Keep the Faith: Worcester deserves housing for all

Last Thursday I went with Terry, a member of the church I serve, First Unitarian Church of Worcester, to look at a hole in the ground. This was not just any hole: it was basement dug at 33 Merrick Street, which is on its way to becoming a duplex. This new building will offer affordable home ownership for two families in the Piedmont neighborhood.

Housing matters to our church. Members of our community have lived in dangerous apartments in Worcester, without heat or safe electricity, because otherwise they would have found themselves homeless. We’ve helped people find emergency housing to get out of situations like that. We were one of the founding congregations of Worcester’s family shelter, In the Hour of Need.

The new construction at 33 Merrick Street is a project of Worcester Common Ground Community Development Corporation. On that day, YouthBuild was beginning its work partially constructing the home. YouthBuild provides employment training and life skills education to young people who need an alternative to high school. Terry and I were there because First Unitarian Church, along with UMass Memorial Anchor Mission, is helping to loan money for the construction phase of this project. Saint-Gobain will provide many of the building materials. These new homes for income-eligible owners are truly a community effort.

For Worcester to thrive as a diverse and growing city, we need to pursue more partnerships and more pathways toward safe, adequate, and affordable housing. Housing prices are rising nationwide, and are up almost 20% since last year in Worcester. The cost of renting is up 9% since last year. Worcester ranks 7th for having the oldest housing stock in the country, and not all units are well-maintained. Older, poorly maintained buildings are at higher risk of fire or other safety problems. The tragic and deadly Gage Street fire last month is just the latest incident likely owing to inadequately maintained apartment buildings.

Worcester is proud of its heritage as a city of immigrants, a diverse gateway city that is home to longtime residents and newcomers alike. Affordable housing rentals and home ownership programs, like those offered by Worcester Common Ground CDC, help longtime residents remain in their neighborhoods as rents rise. There are three things Worcester could do right now to improve housing access and safety for all its citizens:

Adopt the Rental Registry proposed by the Worcester Fire Department. This registry would allow the city to contact rental owners promptly when fire or safety hazards are discovered at their buildings.

Adopt inclusionary zoning. This would require new construction of buildings with 12 units or more to set aside a percentage of the units to be rented as affordable housing. Worcester should adopt inclusionary zoning aimed at people earning up to 60% of the area median income. This policy would help hardworking families find safe and secure housing. The lower threshold (80% of area median income is also being considered) would make sure that “affordable housing” is truly affordable for those most in need.

Create more opportunities for partnership between government, not-for-profit organizations, and corporations in Worcester. Our whole city thrives when more people have safer and more stable housing. Children do better in school, people can work at their jobs more effectively, and our city thrives. Safer, more affordable housing benefits everyone, even residents who can afford to rent or buy their homes at market rates.

At First Unitarian Church, we never thought we’d become a real estate bank—but we’re glad we can make a difference with our resources. Our mission is to serve our community and further justice. We were able to meet those goals by offering a construction loan to Worcester Common Ground CDC. We’ve been part of Worcester’s history since 1785, and we’re proud to be contributing to its multicultural, multi-income, inclusive future.

The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart is minister of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Keep the Faith: Worcester deserves housing for all