Housing advocates are warning that Massachusetts’ plan to end multiple rental assistance programs could lead to an increase in evictions statewide.
The commonwealth launched the federally funded programs in early 2021 to help families keep their homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the programs — part of a statewide eviction diversion initiative — have distributed over $600 million in rental assistance to more than 74,000 Massachusetts households.
State officials say the programs will stop accepting new applications Friday because the commonwealth anticipates exhausting federal rental assistance funding in the coming months. As a substitute, the state is investing money in a separate, state-funded rent relief program that will continue accepting applications. But housing advocates are concerned that may not be enough to make up for the end of the federally funded programs.
“The financial effects [of the COVID-19 pandemic] — which is what the rental emergency money was meant to alleviate — are not over,” said Andrea Park, a housing attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “Inflation is hitting everything right now. ... People are really not in a place where they can manage without some continued assistance.”
The looming end of the rental assistance programs comes as an increasing number of Massachusetts families are receiving rent relief. Since July 2021, the amount of aid the commonwealth has doled out to households has risen each month, according to state data.
That increase has corresponded with a decline in reported evictions. In late 2020, landlords across the state filed 830 new eviction cases in a single week in housing court. But since March 2021, new eviction cases per week have not topped 300, which housing advocates attribute to the increasing flow of rental assistance to tenants over the past year.
The majority of the rent relief has come from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, one of three federally funded programs that will stop accepting new applications Friday. To qualify for ERAP money, tenants must earn no more than 80% of their area’s median income. The program can pay out more than $7,000 a year to families.
In order to make up for the end of ERAP, state officials said they’re strengthening the state-funded Rental Assistance for Families in Transition program. Gov. Charlie Baker and the Massachusetts Legislature recently allocated an additional $100 million for the RAFT program and extended a requirement that housing courts delay ruling on eviction cases if a tenant has an active rental assistance application.
Still, Park noted the RAFT program is more restrictive than ERAP. It pays out a maximum of $7,000 a year to families and has a stricter income threshold, limiting payments to people who earn now more than 50% of their area median income. As a result, housing advocates are concerned some families who would be eligible for ERAP assistance may not receive the aid they need through RAFT.
Lynn resident Antonia De Leon exemplifies that. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, De Leon’s husband lost his job at a restaurant and their family fell behind on rent. They wound up receiving assistance through ERAP to help them keep their home. RAFT would not have covered them because De Leon’s income is higher than 50% of the area median income.
“If [ERAP] hadn't existed, I could've gone to the streets homeless with my family,” De Leon said during a rally for rent relief Tuesdayoutside the State House.
Massachusetts is not alone in winding down some of its rental relief programs. Several states, including Oregon and Texas, have already exhausted their federal rental assistance funding and stopped accepting new applications for rent relief. Other states, including Alaska and Virginia, have said they expect to run out of money later this year.
However, Park pointed to New York, which recently replenished its rental assistance program fund with $800 million in state money. She argued the Massachusetts Legislature should do the same using funding the commonwealth has received from the American Rescue Plan Act.
“There’s plenty of pots of money to draw from,” Park said, adding the state should at least loosen the RAFT eligibility requirements.
In response to housing advocates’ concerns, a spokesperson for Senate President Karen Spilka told GBH News the state is already investing a record amount of money for rental assistance. The spokesperson added the RAFT program, in some ways, is more flexible than ERAP. Unlike RAFT, ERAP has forced people to testify that they fell behind on rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic.