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.

SHIRA SCHOENBERG

FROM COMMONWEALTH

SJC suspends judge: The Supreme Judicial Court suspended Probate and Family Court Judge Paul Sushchyk indefinitely without pay for grabbing the butt of a female court employee at a conference and lying about it.

– In its unsigned decision, the court said the suspension should remain in place for a “reasonable time” to allow the executive and legislative branches to consider whether to remove Sushchyk permanently from his position. Such actions are very rare. Read more.

DOC refutes report: The Massachusetts Department of Correction disputed a report that claimed the agency has failed to address pervasive mold and the potential for asbestos exposure at Bridgewater State Hospital. The agency’s top official said the department has spent $1.7 million addressing the problems. Read more.

Hiring bonuses: Gov. Charlie Baker is offering employers $4,000 for each worker they hire in a bid to convince them to seek out and train employees they normally wouldn’t consider. The money can be used for training, signing bonuses, education, or whatever the employer wants to spend it on. Employers are not required to document their training methods or expenses. Read more.

Gax tax debate shifts to Senate: GOP lawmakers on Beacon Hill renew their effort to suspend the state gas tax amid the runup in prices at the pump. The House earlier rejected a gas tax suspension on a voice vote; the Senate’s Republican leader promises to seek a roll call.  Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

BEACON HILL

Gov. Charlie Baker says he intends to pursue a new use for the Hynes Convention Center in the Back Bay, which he said is sitting empty most of the time. (State House News Service)

Governor’s Councilor Marilyn Devaney ruffles feathers among some colleagues by again calling for the panel to resume livestreaming its meetings, something that was done during the pandemic but recently halted when the State House was reopened to visitors. (Boston Herald

Mental health legislation is gaining steam on Beacon Hill, with Speaker Ron Mariano pledging to take up a bill on the issue. The Senate already passed a mental health bill. (MassLive)

Mariano also said the House is preparing to take up the issue of early education, a pressing issue amid the state’s very high cost of child care. (Boston Globe

Senate President Karen Spilka said the Senate is developing a bill related to climate resiliency and green energy, with hopes of debating it on Earth Day, April 22. (MassLive)

Immigrant advocates plan a rally at the State House urging the Senate to pass a bill letting immigrants without legal status obtain drivers licenses. (Standard-Times)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Some North End restaurant owners say they’ll consider litigation to fight a city of Boston order that they pay a $7,500 fee to set up outdoor dining service this year. (Boston Herald

Local officials on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are miffed at legislation that would limit the terms of board members on the Steamship Authority. (Cape Cod Times)

Members of the Peabody Conservation Commission unload on the Salem Country Club for cutting down trees the club was not authorized to remove. (Daily Item)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Federal pandemic relief funds get spent on all sorts of projects and initiatives that appear to have little connection to the pandemic. (Associated Press)

Mark Pomerantz, a senior investigator for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, said in his resignation letter that former president Donald Trump was guilty of numerous felony violations and his boss’s decision not to prosecute him was “a grave failure of justice.” (New York Times)

US Rep. Lori Trahan urges more military and humanitarian support for Ukraine, after visiting the region. (Salem News)

ELECTIONS

House Speaker Ron Mariano endorses Attorney General Maura Healey for governor. (MassLive)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Construction of new homes is booming in Central Massachusetts, as buyers cannot find enough inventory on the existing market. (Telegram & Gazette)

Around 500,000 low-income workers in Massachusetts will receive $500 checks next week, courtesy of the state’s COVID-19 Essential Pay Program. (MassLive)

IMMIGRATION

The Boston asylum office of US Citizenship and Immigration Services approved 11 percent of applications last year, less than half the national average, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. (GBH)

EDUCATION

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley recommends letting the state’s two virtual schools continue operating, but with conditions given concerns about poor academic outcomes. (MassLive)

The decision to end the deployment of police officers in Boston schools is raising questions as schools see an “alarming number” of violent incidents. (Boston Globe

ARTS/CULTURE

The wreck of a Massachusetts whaling ship is discovered off the coast of Mississippi 190 years after it sank. (Associated Press)

Dolly fever hits Hub: The Boston Globe and Boston Herald both feature editorials lauding Dolly Parton for her humility in turning down induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

A redesign of Mattapan Square calls for moving a statue, which has some in the area up in arms. (Dorchester Reporter)

TRANSPORTATION

Rich Davey, the former Massachusetts transportation secretary and MBTA general manager, has been tapped to serve as president of New York City transit, overseeing the country’s largest public transit system. (New York Times

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

A Seattle company and a group of local investors have paid $13.6 million for a 30-acre waterfront site in New Bedford to be used for offshore wind staging. (New Bedford Light

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

New Hampshire recently released a statewide list of police officers with credibility issues. No such list exists in Massachusetts. (Patriot Ledger)

PASSINGS

Dr. Jay Burton of Longmeadow, the founder of Survivor Journeys, which provides support for cancer survivors and their caregivers, dies at 63. (MassLive)

Madeleine Albright, the first female US secretary of state, dies at 84. (Associated Press)