First in a series...
Finding a place to live in Westwood is hard, but nearly impossible for a person on a limited fixed income. My mom lived in rural Virginia, but when she recently divorced, I wanted to help her move closer to us. She began scouring craigslist and apartment rental sites, but quickly found that social security and a small pension don't really cut it for living in Eastern Massachusetts. You can find one bedroom apartments in Virginia for $400/month and own a house for under $100K, but in Westwood, you are lucky to find a $1400/month apartment.
So, I thought, there has to be a way. I talked to several people I knew who had helped their parents move and learned they had landed at great rentals at a subsidized rate. Generally, when a person qualifies for subsidized housing, their rent is set at 30% of their income. However, tracking down how this actually works in practice is fairly complicated: the short answer is that it does not work very well since the realities of supply and demand make the dream of paying $300/month for a rental in Westwood a far away and increasingly unlikely proposition.
The bulk of affordable housing in Massachusetts is accessed through local housing authorities. Each local housing authority administers local rental properties and monitors deed-restricted properties when they are resold. For each town, managing the stock of affordable housing is important because every year, the Department of Housing and Community Development compiles a Subsidized Housing Index, calculating the percentage of affordable housing in each community. Communities where the percentage falls below 10% become vulnerable to 40B development—meaning a developer can propose to build an apartment complex and bypass the local planning process. As of 2013, Westwood had 9.2% affordable housing.
Westwood's affordable housing consists of a 38 owner-occupied properties that were built during the development of Cedar Hill and Chase Estates, 9 two- and three-bedroom rental properties managed by the nonprofit Westwood Affordable Housing Associates, Inc., and a portion of the senior apartments at Highland Glen and Westwood Glen. Recently, Westwood Glen stopped offering affordable units and there is concern that Highland Glen may seek to end its obligations as well when its contract with the Town is renewed. Some of the units to be built in University Station will be affordable and may bring the town back above the 10% threshold.
Given this reality in Westwood, I put my Mom on the list at Highland Glen (She's waiting for 76 people to move out), and started looking in Dedham and Norwood. These towns have Housing Authorities that manage properties with long lists of applicants. In each case, we were told 1-3 years for residents of the town. The best "plan" for someone looking to get in is to rent a "market rate" unit to establish residency in the town, then wait. In my Mom's case, the wait in Norwood is for 136 people to move out--pretty much 100% turnover. We were fortunate to find a nice apartment, although the two flights of stairs are challenging.