Aid available to struggling Mass. renters balloons to nearly $1B

State House News Service
Monday, April 12, 2021

Tenants struggling to pay their rent during the pandemic can now access assistance to cover up to 12 months of unpaid rent as a pair of federal stimulus bills have infused the state with hundreds of millions of dollars, allowing Gov. Charlie Baker to grow the state’s eviction diversion program almost sixfold.

The Baker administration planned to announce Thursday that it was using $437 million from a December relief bill to bolster its rental assistance, with an estimated $360 million from the American Rescue Plan also on its way.

The new federal funding, when combined with the $171 million state program launched last October, brings the total amount to be made available to renters struggling amid the pandemic to $968 million, dwarfing what had been a roughly $20 million state-funded rental assistance program before COVID-19.

“We’re just happy that we have this funding to keep people stably housed. The $171 million that the Baker-Polito administration previously made available was just a start, and to have these additional resources is just a game-changer,” said Jennifer Maddox, undersecretary for Housing and Community Development.

The expanded program, which officially launched late last month, makes qualified renters eligible to apply for up to 12 months of unpaid rent accrued since March 13, 2020, and up to three months of future rent payments.

The assistance is not capped, but Department of Housing and Community Development officials said they intend to prioritize funding for renters earning less than 50 percent of the area median income and people who have been unemployed for 90 days or longer.

Renters can also apply for up to $1,500 for unpaid utility bills through the eviction diversion program, and the state is newly allowing owners of affordable, subsidized housing units to apply directly for assistance to cover unpaid rent on behalf of their tenants. The state previously allowed small landlords to apply to assistance with permission of their tenants, but officials said participation in that channel has been limited.

When Baker allowed the state eviction moratorium to expire last October, he simultaneously launched a $171 million eviction diversion program that he said would stanch what activists feared could be a tidal wave of evictions.

That proposal increased the maximum Residential Assistance for Families in Transition benefit from $4,000 to $10,000 per household, with $100 million available for the program this fiscal year.

The program was funded with a mix of state dollars and funding from the federal CARES Act, and since October has been used to provide $80 million in rent support to 18,000 households, according to officials.

With that assistance fund nearly depleted, DHCD is replenishing it with the new federal funds earmarked for rental assistance and expanding eligibility in accordance with federal rules that accompany the money. The American Rescue Act funding could be used to expand assistance even further to cover 18 months of rent.

Since the state eviction moratorium expired, Massachusetts Trial Court data show 9,922 new eviction cases for failure to pay rent were filed, including 242 the week of March 21. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently extended a federal moratorium through June 30.

Amy Stitely, DHCD’s chief of programs, said the agency has seen a steady stream of 1,600 to 1,700 applications a week for assistance since December. While not all of those applications are approved, it’s a significant increase over the 5,000 to 6,000 applications to RAFT approved annually before the pandemic.

The administration also said that based on notices to quit filed by landlords with the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, renters in need of assistance are averaging four to five months of late rent payments.

“We can’t predict the future, but I think the demand is there,” Stitely said.