when she and her husband lost their jobs earlier in the pandemic was the only thing that kept them and their three children from being evicted and potentially living on the streets.

“The issue of housing has been agony for me and especially for my family,” she said.

Proposals to help with housing

United Interfaith Action posed concrete proposals aimed at reducing the housing crisis to Mayor Paul Coogan, who was there. They asked that the city commit to spending $10 million in COVID relief funds the city receives from the American Rescue Plan Act and city money like Community Preservation Act funds on making housing in the city more affordable and accessible.

Translators were available at the UIA Housing Community Action Meeting Wednesday night at the First Baptist Church in Fall River.
Translators were available at the UIA Housing Community Action Meeting Wednesday night at the First Baptist Church in Fall River.

Their plan included $1.5 million to assist renters with things like a fund for emergency rent subsidies to prevent evictions, $5 million to support the creation or serious renovation of more affordable housing, $1 million to create home ownership opportunities to low or moderate income potential home-buyers and $2.5 million for supportive housing for the homeless.

They also asked that Coogan commit to meeting with UIA members this fall to discuss program on a few initiatives, including expanding Fall River shelter capacity to 50 year-round beds, amending the requirement that people have a Fall River ID to get into the city’s shelters, and studying the potential for adopting an inclusionary zoning policy to encourage the construction of more affordable housing.

Coogan said there was “still work to be done” around changing the ID requirement, saying it’s meant to allow shelter staff to run background checks on screening out people with convictions for violent crimes, arson and sex crimes from coming into the shelter. And, inclusionary zoning would be more helpful in nearby towns that have not met the state requirement that 10% of their housing stock be considered affordable, a requirement Fall River has already met.

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He cautioned against seeing COVID relief funds as free money and said many sectors besides housing have been hit hard by the pandemic and need relief.

“This money came at a price that was absolutely devastating,” he said, including around 400 Fall River residents dead of the COVID-19 virus.

And, he pointed out, the city has already put around $6.5 million of ARPA and other funds toward building housing and other solutions, a big chunk of the proposed $10 million.

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Still, he didn’t close the door to a total of $10 million spent on the housing crisis. He said he would meet with organizers this fall, and agreed that the issue of housing needs big solutions.

“I do not want to hear one more person freezing to death in the city of Fall River. It’s absolute lunacy,” he said.

Audrey Cooney can be reached at acooney@heraldnews.com. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News today.

This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Forum discusses possible solutions for Fall River's housing squeeze