By Joseph Pauletto
Since the beginning of September, Ellen Shachter’s schedule has been packed. Between managing her team at the Somerville Office of Housing Stability (OHS) and working on policies and programs to help tenants and landlords, every day brings new challenges.
The catalyst for the recent increase in OHS workload is Somerville’s extension of the moratorium on residential evictions until April next year, giving residents time to find a place to live s ‘they can’t pay their rent. As a result, Shachter and his team have worked diligently to ensure that every tenant is successful in this process.
The housing crisis in Somerville was a problem long before the start of the pandemic. According to a 2015 study by Massachusetts-based LDS Consulting Group, 73.8% of households with less than $ 95,360 in annual income cannot afford rental accommodation in Somerville without difficulty. These housing problems also tend to fall on marginalized groups, as African Americans, adults with disabilities and single parent families endure these hardships at a higher rate.
Since COVID-19, these problems have been exacerbated. When the Somerville Board of Health announced the extension of the moratorium, it cited “serious physical and mental health consequences, educational disruptions and job losses” as some of the damaging results of housing instability.
In light of these significant housing issues in Somerville, Shachter has not changed the way he works, approaching his job in a very task-oriented way. “I really like doing things that feel real,” Shachter said. “Like helping someone get a Section 8 voucher. One day they didn’t have it, one day they had it.”
Shachter’s professional experience is an essential tool in helping him to carry out his responsibilities effectively. After studying law at Northeastern University, she worked as a lawyer in the legal department for almost 30 years. This has helped her gain significant knowledge of the legal system and a talent for helping people who do not have access to essential resources.
Shachter’s passion for his work stems from his work at Pathway’s Family Shelter, the first publicly funded shelter for families in Massachusetts. Fresh out of university, she had the opportunity to work closely with people living in poverty, which made her realize how important affordable housing is in the fight against homelessness.
With so much responsibility, Shachter cites her passionate and diverse team as one of the reasons she does her job. Lydia Lopez, a key member of the Shachter team, is one of the staff who assists Schachter in day-to-day operations, especially when it comes to dealing directly with the residents of Somerville and the immigrant community of the city.
Lopez, an immigrant from El Salvador, learned her desire to help people find safe housing through her own life experience. “I came to the country, on the immigration travel spectrum, pretty well protected,” Lopez said. “A lot of it influenced my identity and how I wanted to help and uplift my community. “
Lopez also has a very personal connection to Somerville and his housing issues. After moving from El Salvador to the United States 20 years ago, Somerville was his first home. But Lopez and his family had to move to another city because they could no longer pay their rent.
“This wave of gentrification, to use the word loosely, has been going on for a very long time,” Lopez said. “The people we see here now in terms of marginalized and vulnerable communities… these are people who are really struggling to stay in the community they want to join. [stay in] even if everything is going in the opposite direction.
In addition to staff members like Lopez, Shachter works with other agencies to delegate work with Somerville residents and help them deal with many housing issues. Somerville Community Action Agency (CAAS) is one of the agencies with which SST collaborates the most. The CAAS helps people in the process of finding or stabilizing their accommodation. The agency’s services include assistance in finding housing and making emergency accommodation requests.
Ashley Tienken, Director of Housing Advocacy at CAAS, worked closely with Shachter and OHS. Based on her experience, she sees Shachter as a role model for anyone working in the area of housing stability in Somerville.
“She’s brilliant,” Tienken said. “I admire him immensely for his wealth of knowledge about homelessness. She is an incredible resource for me and my team.
As Shachter and his colleagues continue to work every day to make Somerville a more affordable place to live, progress still needs to be made before the housing crisis is alleviated. Amidst all of this difficult work, Shachter remains hopeful for the future.
“It is emotionally draining and certainly a difficult time for tenants in Somerville and around the world,” Shachter said. “But at the same time, I am hopeful about all the possibilities for solutions, and in some ways there is now more momentum for big, strong and bold change.”