Tim Scalona woke up on a June morning in 2012 ready to play video games and go outside with his neighbors. Instead, he watched his family home in Wilmington packed up into cardboard boxes, beginning their decade of homelessness.
Scalona is now a second-year law student at Suffolk University, where he is hoping to pull himself out of poverty, though his family still lives on the precipice of homelessness more than 10 years after their house was foreclosed on.
“We were forced into the state-run shelter system, which under the prior administration moved us and operated our family multiple times across the state, disrupting our ability to attend school,” said Scalona, who was in eighth grade when his family first became homeless. “The stress of homelessness caused my stepfather to lose his job on multiple occasions and with little income we could never find housing that was sufficient for our family size. When we did, we were routinely denied by landlords. We spent years on public housing waiting lists with no avail.”
For his family and the estimated 18,000 people in Massachusetts who are homeless, Scalona said he supports Gov. Maura Healey’s plan to create a standalone housing secretary close to her ear in a Cabinet-level position. But he implored lawmakers on Monday to ensure that the office is staffed with people who have had lived experiences in poverty or worked with those who don’t always know what the next roof over their head will look like.
The law student said Healey’s proposal to create a new Executive Office of Housing and Liveable Communities is the first step in “more effectively addressing the housing and homelessness crisis.”
Scalona was joined in his support for the proposal by representatives from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Massachusetts Association for the Homeless, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council during a State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee hearing on Monday.
Committee members were also vocally supportive of the governor’s proposal, which she promised on the campaign trail and has often pointed to as an example of her commitment on addressing housing.
The process for reorganizing the bureaucratic structure of state government does not follow a bill’s typical path through the Legislature, and instead is tied to a compressed schedule for consideration. The committee has 10 days after the public hearing to report on the plan, and the Legislature then has 60 days to approve or disapprove of the proposal. Unlike a typical bill, the measure is also not subject to amendment. If the branches don’t act on it within those 60 days, then Healey’s plan would take effect, as was the case with some of former Gov. Charlie Baker’s reorganization plans.
Though she campaigned on the promise of creating a housing secretary, Healey didn’t file legislation to accomplish that goal until March 1. Under this timeline, Healey could have someone in the position starting May 1, four months into her administration, if she is able to find that person. If she had filed the bill in her first month in office, the 60-day window would have ended in March.
“There’s no greater topic in terms of importance right now,” Healey said to committee members on Monday.
Healey and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll waited to file the bill until after they created a working group to discuss the Cabinet-level housing secretary.
Members of the working group included Housing and Economic Development Secretary Yvonne Hao, Administration and Finance Secretary Matthew Gorzkowitz, MassHousing Executive Director Chrystal Kornegay, Worcester City Manager Eric Batista, Symone Crawford from the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, and Stephen Davis of development firm The Davis Companies, among others.
“This was a group that brought representation from the public sector, private sector, very geographically diverse, focused on both preservation and more housing and how we think about the local communities and the intersection between what we know is really extremely high quality of life and the places we live,” Driscoll said.
In addition to splitting the housing and economic development secretariats, Healey’s proposal (H 43) would authorize a new Housing Works program, similar to the MassWorks municipal infrastructure grant program.
The program would exclusively fund municipal infrastructure that supports new or redeveloped housing, Healey said.
Also buried in the legislation is a provision that would create an Infrastructure Cost Council within the Office of Administration and Finance, made up of Cabinet secretaries, lawmakers and local leaders to develop infrastructure cost projections for both publicly-owned and privately-owned infrastructure.
The new housing secretariat would assume all of the powers and responsibilities of the existing Department of Housing and Community Development, but also have broader responsibilities related to creating and carrying out housing policy. The powers of the DHCD director will go to the new secretary.
“The new executive office will be responsible for expending funds, marshalling resources, and advancing innovative solutions to provide safe, accessible, affordable, and environmentally sustainable housing for all residents and for supporting the growth of vibrant, livable communities throughout the Commonwealth,” Healey wrote in her filing letter.
Committee member Rep. Rodney Elliott of Lowell said the bill “brings fresh air” to the effort to address the housing crisis.
“I’m going to support this. I think it’s a bold move, but we need bold moves to catch up,” Elliott said.
Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton echoed Elliott’s sentiments, saying the plan has “my full support.”
“The system doesn’t work the way it is right now and it’s critically important for our economy in the future, and our ability to compete and win in a 21st century economy, to take this issue on up front,” he said.
Pacheco said one area he sees the new secretariat being helpful is in putting in place new regulations for cooperative home ownership for those living in manufactured housing communities, such as 55 and up communities.
Committee co-chair Rep. Antonio Cabral also signaled his support for the plan, telling Healey, Driscoll and Housing and Economic Development Secretary Yvonne Hao that the proposal is “supreme.”
“I’m excited to work with you and to work with the new secretary,” he said.
The timing of legislative action on the bill may affect when an eventual housing secretary is brought on board. Driscoll said the administration is waiting to look for someone to fill the role until they know if the plan is approved.
“There’s a lot of housing champions in Massachusetts and we’re working to identify a strong team member, just like we did with all of our other Cabinet secretary positions,” she said. “We don’t want to get too far ahead until we know this process is underway and going to result in the outcome that everybody wants. But we’re excited about the opportunity to have somebody ready to go on day one.”