Laura Reichsman, program director of Family Outreach of Amherst (FOA), has two words to describe Program Manager Francine Rodriguez, who has worked with FOA since 2005: “a powerhouse.” At present, she runs FOA’s Community Housing Support Program.
Rodriguez was recognized for her efforts at the Statehouse in Boston in 2019 when she received a Latinx Excellence on the Hill award presented by the Massachusetts Black and Latino Caucus. “She is the most talented, dedicated advocate that I’ve ever known,” said Reichsman.
FOA provides a plethora of essential services to low-income families in Amherst. It has expanded on its original housing mission, but housing stability remains a focus, and that has long been Rodriquez’s specialty.
Rodriguez recalled that as a child, she always took on the role as a helper. “I helped my brother with his homework, I helped my grandmother with filling out paperwork and translation,” she said. She was able to continue that calling, first as an advocate at Head Start in Springfield, and then at FOA. The main focus of FOA’s Community Housing Support Program is keeping people housed in Amherst so they don’t get evicted for rental arrears or a lease violation. “I have good working relationships with the landlords in town,” she said. “I’m constantly asking them, ‘If I help the family catch up on their rent, will you allow them to remain in their unit and not evict them?’”
A pivotal moment in her career came in 2013 when she helped a number of families who receive Section 8 housing vouchers relocate from the Echo Village Apartments following its sale, when they couldn’t afford the subsequent significant rent increases.
She explained that receiving a Section 8 voucher is much more challenging today than in the past. “Ten years ago, the wait list for a Section 8 voucher was six months to a year,” she said. “Today, the wait list is five-plus years—even up to 10 years.”
During the pandemic, there was a lot more funding available to people in rental arrears. “There was also a housing moratorium where landlords could not evict anyone,” she said. “Once the moratorium ended, it allowed landlords to start eviction proceedings. That’s when we started seeing an influx of folks calling for help.”
She said that the town of Amherst realizes that the lack of availability of low-income housing is an issue, so more affordable housing is being planned. “Also, the state of Massachusetts knows there’s a housing crisis, so they’re trying to increase the number of federal funds available for Section 8 vouchers that are being given out to families,” she said. “Yes, it’s going to take a long time before the situation is remedied, but I’m hopeful that one day we’ll get there. In the meantime, FOA will continue to offer resources and support to our struggling families, helping to build a stronger and more stable community for everyone.”