Baker unveils $171m in eviction assistance
Rep seeking moratorium extension calls funding ‘woefully inadequate’
WITH THE STATE’S eviction moratorium set to expire at the end of the week, the Baker administration on Monday unveiled a $171 million initiative that includes new aid for landlords and tenants as well as increased funding for court-sponsored mediation efforts and rehousing programs if tenants do get evicted.
The initiative, which appears to have the backing of some but not all stakeholders, includes $100 million to expand the capacity of the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program, which offers direct subsidies to households so they can make rent payments and stabilize their housing situation.
The maximum subsidy is being increased from $4,000 to $10,000 on the condition that the tenants can remain in their housing for six months or until June if there are school-age children in the household. Officials estimate the program could assist about 18,000 households. Landlords who own fewer than 20 rental units can apply for assistance directly with the approval of their tenants.
The big concern is whether there is enough money to meet the need.
A recent report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council pegged the need for direct housing assistance at around $100 million a month, at least through January. Baker is providing $100 million overall.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s report estimates that 45,000 renters need $42.3 million to cover the costs of housing and basic needs. Another 35,000 homeowners need $44 million a month to meet their mortgage costs. Because these estimates are based on standard unemployment insurance benefit numbers, the figures do not include immigrants without legal status, or self-employed, seasonal, or contract workers, who are also likely to need rental or mortgage assistance.
Lew Finfer, co-director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, which supports a moratorium extension, said the money the governor is providing for rental and homeowner assistance through RAFT “falls short of the need.” At a time when the pandemic is worsening and federal unemployment benefits have been cut, Finfer said the governor is “going in the wrong direction compared to what’s needed.”
Connolly said he worries about the impact of “informal evictions,” where a landlord gives a tenant a “notice to quit” and the tenant simply moves without knowing they have a right to go to court. “My gravest concern is the potential for informal evictions once the message reaches everyone that the moratorium is lifted,” Connolly said.
Connolly said these are people who will not go through the process of applying for rental assistance or showing up in Housing Court – but will be facing evictions in the winter during a pandemic.
The Baker administration initiative also provides more than $22 million for support, mediation, and legal help to assist landlords and tenants as they negotiate the eviction process. Another $48.7 million is going to a state program to assist tenants who get evicted and are at risk of homelessness.
A press release issued by the Baker administration said an ongoing eviction moratorium established by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will kick in once the state moratorium expires on Saturday. The federal moratorium, which runs through the end of December, is limited to households that meet income and vulnerability criteria, specifically those who expect to earn less than $99,000 in 2020 ($198,000 for a couple filing jointly) or who received a federal stimulus check.
But Finfer said about 30 percent of mortgages in Massachusetts are not covered by the federal moratorium – but were covered by the state one – since they involve certain types of loans not insured by federal lenders Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. And, according to the MAPC report, the federal moratorium is less protective than the state one. For example, the federal moratorium lets a landlord evict someone for breaching their lease in ways other than non-payment of rent, such as for noise complaints. Only the Massachusetts moratorium also exempts tenants from late payment fees.
Rebecca Davis, interim executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, called Baker’s proposal “a serious response to the looming eviction crisis” including much-needed money and services.
But Davis said the group is disappointed that Baker is not extending the statewide moratorium at least until the end of the year. “The state moratorium is more protective than the CDC ban, and a 10-week replacement of one moratorium for another will sow confusion among landlords and tenants alike,” Davis said.
Davis worried that evictions could begin as soon as January if the moratorium is lifted now, leading to an increase in overcrowding and homelessness in the middle of the winter, when risk of illness is severe.
Homes for All Massachusetts, the coalition that has been pushing for a moratorium extension, said in a statement that Baker’s plan “does not solve the problem and will lead to a massive wave of evictions and foreclosures.” The group urged the passage of the moratorium extension bill as “the only way to make sure people are not forced out of their homes and into overcrowded conditions that will put lives at risk by sparking new waves of coronavirus infection.”
The Baker administration is encouraging anyone facing eviction to dial the Massachusetts 211 information hotline starting Tuesday or go to the state’s website to get information on the state programs and their options. Officials said materials and messages will be available in multiple languages.
The Baker administration’s press release, which was issued on a state holiday, contained supportive comments from a number of stakeholders, including Paula Carey, the chief justice of the Trial Court; Annette Duke of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute; Stephanie Coxe of the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts; Susan Jeghelian of the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration; Rachel Heller of Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association; Doug Quattrochi of Mass Landlords; and Joe Kriesberg of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations.
“The Trial Court has modified its procedures to provide for a two-tier process that will enable tenants and landlords to access resources and mediate their disputes in order to preserve tenancies,” said Carey. “The Trial Court has worked to increase its technological capacity to handle these cases safely when parties come into court and to provide those without assistance with information and access to technology where needed.”
Groups representing landlords, who have strongly opposed the eviction moratorium, generally praised the governor’s efforts – even while acknowledging that the money may not be enough.Greg Vasil, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, and Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords, both voiced support for a provision that would let small landlords apply for rental assistance on behalf of their tenants, with their tenants’ consent.
But both Vasil and Quattrochi said the money may not be enough, depending on how long it takes for the virus to abate and the economy to recover. “I think it’s a great start,” Vasil said. But, he noted, “We’re in a situation where this is totally new to all of us. What happens if the vaccines get delayed and we’re in a perpetual state of limbo for longer than we think?”