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MHP honors Chelsea with Housing Hero Award

Posted on June 22, 2022

BOSTON --- The Massachusetts Housing Partnership (MHP) has honored the City of Chelsea with one of its Housing Hero Awards for its work keeping residents housed during COVID-19 and its continued focus on creating more affordable housing.

The city was recognized on June 8 in a virtual awards ceremony at MHP’s 15th Housing Institute, a two-day training conference for local officials and volunteers. Each year MHP recognizes communities and individuals for excellence in affordable housing. MHP is a state housing organization that uses bank funds and other capital sources to support and finance affordable housing.

Also honored this year were the Town of Wellfleet, longtime planner and community development professional Jennifer Raitt, and Engine 6, an affordable housing advocacy group in Newton.

Chelsea was honored in part for  initiatives that helped the city avoid a public health disaster during COVID-19.  A majority Latinx city of about 40,000 residents, the city was often referred to as “ground zero” for COVID due to its dense neighborhoods and overcrowded apartments, a symptom of the housing affordability crisis. Compounding this, many of Chelsea’s workers were considered essential and had to go to work, further exposing themselves to COVID. Many more workers – housekeepers, painters etc. – lost their income.

“It was sort of a perfect storm of events,” said City Manager Tom Ambrosino.

“The situation was dire,” added Alex Train, the city's director of housing and community development. “There was COVID 19, unemployment overnight, cash flow paralysis and very little social safety net for the people, many of them undocumented.”

Ambrosino said during COVID, the city pivoted to focusing more on housing stability. Among the initiatives it pushed were:

  • The city was one of the first to establish an emergency rental assistance program. It also supported a free legal clinic, rapid rehousing and a temporary shelter program.
  • The city was early in establishing a similar program for homeowners, targeting small owner-occupants in single to four-family homes.
  • Faced with running two city food shelters with a staff of 15 serving up to 18,000 residents a week, the city shifted to a basic income program called “Chelsea Eats” which gave approximately 2,000 residents monthly Visa cards of $200-$400 a month to purchase food. A study found 85 percent of the funds were used for food and another significant portion was used for utilities.
  • The city also funded a rental assistance hotline that is still being maintained by The Neighborhood Developers (TND), a major housing nonprofit. It also provided financial resources and technical assistance to support  nonprofit efforts to scale up their own food pantries.
  • The city had an extensive conversation with the community about how to use federal recovery act funds and because of this, will be prioritizing eviction prevention, anti-displacement and minority homeownership.

How did the local nonprofits feel about the city’s actions? TND Executive Director Rafael Mare said: “They really jumped in head first. They put out more rental assistance per capita than any community in the state. They were so dedicated. The city could’ve collapsed.”

City Manager Tom Ambrosino credited Community Development Director Alex Train as being most responsible for the city’s pivot to housing stability. Working out of the basement at city hall, Train functioned as a food distribution director at first but gradually shifted the city toward paying attention to housing stability and eviction prevention.

“The situation was dire,” added Alex Train, the community development director. “There was unemployment overnight, cash flow paralysis and very little social safety net for the people, many of them undocumented.”

Train grew up in Boston, went to Suffolk University and UMass for urban planning, and began his career in Chelsea as a project manager focused on playgrounds. He has a deep interest in environmental justice and creating a sense of welcoming in which everyone looks out for each other.

In accepting the award, Train thanked the city manager and city council for thinking  “outside the box” and praised the city’s community-based nonprofits - La Colaborativa, CAPIC, TND and many others - for being “true partners.” He also thanked the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund board and Community Preservation Act committee for supporting emergency housing efforts, the rehabilitation of existing homes and the creation of new homes.

Train said it’s hard to look back on those early COVID days because the city is still in crisis. “We are continuing to respond to the pandemic,” said Train. “The recovery hasn’t begun in Chelsea so we thank all of our state partners for continuing to invest in these resources to support housing stability and a recovery that’s equitable to all.”

About MHP: MHP is a state non-profit organization that uses bank funds and other capital sources to support and finance affordable Housing. Since 1990, MHP has provided over $1.4 billion for the financing of over 26,000 apartments and has helped over 23,000 low- and moderate-income households buy their first home through the SoftSecond and ONE Mortgage programs. MHP’s Community Assistance team has provided support and technical assistance to over 300 communities and its Center for Housing Data does policy research and creates web-based tools to increase understanding and promote policies to allow more housing in response to demand.