Spilka's words, actions at odds on housing choices program

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BOSTON — The Baker administration seemed to have locked in a powerful ally this week in Sen. Karen Spilka, who stood with state officials at the base of the Grand Staircase and spoke about the value of a program designed to lure municipalities into building more housing.

Spilka joined administration officials to announce 67 municipalities designated as "housing choices" communities, citing a need for more diverse housing options. Referring to Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash, she described him as "somebody who not only walks the walk but talks the talk."

"I just want to thank the 67 communities," Spilka said. "It's great. Hopefully, next year there'll be at least double this, if not more, because this must be a priority for the administration, for the Legislature and for every single community that's across the commonwealth.

"Housing, like food, is sort of a breath of life for people. And for far too long the commonwealth has not done what it should do, really focusing on the need for housing for people across the Commonwealth," Spilka said. "If there's no housing for people, companies could be coming, but if they don't have a place for their people, their employees to live, they're just not going to come. So in truth, this is a situation where, if you build it they will come."

Spilka even broadcast her appearance, retweeting a photo of herself standing with Ash and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and surrounded by municipal officials. With the photo, which was posted by a Baker administration official, Spilka wrote "Go Framingham_MA," referring to a city she represents and one of the 67 newly annointed housing choices communities. Hopkinton, another town in her district, also received the designation.

But there's a hiccup in Spilka's rhetoric. On May 10, she unveiled a $41.4 billion budget that included no funding for the housing choices program, which Gov. Charlie Baker funded at $2.7 million when he kicked off fiscal 2019 budget deliberations in January.

Asked how her proposed elimination of the program's funding matched up with her words of support for the program, Spilka spokeswoman Rachel Lefsky said in a statement Tuesday that the Senate Ways and Means Committee's budget includes "significant investments in rental voucher programs, homelessness services and housing supports for people with disabilities" and Lefsky added that Spilka "has been a leading champion for housing issues throughout her career."

The Senate budget invests more than $449 million in low-income housing and homelessness services.

A Baker administration official declined comment on Spilka's stance on the housing choices program, but reiterated the administration's support for it.

Housing Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop and Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro have filed budget amendments funding the housing choices program and the fate of their proposals will be decided next week when the Senate launches budget deliberations Tuesday. Both amendments propose $2,698,841 in funding, the exact amount recommended by Baker.

Lefsky said Spilka "will of course look at additional ways to support families during budget debate and as the session progresses."

A Senate official noted that the administration has been using discretionary and capital funds to pay grants under its housing choices program, and that the governor's housing choices policy bill remains pending before the Legislature.

The House also did not fund the housing choices program in the budget bill it approved in April, so the program's future may be riding on the Senate now.


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