CommonWealth Magazine: Demand for housing assistance accelerating rapidly

Boston agency distributes $63m over year, $74m in next 6 months

IT IS CLEAR that pandemic-related struggles made it harder for many people to pay rent, even as eviction moratoriums helped them stay in their homes.

A report released this week by Metro Housing Boston puts a staggering figure on just how much help greater Boston residents have needed. In one year, beginning in July 2020, the agency distributed $63.2 million in housing assistance funds to 10,200 low-income households in the Boston area.

In comparison, the previous year, the agency distributed $5.1 million to 1,800 households, and in the year before that, it gave $4.4 million to 1,700 households.

A big reason for the increase is the state changed its laws so households can get more money. The average household benefit was $6,100 in fiscal 2021, compared to less than $3,000 the prior two years. The state also allowed more people to benefit, including those with slightly higher incomes. And there is simply far more money available to distribute since the state and federal governments both put huge sums into staving off evictions and foreclosures. Between March 1, 2020 and October 1, 2021, state officials distributed approximately $270 million to over 40,000 households statewide through its eviction diversion initiative.

Yet it is also clear that a 600 percent increase in assistance through the Boston area agency represents a landscape with a far greater scale of need.

The report says that the pandemic is to blame: “The ripple effect of community lockdowns, business closures and the resulting layoffs and terminations, remote learning and the need for parents to quit work to stay home with school-age children, and the financial impact of losing income temporarily due to illness or permanently due to death financially crippled many households.”

Steven Farrell, chief operating officer of Metro Housing Boston, said the need is not letting up. Between July 1 and November 30, 2021, the months after the period covered by the report, the organization distributed another $74 million to 9,280 households.

“We’re setting new records every single week,” Farrell said. “When more funds become available, we get more applications.”

Farrell said those receiving help in many cases are people who previously were middle income with stable jobs, then suddenly lost a job or found themselves floundering amid COVID. In previous years, Farrell said, the rental assistance program was about homelessness prevention for low-income households. Now, it’s become a “disaster relief fund.”

There is a state law that prohibits a judge from ordering someone evicted if they have a pending application for rental relief, and Farrell said that too has likely increased applications – which is “exactly what the program was designed to do.”

By far the biggest chunk of money last year went to rental payments. The eviction moratorium allowed people who owed money on rent to stay in their homes, but the money they owed still had to be paid, and the agency paid out $43.5 million to help people in arrears on rent. A much lower percentage than in the past went to security deposits, moving costs, and first and last months’ rent – signs that low-income people were moving less frequently.

Farrell suggested that with all the uncertainty about COVID, families were seeking any avenue they had to remain stable.

Another $2.5 million, far more than in past years, went toward mortgage assistance. This money went to both individual families struggling financially and landlords who were not receiving rent money and were therefore in danger of foreclosure themselves.

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