Before the pandemic, we had a housing crisis. After the pandemic’s first three waves, it seems things are still bad.
On Saturday, July 24 I listed a first floor, three-bedroom Worcester apartment at what I considered the high end of fair market rent. Due to the pandemic, I decided not to give tours until we had commitment from both sides, meaning a complete and approved rental application.
Eighteen calls, 32 emails and a mere two days later, I had to pull the ad. By that time, I had received applications with co-signers and documentation for what looked like six fully qualified households, sight unseen. This experience is not unique.
Section 8 Is Cruel
The first takeaway is what has been true for a decade or more: Section 8 is a total crapshoot for the renter who gets the voucher. Will they lease up? Or will the voucher expire?
I use the MassLandlords applicant qualifier, which recognizes that the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, or Section 8, is both mandatory and good. Section 8 ensures applicants earn at least three times their share of the rent each month (after the subsidy). Because I process applications in the order received, a Section 8 applicant has as much a chance as anyone at getting the apartment.
Lease-up times are extraordinarily long. I could lease up a market-rate tenant in days, compared with a Section 8 tenant where they might wait weeks to get the mandatory inspection. The last time I leased via Section 8, I had two months of vacancy costs and the tenant went to the ER with chest pain for fear it would fall through.
There is a gross lack of enforcement of our discrimination protections. The first question any Section 8 renter asks is, “Do you accept Section 8?” The only lawful answer a landlord may give is “Yes,” but Section 8 households are so tired of being ghosted or denied unlawfully that they ask to save everyone time.
Vouchers also expire. One of my applicants had lost her voucher by the time I read her application. She had until Aug. 1 to lease up. We should not dangle this life-saving housing benefit in front of our neediest families, only to ignore the duty to enforce anti-discrimination protections, finally then to yank the voucher away.
College Housing Under Pressure
Another need going unfulfilled is college housing.
In Worcester, for instance, an ordinance on the books unlawfully requires landlords to interrogate the relationship status of proposed households. If the household members are related, super! The sanitary code allows roughly one person per 100 square feet. But if they’re unrelated college students, too bad: Worcester does not allow four or more unrelated individuals to occupy a rented premises. Boston and other towns have similarly unjustified blanket restrictions.
The net result is that college housing is too expensive. Your best bet as a student is to get an unlawful four- or five-bedroom unit and split rent four or five ways. Better lay low and hope the city doesn’t notice! Splitting a lawful three-bedroom at $1,800 costs $600 each. But if you could sleep a fourth in the living room, that would be $450 each, a savings of 25 percent. Multiplied over four years of school, that fourth roommate is worth thousands.
Note that college dorms are exempt from most landlord-tenant laws. Not only do they get to crowd students in, but they can also issue licenses instead of leases. This means colleges can evict by lock-out. Way to welcome new adults to adulting, Massachusetts.
International Students Under Pressure
The NIMBY anti-college ordinances hurting US-based college students hurt international college students 10 times as badly. Banning large, unrelated households has a disparate impact especially on the basis of national origin. Colleges facilitate networking abroad so that matriculants can form households of linguistic and cultural affinity. It’s good to have social support in a strange land battered by rigorous academics! But then they arrive here and find their proposed household of four is illegal.
When I listed an apartment two years ago, I had a college student banging on the house to be let in, having arrived utterly unaware of this and unable to find a room as the odd man out.
Even if we did have a wide availability of single room occupancies, it is exceedingly difficult to pass an applicant qualifier without a Social Security Number, American credit score, income and American cosigners. Evictions taking half a year on average mean screening is tougher than ever. It’s amazing Massachusetts has as many international college students as we do, for we are a very inhospitable place. The desperation in callers’ voices is audible.
I ultimately rented that Worcester apartment to international students. They contacted me about the apartment 40 minutes before apartment listings site JumpOffCampus had emailed me a receipt for the posting. Welcome to Massachusetts, kids, you have what it takes.
Doug Quattrochi is executive director of MassLandlords Inc.