29 Dec Shelterforce: Making Eviction Diversion Meaningful in Massachusetts
Whether the governor’s rent relief and eviction diversion program will keep people in their homes depends on whether landlords can be persuaded—or compelled—to participate.
By Miles Howard -December 23, 2020
As COVID-19 sweeps across the Northeast again, filling up ICU beds and forcing businesses to shut their doors, the danger of being evicted during a pandemic has grown more profound.
Massachusetts recently lost its eviction moratorium—one of the most far-reaching and nuanced eviction bans passed in the U.S. during the pandemic. Gov. Charlie Baker, who allowed the moratorium to expire on Oct. 17, instead offered up an “Eviction Diversion” program that allows evictions to resume but also includes expanded rental assistance to landlords who agree to work with tenants who’ve been facing financial hardship due to the pandemic.
That’s what Baker’s diversion program hinges upon: landlords being empathetic and pragmatic. The assumption here is that rather than evict tenants during a period when apartment vacancies are surging, landlords will help their tenants access money from Rental Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT), the state program that will fund the Diversion program’s rent subsidies. As RAFT endeavors to meet the dramatically heightened demand for assistance—a challenge that will determine whether Baker’s Eviction Diversion is successful—some of the state’s largest providers of affordable housing are stepping up and trying to persuade landlords to play ball.
Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations (MACDC), was haunted by the thought of pandemic evictions during that seismic week in mid-March when the World Health Organization declared that a novel coronavirus outbreak had metastasized into a global disaster. “From a public health perspective, we couldn’t have people heading into housing courts, or moving into homeless shelters,” Kriesberg says. Community development corporations were among the housing sector players that joined forces with grassroots housing justice organizations like Boston-based City Life/Vida Urbana to pressure the Massachusetts legislature to pass its eviction moratorium—a piece of legislation that was written in concert with affordable housing organizers and service providers alike.
Community development corporations were also part of conversations with Baker that led to the Eviction Diversion program. “Every April, MACDC has a lobby day at the statehouse,” Kriesberg says. “Gov. Baker met with us on each lobby day. We go up to his office and have an hourlong conversation about our agenda. This year, due to the pandemic, that meeting happened virtually in late June. At that time, the moratorium was well in place, so the question was, would [Baker] extend it?” Kriesberg and his colleagues spent the June meeting lobbying Baker to extend the moratorium through at least the beginning of the school year, since many families would be adapting to remote learning at home in August and September. “We also talked about extending it through the election,” Kriesberg says, “in case the federal government were to step in shortly after, with more resources [for eviction protections].”
Ultimately, Baker met MACDC in the middle regarding when exactly the eviction moratorium would be allowed to die. He extended the moratorium from its original August expiration date to Oct. 17. Knowing that the gap between Oct. 17 and possible intervention from Congress could be immense, the conversation between Baker’s office and affordable housing service providers turned to interim mitigation. “This was a little bit controversial,” Kriesberg says. “The fear is that if you come up with a softer solution, then it’s going to undermine the campaign to extend the moratorium further.”
The campaign Kriesberg refers to is the ongoing effort by grassroots housing justice activists to persuade Baker and the state legislature to extend the eviction moratorium well into 2021 with significant economic lifelines for small landlords and tenants (to make the moratorium extension sustainable). This agenda, formalized with a piece of legislation known as the Housing Stability Act, gained cosponsors in the statehouse and Senate over the summer, but it was not taken up for a vote by legislature leadership. This presented housing advocates with a dilemma. How hard do you keep fighting for more sweeping protections, and at the same time, how much effort do you channel toward shaping softer protections that are more likely going to happen, for now?
Taking the latter approach, Massachusetts CDC leaders began to emphasize two things that the state government could do to support tenants, if evictions were to resume on Oct. 17: level the playing field by providing more material and professional support for tenants, and slow down the eviction process. These ideas would become foundational bedrock for the Eviction Diversion, which invests an additional $100 million into RAFT. In prior years, RAFT’s maximum annual payout (to a tenant’s landlord) was $4,000. Now it’s $10,000. In addition to the expanded RAFT funds, the diversion program includes legal aid services for tenants facing eviction and a new slate of state-sponsored mediation centers for landlords and tenants who are in the middle of eviction proceedings. These supports are at least partially intended to provide more exit ramps for landlords who might otherwise choose to evict, thereby slowing statewide evictions.
However, the rollout of the Eviction Diversion program fell far short of what Kriesberg and his colleagues hoped for. “Our biggest beef with the governor was that he didn’t give the [Eviction Diversion] programs enough time to get going,” Kriesberg says. “You need time to get RAFT and the mediation center staffed up and ready. The diversion program was announced 5 or 6 days before the eviction moratorium expired.” This heightened the need for landlords to play ball with tenants, because for the program to actually prevent evictions, landlords need to both participate and be patient until it’s ready even though they are now legally allowed not to. To that end, MACDC teamed up with affordable housing planning organizations like Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) and MassHousing to circulate the Eviction Diversion Pledge: a five-point written commitment from Massachusetts property owners and managers to work with tenants experiencing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic.
While no pledge is ironclad, the Eviction Diversion Pledge—with 59 signees representing over 59,627 homes in Massachusetts, as of early December—models the approach landlords will need to take to give the diversion program a shot at success. Signatories pledge to honor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s nationwide eviction ban (extended to the end of January 2021 by the latest stimulus bill). They also commit to making rent adjustments for any Section 8–eligible tenants and creating payment plans for tenants who are buried under back rent debt. (The pledge does not specify whether these plans can or cannot include accrued interest.) But the most crucial provision of the pledge is that signatories promise to help their tenants apply for RAFT money, and, if the applications are approved, to accept the RAFT money in lieu of rent payments.
But landlords won’t wait forever. This means that for Eviction Diversion to work, and for the pledge’s promise of patience to be worthwhile, RAFT must be able to disburse unprecedented amounts of rental support as efficiently as possible.
Chris Norris, the executive director of Metro Housing Boston—one of the state’s nine regional housing agencies that are tasked with processing RAFT applications—has been in the field for some time. “I was actually one of the people who helped draft the legislation that created RAFT, 16 years ago,” Norris says. Traditionally a rent arrearage program, RAFT is now charged with providing both retroactive and ongoing rent relief for Massachusetts tenants who might soon be evicted. By Norris’s estimate, RAFT has helped roughly 1,800 families in the Boston metro area each year. But nothing comes close to the level of demand that RAFT is now experiencing.
“On average, we’re seeing about 100 new RAFT applications submitted every day,” Norris says, noting that this surge began in the spring—long before Gov. Baker allowed the eviction ban to expire. The spike materialized “almost immediately,” according to Norris, recalling the state’s initial two- to three-week lockdown, which quickly expanded into almost two months of business closures that resulted in catastrophic income losses for thousands of Massachusetts residents. “It won’t be a surprise to anyone that there were challenges on the administrative side, of being able to roll with that number of [RAFT applications],” Norris says. “We’ve spent eight months ramping up capacity—particularly the last couple months, as funding became available from the state.”
While the $100 million which Massachusetts has recently committed to RAFT is primarily meant to expand the amount of RAFT assistance available to applicants, the money has also allowed the Metro Housing Boston agency to expand its RAFT staff from 15 to more than 50 people, so applications can be processed faster. “At one time, it was taking us three months to get to some applications,” Norris says. “Now we’re responding within 48 hours.”
The state has also made tweaks to the RAFT application process, like no longer requesting that applicants produce their physical birth certificate or Social Security card. (“Immigration [status] does not determine whether you’re eligible for RAFT,” Norris notes.) An even more immense challenge, traditionally, has been verifying an applicant’s income. Stefanie Coxe, executive director of the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts, describes a process that’s dizzying to even think about. “You had to provide a month’s worth of pay stubs, but…it all had to be consecutive, from the same 30-day period,” Coxe explains. “So let’s say you’ve got a household where you have grandma receiving Social Security, mom’s working three jobs, and her son’s working one or two. All these household members had to provide pay stubs from within the same period, and that’s where we’d find ourselves going back and forth with applicants, which is very time consuming.”
Going forward, the state will only require two pay stubs, per person and income source, in a 60-day period that does not have to be consecutive. This, according to Coxe, will cut down on the number of missing documents that regional housing authorities have to chase down—thereby streamlining the application process internally. But the RAFT application process still isn’t that simple, especially if an applicant wants to qualify for the $10,000 maximum annual payment that the Eviction Diversion program authorized. “The applicant has to demonstrate that their housing crisis was caused by COVID,” Norris explains. “We also need to see a signed agreement from the tenant and property owner, stating that once the $10,000 is received, the tenant will remain stably housed for six months or until June 30, if there’s a school-age child in the household. This is going to involve tenants negotiating with owners who could be owed more than six months’ worth of rent, or for whom $10,000 won’t pay the entire arrearage.”
Part of the problem here is widespread misconception about what the much-touted $10,000 can actually be used for. As Coxe explains it, the $10,000 has to be applied toward a tenant’s arrearage and the cost of maintaining their tenancy for six months going forward. During those six months, the tenant is required to contribute 30 to 50 percent of whatever monthly income they might have had at the time of their application being approved. So the $10,000 helps make up the difference between their scaled contribution and what their landlord would normally collect in monthly rent. “If the total of all that is less than $10,000, that’s easier to get approval for,” Coxe says. “But when it’s over $10,000, that’s where we run into problems. This requires the landlord to potentially take a significant haircut.”
So how many RAFT applicants have been able to clear the hurdles and receive the $10,000 since the moratorium expired? Metro Housing Boston isn’t seeing it yet. “Few people have received more than $4,000,” Norris says. Statewide, Coxe sees a similar picture. “It could be explained by variables like when the person applied,” Coxe says. “In other cases, their arrearage might not be that high. We still don’t have a lot of data on this quite yet.”
Tenants can’t wait too long. The administrative hurdles of approving tenants for expanded RAFT money mirrors similar challenges playing out in New York and Philadelphia, where rent relief is being funded with CARES Act funds that will expire on Dec. 30 if left unused. RAFT is being funded from a variety of sources including the appropriation, the Housing Preservation and Stabilization Trust Fund, the Coronavirus Relief Fund, a reserve created by a state supplemental budget, and the Community Development Block Grant program. The Department of Housing and Community Development will use the Coronavirus Relief Fund for eligible costs prior to Dec. 30. All of this speaks to a larger, troubling gulf between the way in which rental relief programs like RAFT are operating right now, and what renting during a pandemic is actually like.
Rose Webster-Smith, a housing justice organizer with Springfield No One Leaves (based in one of Massachusetts’ poorest cities) is not optimistic about RAFT being the ultimate safety net that prevents mid-pandemic evictions this winter. “People don’t understand that you cannot get that $10,000 unless your landlord agrees to keep you as a tenant for six months,” Webster-Smith says. “Out here in Springfield, we have a massive unemployment problem, which means that many tenancies are not sustainable enough to meet the sustainability requirement that’s attached to the $10,000 upper limit for RAFT.” Webster-Smith also points to the stack of RAFT applications that predated the death of Massachusetts’ eviction moratorium—the same surge that Norris traces back to spring—as a looming obstacle. “As much as the regionals are working their hardest to get through that backlog, [demand] is not being met,” Webster-Smith says. “I have a gentleman who applied for RAFT in October. We did his application with him because he’s in his 70s—he doesn’t have access to technology and he doesn’t know how to use it. Each time he calls [the regional housing agency], nobody has the same answer for him.”
The question of how long it will take RAFT to send out rent relief to tenants also points to the risk of informal evictions rising. How many frayed tenants will just give up on the process and leave? For Isaac Simon-Hoads, a housing justice organizer with Lynn United for Change (serving one of Massachusetts’ largest Latinx communities), the overlooked informal eviction issue reflects discordance between how RAFT is designed and how renting actually works for many people in lower-income communities. “This is important in communities with a lot of immigrants,” Simon-Hoads says. “RAFT makes a payment directly to the landlord, but in places like Lynn, a ton of people don’t know who their landlord is. They don’t make payments directly to the landlord—they make their payments to their encargado, someone who typically lives in the apartment, collects the rent, and gives it to the building owner. So, if you don’t know the name of your landlord or how to reach them, then how do you get them to sign the RAFT documents?” Simon-Hoads has also seen tenants’ efforts to access RAFT money fail because their landlords won’t fill out the required W-9 form. “Maybe they’re cheating on their taxes,” Simon-Hoads says. “Maybe they’re from a country where there’s rightful suspicion of the central government.”
But the most significant hurdle, according to both Simon-Hoads and Webster-Smith, may be the fact that Massachusetts landlords aren’t obligated to accept RAFT funds that their tenants have done the work to qualify for. The state has rules in place to prohibit landlords from discriminating against renters based on the funds they leverage to pay off their rent. In theory, Massachusetts should be able to wield that law against landlords who refuse to take any RAFT money. New York has invoked similar anti-discrimination rules to force landlords to accept rental assistance for vulnerable tenants. However, New York’s rental assistance program does not come with the requirement that a landlord must maintain a tenancy for six months, as RAFT requires of any landlord accepting RAFT money. This requirement, while seemingly meant to protect renters from being evicted shortly after their landlord accepts RAFT funds, appears to be backfiring: making it harder for tenants to persuade landlords to accept the state money in the first place.
This is one of the most salient reasons why grassroots housing justice organizers from across Massachusetts have called for the Housing Stability Act’s more protective extension of the eviction moratorium, with economic relief for small landlords: more tenants would be covered. RAFT, with its limited reach and its shorter timeline, leaves many households out in the cold.
Seats at the Table
The informal eviction problem, along with the stickier fine print beneath RAFT’s new $10,000 ceiling, would appear to be challenges that the diversion pledge circulated by MACDC, CHAPA, and MassHousing could help address. The pledge could theoretically move property owners to approach their tenants in a more cooperative spirit, instead of just serving them notices to quit or rejecting the idea of securing rental assistance from the state. But an examination of the pledge’s 59 signatories (as of Dec. 17) reveals a trend: most of them are community development corporations such as Beacon Communities, Lawrence Community Works, and Worcester Common Ground. The pledge does not appear to be getting much buy-in from the independent landlords whose properties are rented by a significant portion of the estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people who are at risk for eviction. Lisa Owens, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, estimates that the number could surpass 100,000. “We heard from a partner, in Western Massachusetts, that a sheriff delivered 120 [notices to quit] to tenants,” Owens told Shelterforce in early November, describing the first few days after the moratorium expired.
Kriesberg is well aware of the pledge’s weaknesses, but figures it can at least be a way to prioritize tenants whose landlords may not be so understanding. “If we can take tens of thousands of units off the state’s list of things to worry about, that means resources like legal and tenant counseling services can be allocated toward the tenants who are most at risk,” Kriesberg says.
The state might soon step in with further protections as well. In July, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed an economic development bill that included language requiring landlords to engage in “good-faith mediation” prior to evicting. The state Senate is expected to produce its own economic development bill before Christmas, and it may include the same provision. “If courts deem the term ‘good-faith’ as meaning, more or less, what’s in the Eviction Diversion pledge, then in effect, the pledge becomes law,” Kriesberg says.
Pending drafts of the Massachusetts state budget for 2021 also include a provision that stipulates that any tenant with a pending RAFT application cannot be evicted, which could reduce the consequences of the slow ramp-up somewhat.
These additional layers of protection could go a long way toward helping tenants remain in their homes for the near future, if passed and greenlit today. But what’s easy to forget when digging into the weeds of the Eviction Diversion program is that the Northeast is already well into the most dangerous chapter of the pandemic yet. Many homes and lives will have been lost during the winter between the eviction moratorium’s expiration and the greenlighting of further eviction protections and resources. Waiting in limbo for those supports, whether from the state or the federal government, has likely pushed many tenants into housing situations that are less safe.
“How long are people supposed to live on the very brink of eviction?” Simon-Hoads says. It’s a grave question with public health implications. How long are people supposed to endure living week by week, not knowing if they will be protected from a pending eviction or not? At some point, people who are living on the edge may decide to move in with family, or into a shelter.
All of this poses a painful question for affordable housing service providers and housing justice organizers at large. When Baker began to consider whether he would extend the state’s eviction moratorium, whom did he listen to and consult with? The Eviction Diversion, while better than nothing, was a conscious decision to not afford tenants the broad protective measure of extending the moratorium through the winter—it was a decision to again let landlords have the final say. Its protections consist of the “softer” measures that community development corporations suggested during their lobby days with Baker, even before the pandemic. But grassroots organizing groups that threw their weight behind a moratorium extension and more help for small landlords are not invited to meet with the governor each year. “We certainly don’t have the governor’s number,” Simon-Hoads says. “We don’t have a way to communicate with Baker’s high-level staff. For that matter, we had trouble getting meetings with the Senate chair of the Housing Committee, who represents Lynn—our own community—in the State Senate.”
Perhaps, as winter cloaks the nation in a predicted second, worse wave of death, misery, and economic distress, it’s time to reflect on the remarkable coalescence that did occur in Massachusetts near the beginning of the pandemic. Back then, as COVID arrived in cities like Boston, grassroots organizers from the trenches of eviction proceedings and affordable housing service providers and associations with more direct access to policymakers came together to create and advocate for a codified ban on evictions: a consensus that during a pandemic, deciding whether or not someone has housing must be guaranteed by the state, and not left to property owners. This was unprecedented. It yielded an eviction moratorium with the best tenant protections in the country at the time.
Imagine if all of the parties responsible for the moratorium had been able to speak into Baker’s ear this summer, on the same Zoom meeting as the eviction ban expiration drew closer.
Consider what consensus that meeting with the governor might have produced.