The June 15 expiration of Massachusetts’ state of emergency will mean the end of several housing-related provisions tied to the emergency declaration, leaving housing advocates worried over weakened supports for people experiencing homelessness or at risk of experiencing homelessness.
When Gov. Charlie Baker announced Monday that his administration plans to rescind almost all COVID-19 restrictions on May 29, he said the state of emergency would be lifted on June 15. That left about a month for lawmakers to figure out what to do with the laundry list of executive orders, emergency funding and policies that have been used to help stem the impacts of the pandemic for people all across the state.
For Pamela Schwartz, executive director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, there is concern that if protections tied to the state of emergency are not extended, people impacted by the pandemic could be more vulnerable to evictions. A 2020 law directs courts to “continue” an eviction case, meaning to postpone the legal process, if a tenant facing eviction has a pending application for rental assistance.
“We need to do some quick repair work,” Schwartz told The Eagle. “Those protections are what’s keeping many tenants housed.”
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said that both the House and Senate have been gathering information on what may expire with the state of emergency, including speaking with advocates, and that lawmakers are in the process of filing bills to extend what they see as necessary. Farley-Bouvier said that housing is top among the “slew” of issues to be addressed.
“We don’t want to extend the state of emergency, but we want to extend the protections to be sure the protections are still in place,” she said. “Whether there will be several bills or one omnibus bill to address this, and whether we will extend these for certain amounts of time or make permanent ... there are a lot of questions out there.”
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said the state of emergency would be “the big issue” where the Senate focuses its work after passing the state budget next week.
“Some portions really rise to the top as innovations and long-overdue changes, and others are making sure our social safety net remains strong until we have a strong and full recovery,” he said.
One of the key housing safety net programs, Rental Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT), had its maximum benefits increased to $10,000 for a 12-month period during the state of emergency, but maximum benefits would fall back to $7,000 after June 15.
While the state expects to receive federal funding for housing assistance, RAFT will still be important to keep tenants housed if they do not qualify for federal dollars, Schwartz said. Since funding for RAFT is allocated in the annual state budget, there is “no reason we cannot extend the enhanced benefit,” Farley-Bouvier said.
State Sen. Brendan Crighton filed an amendment to the Senate Ways and Means fiscal 2022 budget proposal that would cap benefits at $10,000 for an entire fiscal year as opposed to during the state of emergency.
Rose Webster-Smith, an organizer for Springfield No One Leaves, said that the end of the state of emergency could be compounded by the June 30 expiration of the federal eviction moratorium and several CARES Act initiatives. The latter includes forbearance programs and directives that prevent foreclosures for homes with federally backed mortgages.
Webster-Smith fears that if evictions spike, a new wave of COVID-19 cases could follow — especially in areas with low vaccination rates, such as Springfield.
“There is a direct correlation between people getting those notices to quit and doubling and tripling up,” Webster said. “It is no coincidence that the end of the [Massachusetts eviction] moratorium in October came right before a spike in COVID cases.”
Shelters’ concernsAmong people working with shelters and those experiencing homelessness in Greater Boston and eastern Massachusetts, there’s a mix of optimism and concern for what lifting the state of emergency means.
“As we are dealing with the issue of homelessness in the commonwealth and the impact COVID has had on the emergency shelter system, the emergency isn’t quite over for us,” Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, told the State House News Service. “Most providers are trying to not return to the way things were because nobody wants to go through that particular experience again. But they also have recognized how shelter settings are not the best environment for the people they are serving.”
Finn is referring to congregate shelter settings — shared living and sleeping spaces — one of the many options providers for homeless individuals have. For Finn, he would rather public and private officials explore non-congregate options — living spaces that offer some level of privacy — as the state moves toward a post-pandemic future.
One oft-cited example: A partnership between the city of Brockton and Father Bill’s & MainSpring to purchase a vacant motel and convert it into permanent supportive housing. Father Bill’s President John Yazwinski said he does not want to return to people sleeping on floors in congregate shelters.
“We’re hoping that we don’t go back to overflowing our shelters and having people sleeping on our floors,” he said “And even if we’re going to be able to allow more people in, I’m sure we’re not going back to the way it was pre-pandemic, which means that what are we going to do for the lack of beds? Right? So what’s the short-term and the long-term plan?”
Hinds and Farley-Bouvier said they were not aware of non-congregate shelter arrangements in Berkshire County, and Jay Sacchetti, senior vice president of shelter and housing, vocational, and addiction services for ServiceNet, did not immediately respond to an inquiry Thursday afternoon.
Kelly Turley, associate director at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said Baker’s decision to lift the state of emergency on June 15 means the fate of some programs, federal funds, and services are up in the air.
People experiencing homelessness and housing instability, she said, are bearing the brunt of the pandemic in terms of access to resources, job loss, and becoming infected with COVID-19.
Some shelter providers have utilized funds made available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up long-term housing units. The federal dollars were originally made available for states and territories to acquire larger living spaces for people who needed to quarantine or isolate.
Some states made the case to expand the population of people who could use those spaces, and Massachusetts did receive broader authorization from FEMA for the non-congregate settings. Turley said the state’s eligibility to use those funds could disappear once the state of emergency is lifted.
As the state of emergency is set to lift, Finn said he is looking for clarification from state and federal officials on the use of emergency resources that were made available to shelters to house people during the pandemic.
At a press conference Monday, Baker said a need to work with the Legislature to decide which pandemic-era resources and policies should carry over was part of the reason his administration decided not to lift the state of emergency until June 15.
Joyce Tavon, senior director of policy and programs for the shelter alliance, said one of her organization’s biggest concerns is whether or not there will be an “appropriate amount of time to figure out plans so that people are not left unsheltered.”
Finn said he would like the Legislature and administration further develop the concept of non-congregate housing, develop a comprehensive plan around addressing homelessness, and utilize shallow rental subsidy programs.
As the Legislature continues to work through the fiscal 2022 budget, Tavon said she is concerned about resources and funding for supportive housing.
“Other affordable housing dollars, of course, are critical and the steps to ensure that what is being funded for shelter is safe, is depopulated, wherever possible that we’re encouraging kind of more dignified, no congregate settings,” she said.