Boston Globe: Big money for rent relief is coming to Mass. Will it block a long-feared eviction crisis?

Source: Boston Globe, published March 15, 2021

Massachusetts will soon receive the deluge of federal money that housing advocates have long said is needed to hold off a devastating wave of evictions.

Now the challenge is getting that money to the people who need it most.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed into law Thursday by President Biden, includes more than $21 billion in emergency rental relief, money designed to help struggling renters — and their landlords — keep up with monthly bills. On the heels of $25 billion in similar funds Congress allocated in December, it should, advocates say, be enough to help many tenants stay in their homes, and to stay current for months to come.

“This is the federal commitment we have been waiting for,” said Rachel Heller, chief executive of the Boston housing advocacy group CHAPA. “State and local governments have put so much into keeping people in their homes. Now this is the level of resources that we need for the foreseeable future.”

Exact figures are still being determined, but Massachusetts is likely to receive about $400 million, in addition to $457 million allocated to the state and the City of Boston in the December bill — money that’s only now starting to be doled out to state and local governments, due to bureaucratic hang-ups in the presidential transition.

The Baker administration plans to use the funds to dramatically expand RAFT, or Rental Assistance for Families in Transition, a rent-relief program that pays up to $10,000 per household to the landlords of needy tenants.

From the start of the pandemic through the end of January, more than 12,000 Massachusetts households have been approved for RAFT, according to state figures, receiving more than $48 million. The infusion from Washington should keep the program funded at a high level well into 2022, the state said, and allow for help with utility bills and other rent-relief programs, as well.

RAFT has been plagued with delays, however, particularly last fall, when demand surged after the state’s eviction moratorium ended and applications were falling through the cracks of a complex program that was never designed to handle so much need.

Housing advocates say conditions have improved since the agencies that manage the program hired more staff and the state simplified the application process. The number of successful applications has surged since the start of the year. Metro Housing, which manages the program in and around Boston, says its backlog of applications fell from 9,400 on Feb. 1 to a little more than 3,300 last week.

But advocates are still pushing the state to reduce the paperwork requirements, expand outreach to non-English speakers and those in other vulnerable communities, and pay the rent directly when tenants and landlords can’t cooperate to fill out all the forms.

“We’re in a very different position than we were last year,” said Andrea Park, a housing and homelessness attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “We have the resources now. We have to make sure we do a good job with them.”

Skip Schloming, executive director of the Small Property Owners Association, agreed. RAFT money has moved too slowly to help his members, many of whom are “hanging on by a thread,” cover their costs with tenants who can’t, or won’t, pay the rent. At the current pace, he said, it will take more than 18 months to dole out the funds that were announced in December, let alone the new money.

“We need to speed this up,” he said. “Small landlords are just being ignored.”

Still, the worst fears of a ‘tsunami of evictions’ that would clobber working-class renters and landlords alike haven’t yet materialized.

While eviction filings in Housing Court jumped in the weeks after the state’s eviction ban ended in October, they have since fallen sharply. Since Jan. 1, filings in the state have run about 30 percent below the same period last year, which was before the pandemic hit and hundreds of thousands in Massachusetts lost their jobs.

RAFT’s expansion and new court rules that encourage mediation have helped, said Doug Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords, which represents many owners of small buildings around the state. So has a partial federal ban on evictions, issued in September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has most likely deterred some landlords from bringing new cases, he said. But that ban is set to end March 31, and earlier this month a federal judge in Texas declared it unconstitutional, clouding the prospects for an extension even while that ruling is under appeal.

“I’m concerned, with the CDC moratorium being lifted, that people are going to be more aggressive with eviction filings,” Quattrochi said. “We may see filings spike in April.”

That’s one reason the new funding is so important.

report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia estimated that, as of December, 32,000 households in Massachusetts that had experienced a layoff owed, on average, nearly $6,000 in back rent each. Those numbers have been mounting by the month, especially since expanded unemployment benefits were pared back last fall.

The new stimulus package — with its rent relief as well as extra unemployment payments, tax credits for parents, and $1,400 per person in direct cash aid for most Americans — will provide a lot of money to help pay that back. That, Heller hopes, will fend off the worst of a crisis that experts like her have been warning about since the pandemic began.

“We have seen that if we have money in the system and help people pay the rent, they’ll pay the rent,” Heller said. “That’s how we help people stay in their homes.”

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