Malden’s housing crisis reaches far and wide

By Shannon A. Garrido Berges

As more people—students and families alike—occupy Malden’s newly vibrant downtown, looming housing instability threatens to stall the city’s economic progress.

As the region recovers from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, residents are dealing with both a growing economy and a housing crisis. Many citizens in Malden are finding it harder to keep up with the housing cost burden, leading many to rely on a faulty, sometimes exploitative rental market.

Neighborhood View interviewed Amanda Linehan, city council representative for Ward 3, about the landscape of housing in Malden today and what the future might hold. 

“Over the last few decades, we have not produced enough entry-level housing that’s affordable to working families and working households. And on the other side of that coin, there isn’t anywhere for retiring folks to downsize into,” said Linehan. “So a lot of the larger homes, even apartments that in another generation would have cycled over to a younger demographic [don’t, and] those folks have nowhere to go.”

Amanda Linehan Ward 3 City Councillor / City Council Website

Alex Pratt, Malden Community Development Director, also weighed in on the issue.

“When I think about the housing crisis, I think about a couple of components: there’s the immediate fire alarm going off, [where] there are a lot of people in our community struggling with housing cost burden,” Pratt said. “[People] that are worried about not being able to pay their rent, [people] that are worrying about being evicted, and people who are worried about foreclosure.”

For those in acute distress, Pratt explained, it is critical to help them find resources and shelter as soon as possible. Like Linehan, Pratt said the broader issue is that there isn’t enough housing for the number of people moving to Malden, and that imbalance is worsening.

Curtesy Alex Pratt, Malden Community Development Director

Renters make up 55.6% of Malden yet only 1.5% of homes and apartments are available for rent. As demand for rental properties increases so have rent prices. In 2018, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Malden was $1,650. Today it amounts to about $2,022. Now over 50% of renters spend 25% of their household income on rent.

In September 2022, Malden home prices were up 17.0% compared to last year, selling for a median price of $650,000, which is up 41.6% from 2018 when the median price was $459,000. Average income in Malden has increased at a similar rate, with average household income today at about $85,003, up 86.1% from 1999 and 50.7% from 2019.

According to Linehan, many are spending exorbitant amounts of their income on rent while being unable to purchase a home. Previously, single people or a couple rented a one-  or two- bedroom apartment; now multiple people are sharing that space unbeknownst to the landlord or property owner.

“Reaching out to those folks is difficult. Some of them are not on a lease. Some of them are likely very housing insecure. So they might be subletting or sharing a unit, but the property manager doesn’t know that they’re there,” said Linehan. “And so we are trying to make sure that if they need help from the city, that they know how to reach us, but [at the same time] also not putting them at risk.”

Linehan and Pratt work as part of the Neighborhood Hub Affordable Homeownership program, which oversees how to allocate money on housing, drawing on funds the city received as part of the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The committee also has been collecting data on the behaviors of today’s housing market.

“One of the things that we looked at is where there were opportunities to put money. [We could] either build new affordable housing, or help people that are in trouble with their mortgage, or [help] somebody who is about to be foreclosed on,” said Linehan. “When we looked at the data, we found that [these problems] were really dispersed all over the city, including in my ward, which is demographically of the highest income.”

Linehan also said that although housing availability is particularly dire today, it has been a clear problem for the past few years.

Malden had the fastest-growing rent between January 2019 and 2020, up 15.3% compared to the Greater Boston area.

A view of City Hall Plaza with the new City Hall complex to the left and the Heritage Apartments (mixed income rental units for seniors) in center / Photo Shannon A. Garrido Berges

However, according to Linehan, during peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the downtown area saw a lot of vacancies in newer buildings. Among many factors, she attributes this to graduate students moving out. Now that many universities are back in person, grad students are filling up apartment complexes, which just adds more pressure to the overall market that had been overcompensating for two years.

In addition to rising prices due to a post-pandemic surge of renters, Pratt said that Malden’s housing problem still exhibits discriminatory tendencies, although the city is one of the most diverse in Massachusetts.

“Most of Malden’s population is composed of people of color. It’s about 60% people of color and 40% people who are white, not Hispanic,” said Pratt. “[Yet] the percentage of people who own their homes versus who rent has a racial divide.… When we look at who is at risk of being displaced in Malden, we notice that people of color are disproportionately renters, disproportionately lower income, and disproportionately cost-burdened. And when we look at that, we know that those people are most at risk.”

According to Linehan, the Neighborhood Hub Affordable Homeownership program’s first step, voted on a month ago, focused on building affordable housing across the wards. About $2 million was invested to kick start the program, and $1 million has been recently put toward the redevelopment of the former Salvation Army site on Main Street in Ward 1 into affordable townhomes (most likely rentals). According to Linehan, this should break ground within the next 18 months to two years.

Nelson L. Miller Jr, Building Commissioner, and Zoning Officer provided a list of over 56 vacant and/or foreclosed properties that the program is working on converting into deeded affordable housing.

Pratt—who says they are hoping to call the former Salvation Army project “213 Main Street”—said that this would not have been possible without the help of a nonprofit affordable housing developer, Asian Community Development Corporation. ACDC sought funding from the city to acquire this property that was being sold by the Salvation Army. Now they are in the early stages of the planning process and what Pratt refers to as a “neighborhood-scale project.”

Vacant building at 213 Main Street, property of the Asian Community Development Corporation / Photo Shannon A. Garrido Berges
Former Salvation Army building / Photo Shannon A. Garrido Berges
Entrance to vacant building at 213 Main Street, property of the Asian Community Development Corporation / Photo Shannon A. Garrido Berges

A neighborhood-scale project means that once developers have gone through a site survey and come up with some designs that will be presented to the city and the community.

“We will work together with the community to come up with a design that meets their needs, including, obviously affordable housing,” says Pratt. “But the community design process will help us make decisions about what the buildings will look like.”

The tool that ties this program’s whole operation together is the collection of data for at-risk properties collected by the council. They assess complaints from neighbors and residents on homes that could potentially result in a crisis and try to get residents help.

“The point of [the committee’s] existence is to try to get people help,” Linehan said. “If somebody’s calling in about trash or overgrowth, it could be an elderly person who can’t keep up with taking care or it could be somebody who’s lost their job….The goal isn’t to get them in trouble.”

Linehan said the committee tries to get renters or homeowners in contact with tax programs, help them get loans or grants from the Bank, sell their homes and even take neglected or foreclosed property and refurbish it into public housing.

An effective way they do this is by putting people in contact with nonprofits such as Housing Families, which has worked with the city for over 35 years intending to achieve housing equity, Pratt said. These organizations help residents facing eviction gain access to attorneys and caseworkers, as well as funding to help erase rent arrears.

While residents struggle to get by with the cost of living reaching high levels, programs like these pose the question: Will Malden ever have enough affordable housing for all those who want to live here?

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