Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, Summer 2020

A rendering depicts the modular micro-units housing being developed by the Worcester Housing Authority for the chronically homeless. (Photo courtesy Worcester Housing Authority)

The city of Worcester and the Worcester Housing Authority received funding from the Department of Housing and Community Development to help build the state’s first modular micro-unit housing for the chronically homeless.

The project, estimated to cost $3 million, was approved by the state for $2.2 million in funding. An additional $200,000 is being contributed by the city, and the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance is providing $100,000. The remaining cost will be covered by a mortgage held by the housing authority.

The project is one of many actions that resulted from 26 recommendations made by the city’s Task Force for Sustaining Housing First Solutions, convened two years ago. The task force was charged with reenergizing the city’s “housing first” focus for the chronically homeless, with an emphasis on sustainability and resources to maintain supportive housing over the long term.

Worcester City Manager Ed Augustus said all of the Task Force recommendations are currently active, including working with landlords to provide housing in the city’s traditional triple deckers.

“A lot of it had to do with data sharing, doing a name count of our homeless population, knowing where they are, what programs they might qualify for, so we know what they have available to them when we rehouse them,” Augustus said.

The Worcester Housing Authority participated in the task force, which put the authority in a position to offer land it already owned, according to authority CEO Alex Corrales.

“I think there is a lot of misinformation about the homeless population, and we have a responsibility to serve and assist our most vulnerable population – the elderly, families, the disabled and the homeless,” Corrales said. “It wasn’t just a way to help, but a requirement for us.”

Because it uses modular style construction, the per-unit cost of the project is between $100,000 and $120,000.

“Having these boxes fabricated and built offsite reduces the cost significantly, and modular construction has improved greatly over the last 20 years,” Corrales said. “We think it might be a great blueprint for other communities, especially urban cities.”

Augustus said the modular approach gets the units into use much faster, with construction time of less than six months.

The units are going on land owned by the Worcester Housing Authority on Lewis Street.

The building will consist of 25 studios with kitchenettes and private bathrooms. Twenty-four of the units will be available for housing, and the 25th will be for a residential manager. One or two case managers will also have an onsite office to manage finances and be the main connection for residents to city services for mental and physical health.

Having a live-in manager and onsite case managers helped to allay concerns about the project in the community, Augustus said, by providing reassurance that the residents will be supported and the property will be cared for.

“This type of housing is in many ways a really good answer to dealing with COVID-19,” Corrales said. “Everyone has their own room, kitchen and bathroom, so you really have a chance to minimize spread.”

The housing will be open to individuals using a waitlist system, Corrales said.

“Every list we have will determine different priorities and preferences,” he said. “Someone who is homeless will get a preference and will work with the coordinated reentry folks at the city to vouch for the individual.”

Augustus said the project is part of a larger strategy.

“We went through a process before identifying that this is part of the solution, which made it attractive to the state and helped move through community issues,” he said. “The process was important to having this implementation work.”

The project is in the design phase and is expected to go to bid toward the end of the year, Corrales said, with construction starting in early 2021 and people taking residence next spring, assuming there are no COVID-related delays.

For more information, contact Worcester Housing Director James Brooks at brooksj@worcesterma.gov or Worcester Housing Authority CEO Alex Corrales at 508-635-3106 or questions@worcesterha.org.

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