With hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents behind on rent or mortgage payments, housing advocates are eyeing the state budget as a possible vehicle to expand assistance and protections for those at risk of evictions or foreclosures.
The Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness has identified seven amendments as priorities for the Senate budget. Several amendments would increase funding for housing assistance programs, but the “front and center” amendment for homelessness prevention is No. 371, which would extend eviction protections through the end of 2021.
The federal eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to expire on June 30, but it has also faced legal challenges. A federal judge vacated the order on May 5, but the Biden administration appealed that decision and the court entered a stay, meaning that the order remains in effect.
The amendment would extend CDC eviction protections in Massachusetts.
“The larger issue is there are still evictions happening,” said Pamela Schwartz, executive director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness. “There’s tenants falling through the cracks.”
As of Tuesday, Berkshire County has seen 256 eviction filings for non-payment of rent since the Oct. 17 expiration of the state eviction moratorium, according to publicly available data compiled by Rose Webster-Smith, an organizer for advocacy group Springfield No One Leaves. Hampden County has seen 1,602, with 989 in Springfield alone, in addition to 160 in Hampshire County and 95 in Franklin County.
Across the four western counties, 117 executions for possession have been levied in eviction cases. An execution allows a property owner to seize possession through a sheriff. Judgements have been entered for 89 cases, meaning the next step is an execution.
Fifty-one families have agreed to vacate or have left already, and 18 have been forcibly removed by a sheriff.
With several protections tied to the COVID-19 emergency set to expire June 15, there’s fear that a crisis is looming. Currently, eviction proceedings are delayed if a defendant has a pending application for rental assistance, but that directive is set to end when the state of emergency lapses.
“All that goes away, so people could end up being evicted before they get approved for those funds,” Webster-Smith said. “People will be evicted faster than the money can get out the door.”
While advocates are working with lawmakers to get emergency protections extended, expanded funding for assistance programs is another strategy they are pursuing.
“A few thousand” Berkshire County households each year receive assistance from the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP), Rental Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program, Homelessness Individuals Assistance Program, Housing Consumer Education Centers, the Unaccompanied Youth Program and The Tenancy Preservation Program, said Brad Gordon, executive director and staff attorney for the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority. Gordon said both the House and Senate have been “incredibly supportive” of these programs.
The Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness is requesting to increase MRVP from $150 million in the Senate budget to $160 million, RAFT from $16.3 million to $54.7 million and the HomeBASE program, which provides rehousing assistance to families in shelter, from just under $26 million to $45 million.
While many Massachusetts residents are now receiving help through the new Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), made possible by recent federal funding, some may not be eligible for that program. Even if people have experienced unemployment, decreased wages or increased expenses, they do not qualify for ERAP unless they can prove that those challenges were caused by the pandemic.
Expanding RAFT funding is important to keep people housed if they may not qualify for ERAP, Schwartz said.
Schwartz and Webster-Smith are also advocating for a bill that seeks to prevent evictions and foreclosures caused by a pandemic-related inability to pay. The bill would establish pandemic impacts as a legal defense, add foreclosure protections for homeowners and small-scale landlords, and require landlords to pursue and cooperate with rental assistance programs before pursuing eviction.
While much of assistance has targeted renters, Webster-Smith said more help for homeowners is needed.
Gordon said that in the long term, there must be more rental units and homeownership opportunities accessible to low- and middle-income households. A housing inventory shortage both in Berkshire County and the rest of the state, he said, along with high demand has driven up prices and contributed to a market that has disadvantaged lower-income households.
“I am hopeful that the significant amount of federal funds that should be available over the next couple of years will be directed in large part towards increasing our housing inventory, through both the development of new housing units as well as the rehabilitation of our older housing stock,” Gordon wrote in an email. “If we do not adequately address this housing shortage, housing stability will increase as will episodic homelessness, and the lack of housing will also negatively impact the region’s economic growth.”