BOSTON — Expanded rent aid, rapid rehousing and streamlined applications are cornerstones of a $171 million plan by the Baker administration to keep tenants in their homes and support landlords after the state’s eviction moratorium expires Saturday.
The plan outlined Monday represents an alternative to extending the moratorium, which Baker is authorized to do under a law passed earlier in the pandemic and is a path community activists and some lawmakers say is preferable for the safety of tenants struggling due to job losses and other pandemic hardships.
Baker’s team said the plan was developed in coordination with the Massachusetts Trial Court and others “to manage the end of the moratorium” come Saturday. It uses federal funds as well as existing authorizations under a COVID-19 supplemental budget and does not require additional legislative appropriation.
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, both responded favorably to the announcement Monday.
“While we continue to work towards providing the care and comfort to the already homeless, this particular initiative being proposed by the state will hopefully prevent any additional people from losing the security of housing,” Tyer said in a phone interview.
“They’ve listened to mayors across the commonwealth about our anxieties around homelessness and the impact that these potential evictions could have on our communities.”
The officials expressed appreciation for the added support for landlords, who they said play a role in maintaining housing security in the county, particularly in Pittsfield.
“Many of our landlords that provide housing are not corporations — they are small- to mid-sized businesses,” Tyer said. “COVID-19 has impacted their ability to pay their mortgages.”
“This is a critical win-win because it provides resources directly to Berkshire families to keep them in their homes during a pandemic and economic crisis, while also helping Berkshire landlords navigate this period,” Hinds said.
The plan wouldn’t be possible, according to the Baker administration, if lawmakers hadn’t granted flexibility for the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program, which is assigned a $100 million commitment this fiscal year to expand capacity.
The plan’s other major pot of funding is $48.7 million for HomeBASE and other rapid rehousing programs that aim to put people in new housing after they’ve been evicted and prevent long periods of homelessness.
A new temporary emergency program will provide funds to households for up to 12 months to assist with moving expenses, rents, and security deposits.
“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,” Baker said in a statement. The governor had authorized one extension of the moratorium.
The maximum benefit available through the RAFT program will rise from $4,000 to $10,000 per household, which the administration says will help more families stabilize their housing for six months, or until the end of June, if there are school-age children in the household.
In a statement released by the governor’s office, Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey said that 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, which includes the state’s housing courts, has also “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,” Carey said.
Lew Finfer, co-director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, said Monday that the plan falls far short of meeting the financial needs identified for tenants at risk of eviction and called on the Legislature to “step up” and pass a bill (H 5018 / S 2918) that he said would guarantee housing stability during the state of emergency and is cosponsored by 90 legislators.
That bill, which the Housing Committee advanced Sept. 30, would keep a moratorium in place for one year after the state of emergency ends, freeze rents during that span, and create a fund to help financially distressed small landlords.
State Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat who has been active in the housing debate, took to Twitter after the governor announced his plan to promote the housing stability bill and plans to hold a demonstration at the governor’s house this week.
“If you think it’s outrageous that we could allow 100,000 or more households to be displaced in the middle of a #COVID winter, then join our housing justice organizers for a demonstration at the Governor’s house this Wednesday at 5 pm.,” Connolly tweeted.
“I’m certainly letting people know about it,” Connolly said about the demonstration in an interview. He said he was not sure if he would attend because his first priority is legislative business and he continues to push for advancement of the housing stability bill despite the Legislature being on recess from formal business.
“At this stage it has come down to: do legislative leaders want to play an active role in crafting housing policy or not?” Connolly said. “And in this situation it appears that the Legislature has really ceded its policymaking role to the governor.”
The plan includes $12.3 million to provide tenants and landlords with access to legal representation and services prior to and during the eviction process, as well as a new community mediation process to help tenants and landlords resolve cases outside of court.
It features $6.5 million for nine Housing Consumer Education Centers, which the administration described as the “front door” for those facing a housing emergency, and $3.8 million for the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP), which provides case management support and “to act as a neutral party to help tenants and landlords come to agreement.”
At least 80,000 households in Massachusetts, including both renters and homeowners, will struggle to cover the costs of both housing and basic needs this month, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council concluded last week after studying unemployment and Census Bureau data.
The administration said its plan will provide direct financial support to 18,000 households, access to legal support or community mediation for up to 25,000 households, and access to Housing and Consumer Education Center services for up to 50,000 households.
Also, an unspecified amount of money will be provided to the trial courts to bring back judges to help handle caseloads once the moratorium ends and to add housing specialists to help mediate agreements. The Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP) will also be expanded to serve more vulnerable households.
When the state moratorium expires Saturday, a moratorium established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will become effective in Massachusetts, according to the Baker administration, and the CDC moratorium that runs through December 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,” according to the governor’s office. “Protection is limited to households who meet certain income and vulnerability criteria.”
A public information campaign to assist tenants, including a new option available to call the Massachusetts 2-1-1 information hotline, begins Tuesday.
The administration released its plan Monday afternoon without supportive statements from any legislators but with praise from numerous organizations, including the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Mass. Office of Public Collaboration, the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts, Citizens Housing and Planning Association, Mass Landlords, and the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations.
“The housing organizations on the ground administering these programs are grateful for the additional funds for RAFT and will continue to monitor the burn rate and how quickly funds can get out the door under new programmatic guidance and communicate that to the Baker-Polito Administration,” said Stefanie Coxe, executive director of the Regional Housing Network of Mass. “The Housing Consumer Education Centers look forward to connecting people in need with the new resources announced today. There’s still a long road to go with high demand so constituents are strongly encouraged to get in line now and not wait.”