Dorchester Reporter: Report: Federal funding drove spike in rental assistance

By Izzy Bryars, Special to the Reporter
February 8, 2023

Metro Housing Boston provided more than $162 million through the state-funded Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program in 2022, with almost half of funds going to rental arrears assistance and over a third of total Boston-targeted grants going to Dorchester households, according to a report released by the agency last week.

The surge in demand for rental assistance— much of it due to COVID-related impacts— is evident in the “unprecedented” increase in RAFT distributions, which increased by $100 million in 2022 compared to 2021. Much of the funding was supplied by new federal programs, which were largely added as post-COVID relief for 2021-2022.

Metro Housing facilitated RAFT assistance to 18,317 households across 14 Boston neighborhoods and 31 surrounding communities during FY ‘22, in comparison to the 10,251 families who saw a total of $63 million of assistance throughout FY21.

Steven Farrell, Metro Housing’s COO, said the state went to great lengths to ensure that assistance was available to as many people as possible with prolonged stability issues caused by the pandemic. To do so, the state raised the income level eligibility from the previous benchmark of 50 percent area median income (AMI) to 80 percent AMI. They majority of funds still went to folks below 50 percent AMI, he said.

“I think it’s the fact that 92 percent of the funds went below 50 percent AMI suggests that the original or the older income levels are the right places to focus on,” Farrell said.

One of the people who received RAFT assistance is Ayanna, a Dorchester resident and mother of three, who spoke to the Reporter about her experience, but asked that her surname not be published. She recalled the difficulty of first applying for assistance during the pandemic, citing long wait times over the phone and finicky income guidelines that ultimately didn’t approve her application.

“I remember one time I was like the 50th call in the queue. And then I ended up at 10th and then it just hung up,” she said.

Metro Housing centralized its application process in Sept. 2021 and saw an increase in applicants. Ayanna received housing assistance for FY22 and found the new application process much more user-friendly.

“They have a really good computer system,” she said. “It updates you with all the information if they need something, they will just push it through to the computer system. Or they will call you personally.”

She also gave advice to any incoming RAFT applicants and residents thinking about applying, saying: “Look it up and try to apply for it and don’t think you make that much because you never know.”

She also explained how important it is to ensure all necessary documents are uploaded to the application website, including needed forms that landlords must enter into the system.

“Just be patient with the process,” she said. “All they want to do is just try and move along as quickly as possible. And if they’re holding it up, it’s only because you didn’t provide something so just make sure you provide all the right information the first time and it’ll be easy.”

Of the $73 million in aid provided to Boston neighborhoods alone in 2022, over a third of funds went to Dorchester residents–around $25 million.
This was partly made possible, Farrell said, because of community organizations Metro Housing partnered with to ensure that as many people as possible were referred to RAFT and got assistance.

One of those organizations was VietAID, an initiative for the Vietnamese community in Fields Corner. George Huyhn, the group’s newly appointed executive director of VietAID, said they helped over 100 households in Dorchester connect to RAFT services last year.

“From my lens you know, just in housing in general, as interest rates continue to rise and home values, and estates, you know, more or less steady at historical highs, homeownership is still a luxury,” Huyhn said. “And, of course the city of Boston and local CDCs have been working in tandem to provide more affordable housing.”

Further, Huyhn and VietAID hope to continue helping workers and families at financial risk by working with Metro Housing and more recently, drafting a report of their own about protections for workers in the nail salon industry.

“Most of our clients are Vietnamese and Vietnamese speaking and they need help with language access and navigating these systems that are kind of inaccessible to them,” Huyhn said. “We’ve been around for some time, and I’m just excited to continue the work to reform and serve our immigrant communities as Fields Corner is quite diverse.”

Farrell says the agency is presently working to ensure that ample funding will stay intact to continue helping vulnerable households.

“A year from now there’ll probably be conclusions about the drawdown of the federal funds: when those zeroed out, how did that impact RAFT? And those are conversations we’re having with the state, with [the Dept. of Housing and Community Development] and with legislators as well, because we don’t want this resource to dry up and then leave people who previously knew about this as an option for them when they were housing unstable to suddenly have no resource at all. That’s the conversation. Those are conversations we’re having with DHCD and elected officials now.”

If you or someone you know is in need of housing assistance, consider applying to RAFT through Metro Housing Boston at metrohousingboston.org.