BOSTON -- The Baker administration wants to carve out a slice of federal relief funds to build more houses and retrain jobless workers, with a focus on narrowing racial gaps in housing and the workforce.

A spending plan proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker would devote at least $1 billion to home ownership programs for minorities and first-time buyers, while boosting housing production.

During a livestreamed hearing on Tuesday, state Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy told lawmakers Massachusetts has one of the largest gaps between white and minority home ownership.

"Nearly 70% of white households in the commonwealth own a home, while only 30% of non-white households own a home,” he said.

In addition, the Baker administration estimates the state needs at least 200,000 new housing units over the next 5 to 7 years to meet demand.

Baker's plan also calls for spending $240 million on workforce training.

Labor Secretary Rosalie Acosta told members of the Joint Ways and Means Committee that support is crucial for more than 300,000 jobless workers who will lose unemployment benefits in September when extended federal programs expire.

"We are facing the biggest workforce challenge in our lifetimes," she said. "Never have we witnessed this amount of people losing their benefits in one fell swoop."

Similar to his plan for housing, Baker wants to use a sizable portion of the workforce funding to narrow gaps between whites and non-whites in employment.

While the state's unemployment rate dropped to 5.4% in June, below the national average, Acosta said the jobless rate is much higher for minorities.

"The fallout from this pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in the workforce, and skills gaps in critical economic industries are worsening," she said.

Baker's housing and workforce plans would also devote $350 million to Main Street redevelopment projects aimed at helping cities and towns spruce up their downtowns.

Cultural and tourist attractions would get $100 million for pandemic relief under Baker's plan. Another $100 million would be devoted to expanding broadband internet access in rural communities.

Massachusetts has received $5.3 billion in discretionary funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package signed by President Joe Biden.

After wrangling with lawmakers over would control the money, Baker filed legislation to spend $2.9 billion of it on housing, water and sewer infrastructure, substance abuse and other priorities.

Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, and House Speaker Ron Mariano, D-Quincy, haven't taken up Baker's proposal but vowed an "open, transparent and thorough public process" in deciding how to use the money.

Advocates representing dozens of nonprofit groups testified at Tuesday's hearing, calling for relief money to be spent in areas such as job training and homelessness. It was the second of several hearings to be held through the fall.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. 


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