Wind down of housing assistance raises concerns

AS A FEDERAL rental assistance program winds down, housing advocates are looking to the state to help fill the gap. But the state assistance programs are not as generous as the federal program was, leading to concerns that struggling tenants – particularly tenants of color – could increasingly face evictions. Housing assistance will be up for debate Thursday as the state Senate considers its version of a $1.6 billion supplemental budget bill.

On Tuesday, Homes for All Massachusetts and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a report which found that evictions are disproportionately occurring in Black and Latino neighborhoods, neighborhoods with more single mother heads of households, areas with absentee and corporate landlords, and in central and southeast Massachusetts. Of all evictions filed between October 2020 and October 2021, 43 percent were in neighborhoods where a majority of residents are non-white, even though only 32 percent of rental housing is in these areas.

Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said ensuring more rental assistance is available is vital “to make sure that as recovery moves forward, we’re not leaving Black and Latinx communities behind in their recovery.”

As the pandemic abates, housing assistance programs have been gradually scaling down. Last Tuesday, the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development gave notice that it will stop accepting applications on April 15 for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, a federally funded, pandemic-era program that pays rent for financially struggling tenants. After that, the state expects to have used up all the federal money. Since the start of the pandemic, the state has distributed $582 million to 72,000 households, out of a total of $800 million in federal housing money given to Massachusetts.

On January 1, the Legislature lowered the maximum benefit given from a state rental assistance program, or RAFT, from $10,000 to $7,000. State officials simultaneously made changes to who is eligible for federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds to make the money last longer.

But housing activists say the need is still there for assistance. “COVID is unfortunately not quite done,” said Andrea Park, a housing attorney for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “The uncertainty is not as acute but it’s absolutely there.” For example, she said, some women are still struggling to find steady childcare and reenter the workforce.

Park said there has been a “troubling increase” in evictions, particularly in central and southeastern Massachusetts. Anecdotally, she hears about more owners selling multi-family buildings because of the hot housing market and evicting tenants so they can raise the rents.

Statewide, trial court data show eviction case filings remain far below where they were in late 2020, but actual executions on evictions have gone up and down, and have generally been increasing since the summer of 2021, with the highest numbers right now in central and southeastern Massachusetts. A lot of the fluctuation likely reflects changes in state policy related to eviction protections.

The governor, in his version of the supplemental budget bill, allocated $60 million for housing assistance programs, to ensure tenants maintain access to RAFT through the end of the fiscal year in June, once the federal program winds down. The House version of the bill upped that to $100 million. Amendments senators will consider during Thursday’s debate, including one introduced by Housing Committee chair Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat, would double the amount to $200 million.

Another amendment introduced by Keenan would increase the maximum per-family benefit from $7,000 to $10,000 a year.

All of this is far more generous than the pre-pandemic version of RAFT, which was a $20 million program that provided $4,000 annually to fewer than 6,000 households.

But regardless of the changes, the RAFT program will still be less generous than the federal ERAP. ERAP helps families earning less than 80 percent of area median income ($80,300 for a family of three in Boston), while RAFT helps those earning less than 50 percent of area median income ($53,350 for a family of three in Boston). ERAP does not cap benefits, so Turley said the average amount a family got was $9,000 but some families received as much as $20,000, reflecting Massachusetts’s high housing costs.

“With a total shutdown of the program anticipated next month, we think there will be tens of thousands of households put in a position where they’ll be facing eviction,” Turley said.



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