The coming Saturday has been a date marked on the calendar for many State Legislators – including State Sen. Sal DiDomenico – and dozens of community advocates who have been fearing for months a tidal wave of evictions from renters who owe thousands in back rental payments – money that could also spark a foreclosure crisis for landlords if the rent isn’t paid and they cannot keep up with mortgage payments, as the freeze on those payments is also lifting for many property owners this fall.
On Oct. 17, the Housing Courts re-open for summary process evictions of tenants for non-payment of rent, and many low-income families are behind thousands and cannot make up the payments. Many other families worked in the service sector, perhaps at hotels or in Logan Airport, and those good-paying jobs have not yet come back. Most tenants have benefitted from an eviction freeze since March, but after one extension last summer, there are no more extensions in the making.
State Sen. DiDomenico has been on the forefront of this potential crisis for Everett and Chelsea, fearing many constituents might lose their housing all at once – with those first evictions putting people on the streets just after Thanksgiving. DiDomenico has championed the Right to Counsel bill, which allows tenants the right to a lawyer in eviction cases. Meanwhile, he has also been calling for the Housing Stability Act to help with rent arrearages and take the pressure off landlords.
On Monday, however, Gov. Charlie Baker and the State Trial Courts announced a comprehensive set of resources, known as the Eviction Diversion Initiative, to support tenants and landlords during the financial challenges caused by the pandemic. The goal, Baker said, is to keep tenants safely in their homes and to support the ongoing expenses of landlords once the Commonwealth’s pause of evictions and foreclosures expires on Saturday. This strategy was developed by a cross-agency team assembled by the Administration in coordination with the Massachusetts Trial Court to manage the end of the moratorium and reflects input from a broad range of stakeholders, he said.
“The pandemic has created financial challenges for many individuals and families who are struggling with rent payments, and today we are pleased to announce a $171 million initiative to promote household stability, and provide more support for tenants and small landlords,” said Baker. “This strategy has been designed to be user friendly and easily accessible for tenants and landlords in need, and is comprised of new or expanded programs to help people stay in their homes. This would not be possible without the Legislature’s foresight in granting flexibility for the RAFT authorization. I am grateful to the Court System and all stakeholders for their partnership in this effort in keeping all families and households stable throughout this pandemic.”
Said Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey, “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. 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.”
RAFT Program Sees Major Expansion
The Administration is making a $171 million total commitment this fiscal year, with $112 million of new funding to support new and expanded housing stability programs during the remainder of the fiscal year. One of the key programs will be an additional $100 million devoted to the revamped Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program – which is handled locally by The Neighborhood Developers (TND) at its Chelsea office.
The RAFT expansion will help with one problem often cited by housing activists – that once the program is approved for applicants, they are behind even further. The new investments will expand the capacity of the RAFT program and more than double the maximum benefit available through RAFT from $4,000 to $10,000 per household, with a goal of helping more families stabilize their housing for six months, or until the end of June if there are school-age children in the household.
The Administration is also updating the RAFT program to improve turnaround time on applications, while maintaining program integrity, by:
•streamlining the application process for both the RAFT and Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance (ERMA) programs for low to moderate income households;
•verifying applicant eligibility with data collected through MassHealth, the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA), and the Department of Revenue (DOR);
•referring applicants to MassHIRE Career Centers; and
•allowing landlords who own fewer than 20 units to apply directly for RAFT and ERMA, with consent from tenants.
That program provides relief to renters and landlords.
Other investments will include $48.7 million to HomeBASE and other rapid rehousing programs for when tenants are evicted and are at risk of homelessness; $12.3 million to provide tenants and landlords with access to legal representation and related services prior to and during the eviction process, as well as community mediation to help tenants and landlords resolve cases outside of court; $6.5 million for Housing Consumer Education Centers (HCECs), the “front door” for those facing a housing emergency; and $3.8 million for the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP), to provide case management support and to act as a neutral party to help tenants and landlords come to agreement.
New funding will also expand capacity at the nine regional Housing Consumer Education Centers (HCECs) to provide housing counseling and coordinate with community mediators, legal services, and caseworkers. Income eligible tenants and landlords will also be able to access legal representation and related services as they navigate the eviction process.
“It is important that we support both our tenants and landlords who are struggling due to COVID-19, and changes to the RAFT program, as well as increased resources, will deliver relief more efficiently,” said Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy. “To keep people in their homes and help property owners with expenses, we are streamlining the RAFT application process, expanding the capacity at the ‘front doors’ where tenants access assistance, and allowing small landlords to apply directly for available funding.”
Courts Will Focus on Mediation
With the goal of bringing landlords and tenants together to avoid an eviction, Gov. Bakers said they will invest in expanding access to mediation services. In coordination with the Trial Court, the Administration is working to launch a new Community Mediation program that will be available prior to a court filing, and supplement court-provided mediation that is generally available after a filing has been made. The Administration will also provide funding to the Trial Courts to support bringing back recall judges to help handle caseload once the moratorium ends and to add additional housing specialists to help mediate agreements. Additionally, the existing Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP) will be expanded to serve a broader population of vulnerable households.
Massachusetts will also provide additional funding for post-eviction diversion, helping households to find new housing quickly and prevent a longer period of homelessness. HomeBASE, the Commonwealth’s rapid rehousing benefit, and the Strategic Prevention Initiative (SPI) will be expanded and continue to offer financial assistance and stabilization case management services to families as they are in the process of securing stable housing. A new temporary emergency program will also provide funds to households for periods of up to 12 months to assist with moving expenses, rent, including first or last month’s, or security deposit, while transitioning into a stable housing situation.
When the state moratorium expires, a moratorium established by the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) will become effective in Massachusetts. Through December, the CDC moratorium will prevent evictions for non-payment for qualified tenants who submit a written declaration to their landlord. Courts will accept filings and process cases, and may enter judgments but will not issue an order of execution (the court order that allows a landlord to evict a tenant) until after the expiration of the CDC order. Protection is limited to households who meet certain income and vulnerability criteria. Declaration may be found at the CDC’s website.
In order to ensure tenants are aware of available resources, the Administration has kicked off a public information campaign, including a new option available to call the Massachusetts 2-1-1 information hotline, which was effective Tuesday, October 13. Operators for 2-1-1 are trained to answer questions and connect residents to the agencies that administer RAFT and ERMA. An easier path to important information has also been launched on the state’s website: mass.gov/CovidHousingHelp. This effort also includes outreach through social media, videos, webinars, and other mediums. All materials and messaging will be made available in multiple languages.
The Administration estimates resources will help thousands of households with varying levels of needs; up to 50,000 households will have access to services at their local Housing and Consumer Education Centers, up to 25,000 households will have access to legal support or community mediation, and up to 18,000 households will have direct financial support.