Two bills under consideration by the Legislature have raised debate over whether or not veterans receive preference in public housing over illegal immigrants, and how to ensure their priority through Massachusetts law constitutionally.
The controversy centers on House Bill 3129 sponsored by Rep. Donald Berthiaume, R-Spencer, which would grant housing preference to veterans over any applicant “who is not eligible for federal assisted housing under 42 U.S.C. section 1436a” – a federal code that defines an illegal immigrant.
House Bill 3163, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Rosa, D-Leominster, also would give housing preference to a veteran from another community over an “illegal immigrant.”
“The bills target one group based on their national origin and alienage, and that raises serious constitutional issues that we need to think about,” housing lawyer Judith Liben told the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs during a hearing on Sept. 30.
Liben testified against the proposed bills, arguing that they unfairly target a group of migrants and will be the first step in undermining needs-based housing laws.
Priority housing regulations divide applicants into six categories to determine their level of need for emergency housing. The system gives priority to individuals displaced by natural disasters, urban renewal projects and dangerous living situations. A seventh lower-priority category is for standard applicants who do not fit into the previous categories.
This category gives veterans priority and preference for housing within their own neighborhoods, Liben said. Because of this, she believes the system is already effective in prioritizing veterans.
Legislators and veteran advocates, however, argue that although illegal immigrants are not eligible for assisted housing, they are often granted eligibility anyways, and when placed in one of the higher-need categories therefore receive public housing before veterans who are standard applicants.
“I think that’s absolutely 100 percent wrong,” Rep. Berthiamue said in response to Liben’s testimony. “Somebody who served our country deserves housing over someone who does not belong here legally.”
Liben argued that an individual evaluated to have a higher need for housing – whether they are an immigrant or not, illegal or not – should be granted housing first.
“We believe that these bills will do little to help,” she said. “Current housing law already provides a robust, effective and well-balanced preference for veterans. The system that we have isn’t really broken – there have been no studies, there is no data to show us that the preference system isn’t working well.”
Senate Chair Michael Rush, D-West Roxbury, said the bills in question were brought to the committee because of constituent complaints that the current system was not working.
“Generally bills are filed because constituents approach elected officials and say there is a problem,” he said. “So we have multiple bills here dealing with this issue, and I have to believe that constituents are … saying there is a real problem with the precedent here, and we need it corrected.”
Rosa, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the issue of veteran homelessness has been growing for several years, and it’s time for the state to intervene.
“In 1948 they gave veterans absolute preference in housing. What happened?” he said. “We have hundreds of veterans sleeping on the streets at night. We’ve got to take care of them.”
The Preference in Tenant Selection addendum within the Acts of 1948 guarantees public housing preference for veterans over other standard applicants. Rosa and other advocates, however, argue that the law is no longer effectively enforced as it once was.
Rosa’s bill would increase the breadth of that law and give veterans preference for housing in other communities than their own over illegal immigrants. Currently veterans only receive preference over standard applicants within their own neighborhoods. But if housing in another community is available, advocates argue, why not place a veteran there?
The most recent census data indicates there are approximately 380,000 veterans living in the commonwealth. At least 1,250 of those veterans are listed as homeless.
Giselle Sterling, commissioner of Boston’s Department of Veterans’ Services, said the city is home to roughly 20,000 veterans. Last year, Mayor Martin Walsh accepted the ‘Mayor’s Challenge,’ an initiative by First Lady Michelle Obama to end veterans homelessness in 2015.
In July 2014, the mayor’s office collected data that identified 383 homeless veterans across the city. Since then that number has increased, but Sterling said her office has housed over 400 veterans over the past year. Of the 60 veterans that are left, all have housing vouchers in hand, but are struggling to find open units.
“The biggest hurdle or challenge right now is actually finding housing units, so there’s been a big focus on the percentage of affordable housing for veterans,” Sterling said. “So anything that opens up more affordable housing and more units for our veterans, we are in support of, because that will eventually lend itself to helping end veteran homelessness in Boston.”
Sterling said housing is imperative for veterans to get access to other resources as they adjust to civilian living.
“We know our veterans have a number of challenges from mental health, substance abuse, employment – those are the top three, but housing is No. 1,” she said. “Once they have a roof over their heads we can start to address some of the other factors.”
James Fratolillo, the judge advocate for the Massachusetts American Legion and a Vietnam War veteran, told the committee that veterans are not getting the preference and resources they deserve and need after coming home from war.
“I heard many of these immigrants and those coming in with refugee status have some kind of trauma,” Fratolillo said. “But there are many of my brothers and sisters coming back from war that have experienced trauma — many of them undiagnosed — and many of them are on the streets until a veterans’ agency is able to get them into secure, safe housing. It is very difficult for them to secure the other resources that are out there after they serve their country.”
Both bills are still being reviewed by the committee, which is required to reach a final determination by March 15.