THE MASSACHUSETTS state shelter system, now serving around 20,000 people across 5,600 families, is strained almost to capacity – a “humanitarian crisis” of migrant families drawing renewed attention to the ongoing Bay State housing crisis. The governor made an emergency declaration asking for federal aid to deal with the impact of the migrant influx on Tuesday.

For new migrants to the state, which officials estimate make up about a third of the current family shelter caseload, getting federal work authorization has been a laborious process. Financial stability, the Healey administration pointed out, is often the first step to move into permanent housing. But, frankly, where would they go?

“The availability of affordable housing was much too small well before we started experiencing the influx of migrants,” said Tim Reardon, director of data services at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “The current migrant crisis has developed very rapidly and wasn’t something that could have been foreseen a year ago.”

But he also points out that he and others for the last 20 years have sounded “a drumbeat about underproduction of housing, and it will take decades to dig ourselves out of that hole.”

The Bay State’s housing shortage is infamous. The state is about 200,000 units shy of where it should be to keep up with demand and population growth. Housing markets are difficult to crack into, especially around Greater Boston

In remarks announcing the state of emergency, Gov. Maura Healey said “the increased level of demand is not slowing down. And due to both a long standing shortage of affordable housing, as well as delays and barriers to federal work authorizations, we find ourselves in this situation. We’re unable to move people looking for housing and shelter into permanent housing because of this, so instead we’ve been expanding and continuing to look for housing and shelter opportunities, expanding shelter at a rapid pace, and it’s unsustainable.”

A statewide University of Massachusetts Amherst/WCVB poll in April found that 39 percent of respondents said they considered leaving the state, ticking up from 35 percent the previous fall. The number one reason is the high cost of living, particularly housing prices.

Recent state data on the Subsidized Housing Inventory indicates 76 communities saw declining numbers of affordable units since 2020, with the affordable unit counts of 11 municipalities dropping below the 10 percent threshold of SHI-eligible housing. 

“If we take a look at this from a domino-effect perspective, if there are no homes to buy, then people are living in affordable rentals because they can’t afford to pay a mortgage and move into homeownership opportunities that they desire,” said Symone Crawford, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance. “And if those rental properties are not being freed up, then those individuals that are homeless are stuck on the waitlist and can’t access affordable rentals. So this is causing this chronic, egregious [public] health crisis because there are no affordable homes across the state.” 

The swelling of the shelter rolls places politicians and advocates in a difficult position, as thousands of new families are putting more strain on an already strained system. 

“The Emergency Assistance family shelter system has seen immense demand – both from longtime Massachusetts residents struggling to maintain housing amid high rental costs and the lowest rental vacancy rate in the country, and from new arrivals to our state fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries,” Housing and Livable Communities Secretary Ed Augustus in a statement. “Both these factors have led to intense demand for shelter.” 

This housing and shelter crisis risks bleeding into a culture-war framing, setting homeless citizens in competition with homeless migrants for limited state resources.

The conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance condemned the Biden administration’s border policy in a statement and said Healey and legislative leaders are “ignoring the President’s failures for purely political reasons and Massachusetts taxpayers and social services are paying the very high economic cost. An open border and unaccountable leaders in Washington and at the State House are not sustainable for Massachusetts taxpayers and not morally responsible for the immigrants.”

Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll said addressing root causes of the emergency will require, in part, “rapidly increasing housing production across the state.”

Rapid, when it comes to housing, is a relative term. Affordable housing advocates, struggling to manage the demand for permanent housing, say the state is stuck with a delicate task of balancing its immigrant-friendly politics with a dire shortage of places for people to live.

“We can’t solve the migrant housing issue through housing production efforts that are going to take five years,” Reardon said, “nor are we going to fix underproduction by not doing whatever we can to be welcoming to the current wave of migrants.”