Ben Forman, writing in this week’s Gateway Cities Journal:

Last week Governor-elect Baker made a solid play by signing on Chrystal Kornegay to lead the Department of Housing and Community Development. A dynamic affordable housing leader known for persevering through thorny challenges, Kornegay will now shoulder responsibility for addressing family homelessness. Despite dogged attempts by the legislature and the Patrick administration to turn the tide, a growing number of Massachusetts families lack secure housing. Family homelessness is clearly one of the state’s most vexing problems. The Governor-elect has pledged to find a fix.

Gateway Cities will be cheering Baker on because they are shouldering a large share of the financial cost that the crisis exacts on communities. The conversion of hotels to de facto homeless shelters means many of these cities are losing out on hotel excise taxes. Even more costly is the expense of transporting homeless students back to schools in the communities where they previously resided, as required by federal law. This leaves Gateway Cities with fewer dollars to serve the many homeless students who opt to enroll in their school districts, adding to the financial strain these high-poverty systems endure.

Sensitive to these concerns, Baker has pledged that his response to homelessness will include reimbursing cities for the costs they incur. Fair compensation would go a long way for mayors and managers struggling to make municipal budgets work, but it is not simply a question of financial self-interest for Gateway Cities. These communities proudly want to serve as launching pads for families fighting to succeed in our Commonwealth’s economy. Rather than a quick budgetary fix, what they want most is policy solutions that give families experiencing homeless the greatest shot at achieving sustainable self-sufficiency.

Housing providers argue this means coupling housing support with education, job training, and child care, services that will almost certainly cost more than the additional funding Baker will be able to free up to tackle this problem. Success will inevitably mean making hard choices about the distribution of existing resources. For instance, Baker has suggested time limiting housing resources so that more families have an opportunity to use stable housing as a pathway to economic security. Research suggests that such an approach could provide real benefits by reallocating resources to programs that can improve the life prospects of children. But studies also indicate that imposing time limits may make adults worse off.

Weighing the tradeoffs to make informed choices will mean building DHCD’s capacity to assemble and analyze data on outcomes. For a system that expends hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer resources every year, it is essential that we know more than just how many are housed, for how long, and at what cost on a per unit basis. Homelessness has long-term intergenerational consequences as well as multiple consequences for communities most impacted (for example, the high number of students churning through Gateway City classrooms harms both the mobile and the stable learners).

The strength of Governor-elect Baker’s campaign was his passion for a government that operates efficiently and gets it right. With a strong team behind him and an issue that begs for a hard-nosed, data-driven approach, family homelessness seems like the right pitch for him to swing big.

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