As homelessness continues to rise in Worcester, the city’s housing authority is opening what officials call the first-in-the-state building of micro-units for people who are chronically homeless.

The complex, called A Place To Live, features two dozen studio apartments with a bed and kitchen as well as another unit for a residential manager. Each resident will have access to a case manager and a shared common space where they can take advantage of health and job-search resources.

The Worcester Housing Authority is currently working with local housing agencies to identify people who are chronically homeless and want to live in the building. Residents are expected to move in by the end of the year and will receive help paying for their units via government-subsidized housing vouchers that ensure that their total rent is no more than 30% of their income.

“We're in a housing crisis. ... A Place To Live is one of those ways that hopefully will provide a little bit of assistance,” Worcester Housing Authority CEO Alex Corrales said during a ribbon-cutting at the complex Tuesday.

Worcester’s homelessness rate has risen by more than 20% each of the last two years, and there are now about 600 homeless families in Worcester, according to the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance. At the same time, the city has seen its number of beds for homeless people decrease. In September, an overnight women’s shelter closed due to lack of funding.

Housing advocates blame Worcester’s surging rents and shortage of affordable apartments for the increasing housing insecurity. The city’s median monthly rent has been hovering at an historic high — nearly $2,000 — while the vacancy rate is below 2%.

“A healthy vacancy rate is 5%. So what that means is folks are less able to find housing,” said Leah Bradley, CEO of the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance. “[We] need to develop housing at all income levels, but especially prioritizing affordable housing and those with the most deep subsidies.”

New Worcester Housing Complex for Chronically Homeless
The complex features two dozen studio apartments with a bed and kitchen as well as another unit for a residential manager.
Sam Turken GBH News

Worcester Housing Authority officials say the new A Place To Live complex took five years to complete with several delays due to the pandemic and rising costs of construction materials. The federal government and state helped fund the $8 million project.

During the ribbon-cutting, officials and advocates stressed the new complex is an example of a strategy called “housing first.” Unlike other forms of housing for homeless people, residents will not have to be sober, have jobs or meet other behavioral health benchmarks to be eligible to live in the building. The argument behind the strategy is that people need permanent homes in order to best address health and financial challenges.

“It’s really premised on the stabilizing idea of housing itself,” said Joe Finn, president of the housing policy nonprofit Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. “It really is just amazing the difference that someone being able to be housed can make in their life.”

Officials said the new housing complex in Worcester sets an example for how more localities and the state can address homelessness. With the state’s shelter system nearing capacity, Finn said there needs to be more investment in finding people permanent housing. He estimates Massachusetts could use 10,000 units like the new ones in Worcester by 2030.