BOSTON (SHNS) – Exactly 11 months after the state’s pandemic-inspired eviction moratorium expired, the Baker administration and law enforcement officials have been touting efforts to connect tenants and landlords with help emergency as a model of success, even though lawyers and lawmakers argued that the system remained with harmful loopholes.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s top MPs and court leaders said they were confident the Bay State response was working well to keep vulnerable residents housed, especially after some housing activists and lawmakers warned that the US Supreme Court’s August 26 decision lifts a federal moratorium on evictions would escalate the tension.
Massachusetts has significantly ramped up its distribution of rent assistance in recent months and has implemented changes to streamline the process, officials said on Friday, adding that the state was on the verge of deleting a federal benchmark. major which could result in additional dollars for the bay. State.
“We certainly understand and recognize that there have been a lot of ongoing concerns among tenants and landlords affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in light of recent Supreme Court actions on the CDC moratorium,” Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy said. “There are a lot of national stories and national coverage on the subject, and we frankly don’t think the national headlines are an accurate description of what’s going on here in Massachusetts.”
Massachusetts has distributed nearly $ 270 million in emergency housing assistance to more than 40,000 unique households since March 2020, according to data that the administration presented Friday.
The pace has also picked up since the end of last year. In December, the state distributed $ 4.1 million in rent assistance to 1,363 households; in August, the monthly total reached $ 46 million and 15,644 households, officials said. The release of funds in August was more than double the annual budget of $ 20 million available to the Housing Assistance Program for Families in Transition before the pandemic.
Officials said Massachusetts is expected to reach an important benchmark by the end of the month.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act, signed in December by former President Donald Trump, which granted the first major batch of federal emergency rent assistance, requires states to spend or commit at least 65% of the funding by September 30. Any state that does not meet this goal could have the remainder of its funding clawed back by the US Treasury and reallocated to another successful state.
As of September 10, officials said, Massachusetts had spent or committed $ 266.5 million on its first batch of emergency rental assistance funding. That’s 61% of the initial pot, just 4 percentage points from the month-end goal.
Housing and Community Development program chief Amy Sttitley called it “a very good position to take further funds should they become available.”
As of January, the administration has operated a rental case processing center and has automatically classified all verified applicants from MassHealth and the Department of Transitional Assistance as income for rental assistance.
The changes “brought the state up to its cruising speed” in March, DHCD Under Secretary Jennifer Maddox said.
Today, applicants need four major documents to apply for emergency housing assistance: an ID for the head of the household; proof of residence, such as a lease; verifying that they are facing a housing crisis, such as a court summons for eviction; and income verification, which for most applicants is already done through MassHealth or DTA.
“We think we’ve achieved a very good balance between program integrity and rapid aid delivery,” Stitely said.
However, some lawyers who work with tenants facing eviction and lawmakers who have pushed for a more drastic response do not share the administration’s sense of pride in the diversion initiative.
Molly Broderick, an attorney in the Greater Boston Legal Services Housing Unit, said the administration had implemented “some productive changes, especially last month,” but the program as a whole was not ” still not where it should be “.
“Here in Massachusetts we always find that money is really, really hard to access. Maybe more people have access to it than in June, but in June the majority of applications for rent assistance were turned down, ”Broderick told the News Service. “Just because it gets better doesn’t mean it’s enough.”
Baker and lawmakers allowed the state’s moratorium on evictions to expire in October 2020. The administration and court officials instead launched a diversion initiative designed to connect landlords and tenants using emergency, mediation and legal aid.
Since the lifting of the state moratorium, around 14,700 new cases of eviction for non-payment of rent have been deposit in Massachusetts, according to trial court data.
Officials said Friday that the state processed 16,774 requests from the week of July 5 to the week of August 23. Sixty percent of them were approved, 7 percent were denied and 33 percent expired, they said.
Wait times typically occur when an applicant or owner has not provided enough information or responded to the outreach, and the DHCD gives each applicant 14 days to reopen their application after it expires. Officials said about 20% of applicants seize this opportunity and half of those who reapply are approved for the help.
DHCD plans to strengthen staff at its rental case processing center, provide clearer instructions and conduct door-to-door campaigns to reduce the impact of expired applications, officials said.
Of the 18,500 households served between March and August, nearly 60% were very low income, 40% identified as Hispanic or Latino, 29% identified as black and 69% had a female head of household, according to data from the administration presented on Friday.
Lawyers and legislators keep pushing for legislation that would reinstate a temporary state-level ban on evictions and foreclosures, require landlords to exhaust all rental assistance options before applying for an eviction, and order further streamlining of the aid application process .
“We can have gratitude and appreciation for all the public servants who are trying to meet the need for rent assistance, but my point of view, and this is based on both interactions with voters as well what on the feedback from frontline advocates, is that the system works decently for people who have representation but doesn’t work so well or works well at all for under-represented people or for people trying to access the cold system, ”Representative Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat who supported this legislation, said in an interview.
Pandemic-era law requires courts to freeze all eviction cases while an application for rent assistance is pending, but Magistrate Court Chief Justice Paula Carey said Friday that any case of eviction will still be entered in the legal file of a tenant even if the procedure is suspended.
Broderick warned that unless the state can exclude cases from the courts in the first place, tenants will still face lasting consequences even if they receive rental assistance.
“The second somebody has an eviction case against them, it’s on their record, and we know statistically that it can really hamper the search for housing in the future,” said Broderick.