Are micro-units the answer to homelessness?

WORCESTER, Mass. — For years, 38 Lewis Street has been an empty lot, that could change soon, as the Worcester Housing Authority plans to have a new apartment building constructed for chronically homeless individuals.

There would be 25 units, with one occupied by a staff member, said Alex Corrales, Executive Director of the Worcester Housing Authority.

“It’s good for the community,” said Corrales.

This comes after the state awarded a $2.2 million grant to WHA for the micro-apartments building which Corrales says comes at a reduced price compared to larger, shared apartments that had been the model.

Units cost less than half the price to build as shared apartments but are only 300-400 square feet, he said. Amid the pandemic, these are being designed with social distancing in mind.

There are challenges such as convincing the chronic homeless that micro-units are best.

“In some cases, it won’t be easy,” said Corrales.

There are between 100-150 chronic homeless in Worcester, said Corrales, that population had been far smaller a decade ago when those who wanted temporary or permanent housing, could get it.

Since that time, the city of Worcester formed a task force, now numerous non-profits and government staff are working get the chronic homeless off the streets.

“There are a lot of folks who want the help, need the help and are eagerly waiting,” Corrales said.

Joe Finn, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance said partnerships to end homelessness in Worcester and Boston are showing promise.

As for whether or not micro-units are the answer, he believes it is worth the investment to find out.

“We’re hoping it’s going to be a prototype, so we’ll see,” Finn said.

“Can it work? We hope it can. We hope we can interest other housing developers and housing agencies across the commonwealth to see if they’re willing to take the risk and invest as Alex has.”

As the modular building of micro-unit apartments is designed, planners are considering video-conference check-ins to minimize direct contact between residents and their case managers and are re-thinking a planned multi-purpose room for social distancing.

If COVID-19 doesn’t lead to any delays, construction could begin in the fall, and the building could be erected by the end of 2020 or 2021, Corrales said.

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