Distribution of housing assistance funds lagging
State officials adding staff to process applications
DESPITE EFFORTS to bolster staffing, the Baker administration is having trouble getting housing assistance funds to families facing eviction.
According to state officials, $22.6 million of the $100 million available through the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT, program has been dispensed so far. The amount is up $5.1 million over a month ago. The administration and agencies that dispense the funds have been blaming staffing issues for the almost three months since the state eviction ban lapsed on October 18.
In the meantime, many applicants are nervously waiting and hearing nothing about their applications. Among them is Towanda, a black mother of two from Dorchester who asked that her surname not be published. She applied for RAFT on November 3 with the help of housing advocacy group Lawyers for Civil Rights. Her case hasn’t been assigned to a case manager yet and she hasn’t even been given a timeline for action.
The 49-year-old Towanda has hospitalized with COVID-19 last spring and returned home only to be laid off from her job of seven years as a bank teller because of company budget cuts. She’s been unable to find a new job since, and is struggling to make ends meet, let alone pay her $2,000-a-month rent. Her landlord has been sympathetic to her plight, but she has run out of people to borrow money from to keep the amount of back rent she owes low. She’s worried her luck is running out.
The Office of Housing and Economic Development insisted progress is being made.
The maximum RAFT benefit level has been raised from $4,000 to $10,000 for all eligible households, and is no longer limited to just renters affected by COVID-19, an agency spokesman said.
There is no longer a 12-month maximum combined RAFT & HomeBASE benefit of $10,000. HomeBASE is another pool of funding created by the state to provide families who are in the emergency shelter assistance system an opportunity to overcome some of the financial barriers to ending their homelessness. Households can now apply to both programs, with certain families potentially access up to $20,000,
The Office of Housing and Economic Development said it also has brought in outside help from consultants to aid in processing applications from areas of the state with high demand for assistance.
Housing applications are reviewed and processed by regional administering agencies, which have been flooded with applications. They’re supported by the Regional Housing Network, a trade association that advocates for policies to improve these programs.
“RAFT was really designed for pre-pandemic times, and as a result the high volume [of applications] has led to longer processing times,” said Stefanie Coxe, executive director of the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts.
Her organization has been working with the Department of Housing and Community Development to speed up the processing of applications and make applications easier to complete. She said regional administering agencies have added more than 200 new staff.
Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton said she met with a regional housing authority this week and was surprised to learn that each application takes an average of 67 hours to process.
According to Sabadosa, her part of the state in the Pioneer Valley has the second highest rate of RAFT applications outside of the Boston area.
There are over 5,600 RAFT applications under some form of review or processing in Hampden and Hampshire counties alone, as of January 9.
“With some of the highest application rates in the state, RAFT applications are moving along although much slower than any of us would like,” said Sabadosa. “Recent changes to streamline the process should help, but we are definitely in a moment where the need is rising and I worry constantly about demand outpacing funding.”Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, who heads Lawyers for Civil Rights, said he’s encouraged by the state’s recent adjustments to the RAFT program, but warns that legal action, a threat he made in December before meeting with the Governor’s administration, might still be necessary.
“Unless the state can make meaningful and material progress, litigation may be inevitable to bring the RAFT program into compliance with the law,” he said. “It’s important to underscore that the state’s inaction raises the specter of discrimination. While landlords keep knocking on the door, the state is forcing people of color to endure the uncertainty and indignity of waiting for months for a response.”