CommonWealth: 6 myths about emergency rental assistance

Source: CommonWealth

STEFANIE COXE and CHRIS NORRIS September 16, 2021


RONALD REAGAN once said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” 

That statement was wrong then, and those who put out inaccurate information about programs that are making a real impact in the lives of renters, landlords, and homeowners are wrong now. Here are six myths about the status and impact of federal and state housing assistance in Massachusetts.

Myth:  Emergency rental assistance program spending is too slow.

Truth:  While most other states have struggled to get emergency rental assistance funding to tenants and landlords in need, here in Massachusetts we’re pumping out nearly $1.5 million a day in emergency rental assistance. Our state is ranked fourth in the nation on emergency rental assistance spending and has been hailed by the Treasury for best practices. With over 40,000 evictions prevented so far, Massachusetts has committed approximately 61 percent of American Rescue Plan Act emergency rental assistance funds. That milestone will make the Commonwealth one of a handful of states to meet the first benchmark that Congress laid out to spend 65 percent of the first allotment of federal funding by September 30.

We’re fortunate Congress also had the foresight to make available a second round of emergency rental assistance with the intent of spending it over a number of years (as late as 2025). This second round has vastly different spending deadlines as the economic impacts of COVID-19 may persist years into the future and the intent was to provide a safety net for renters throughout the entirety of the pandemic.

Myth:  The application for assistance is burdensome and plagued with problems.

Truth:  At the start of the pandemic, the application for the pre-existing rental assistance program was burdensome. We said so ourselves and advocated for dramatic changes. The Baker-Polito administration agreed and took action, streamlining the application requirements from a long checklist to only four core items – far less than requirements for any other housing program and most other state or federal benefit programs.

The state has been extremely receptive to making changes, such as shortening the application, decreasing the number of verifications, relying more on self-certifications, allowing landlords to apply, paying tenants directly when applicable, and they remain open to receiving and considering new ideas.

At the Regional Housing Network, we have maintained an open-door policy, asking advocates to come forward with any problems and potential solutions they see. On numerous occasions, we have brought those suggestions to the state, resulting in better outcomes for households in need.

Many problems noted in the press date back to when the program was still being implemented and streamlined. Most challenges were resolved months ago. That’s why Massachusetts is outperforming other states.

Myth:  Most applications for assistance are being denied and people can’t access the program.

Truth:  Perpetuating this falsehood discourages tenants from applying. Most tenants (around 70 percent last week) are approved for funding.

Fifteen thousand-odd unique households in Massachusetts access rental assistance programs each month and have their housing situations stabilized.

Very few complete applications are denied (6-7 percent) and, even then, it is generally because the applicant is not eligible based on federal criteria such as income limits.

A third category, application closeouts, is what happens when, despite repeated outreach using multiple forms of communication, the household doesn’t respond, and the agency has to move on to the next family in line. Even then, an additional 14-day grace period is provided where the application can be reopened – and many households do respond within that time frame and have their application approved.  Additionally, applicants whose application is closed can (and do) reapply and are approved. We’ve been successful in lowering the number of closeouts and keep refining the program with that goal in mind.

Myth:  Tenants in Massachusetts are unprotected because there is no federal eviction moratorium.

Truth:  Massachusetts has a temporary law in place that says a tenant who cannot pay the rent because of COVID is protected from being evicted if they have an application for assistance that is filed and pending. This law strikes a good balance between both tenant and landlord interests, especially around their shared interest of ensuring that the rent is paid.Not all courts are following the intent of the statute, and that needs to be addressed; however, tenants in Massachusetts have more protections than tenants in most parts of the country.

Myth:  Evictions have gone through the roof.

Truth:  Eviction filings and eviction executions (approximately 3,000) remain significantly lower than in 2019 before the pandemic. Many evictions are for reasons other than non-payment of rent. Although it is true that some tenants leave when they receive a notice to quit and do not wait for a court order, evictions remain low.

Myth:  Not enough is being done to reach or help tenants.

Truth: On top of the local outreach done by nonprofit agencies, the Administration has and continues to do extensive outreach on Emergency Rental Assistance including:

  • 550,000 emails to people currently on unemployment
  • 400,000 texts to Department of Transitional Assistance (SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs) recipients
  • Utility company emails, phone calls, texts, and hold music/announcements to customers
  • Highway billboards and MBTA signage extended through October
  • Door-to-door canvassing in areas (Fall River, New Bedford, Springfield) with higher eviction filings with more efforts planned.

We can and are striving to make improvements and to do better, and reasonable and thoughtful people can disagree on policy.  However, for the good of the tenants and owners across the state who need assistance, we should be acknowledging that the government is truly here to help, and in Massachusetts it is making a positive difference. We should all spread the word to tenants that:

  • If you receive a notice to quit, you don’t have to leave your home. Only a court can order someone to leave their home.
  • Financial help is available to pay off what you owe and help you stay housed
  • Visit or call 211 to apply for emergency rental or mortgage assistance and to learn your rights and connect with other resources

Stefanie Coxe is the executive director of the Regional Housing Network, a trade association representing nonprofits administering emergency rental assistance. Chris Norris is the CEO of Metro Housing|Boston, the nonprofit administrator of the emergency rental assistant program and other rent assistance programs serving Greater Boston.

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