Above: A conceptual sketch of a tenant room in MHSA's new micro-unit construction.
As a graduate student in New York City in the 1980s, I remember reading something for which I wish I had saved the citation. An urban sociologist was writing about the wholesale destruction of single room occupancy units (SROs) in the city. He wrote, and of course I paraphrase from memory: “If this destruction of this important housing niche continues, within a decade we will have chaos.”
His words proved to be prophetic, as poor, unaccompanied adults’ ability to live within an urban setting has been annihilated. This includes those with life-limiting disabilities that already may keep them on the fringe of our economy. The destruction of SROs, combined with deinstitutionalization and an insufficient housing supply to meet the needs of those reentering the community, created a perfect storm that is reflected on our streets and in the mass shelters that have now become part of our social landscape. The reality we refer to as “homelessness” is, in fact, part of the urban chaos this one sociologist foresaw. The hard part to admit is that those of us who set out to address the “emergency” of homelessness have, in some respects, become servants to this chaos.
Many of us rushed to create housing wherever and whenever we could. Oftentimes this involved massive rehabs and retrofitting older housing at incredible cost. We stitched together various public subsidies and programs, gathering to celebrate ribbon cuttings for projects on which we had spent a couple of million dollars to serve maybe ten people. We did all of this without surveying the incredible loss of housing or re-engineering our approaches to address the ever-declining inventory for the marginalized populations we served.
At MHSA, we have decided that enough is enough! Once again, as in the past when people challenged the concept of housing chronically homeless individuals, we ask, “Why not?” Why can’t we create an efficient, cost-effective, replicable model of new construction designed specifically to address the needs of long-term and chronically homeless people? The result is our new MHSA initiative, A Place to Live. With the assistance of Marc Margulies of Margulies Perruzzi Architects, a Boston architectural firm, and MHSA member agency SMOC as our initial development partner, we are promoting a micro-housing initiative that can be constructed at far less cost than projects traditionally developed for this population – and one that can be replicated in communities throughout Massachusetts.
I do not suggest this will be easy. Sites for such construction will be necessary. Partnerships with local service agencies will need to be developed, and of course, resources raised to make it happen. However, in the close-to-30-year history of the organization that we call MHSA, we have never avoided addressing an issue because it is difficult. Quite the contrary, we address issues because they are difficult, and we recognize the need for change.
So, as we have so often asked, why not? Why can’t we truly bring to scale the housing necessary to end homelessness? If you think this is an idea worth embracing, please join us in this effort. Is it foolishness? Perhaps. Or perhaps we can indeed transform this idea into a reality that will bring us closer to ending homelessness.
Let’s end the chaos. Why not?
Joe Finn President & Executive Director
If you would like to learn more about A Place to Live, please contact Joe Finn at firstname.lastname@example.org