Newton officials are considering starting a city rental assistance program during the coronavirus outbreak to help residents facing economic hardship afford to remain in their homes.
The proposal calls on the city’s Planning Department and Community Preservation Commission to develop the program for people who are unable to pay rent during the COVID-19 emergency, according to Bill Humphrey, who helps represent the city’s Ward 5 on the City Council.
“I think everyone agrees that it is not in Newton’s long-term interest if we suddenly have a bunch of people losing their homes now, or in a few months,” Humphrey said.
The measure, similar in principle to proposals being considered in Chelsea and other Massachusetts communities, comes as cities and towns find themselves rolling out programs to aid their most vulnerable residents during the crisis.
“We certainly need to be doing it now,” Humphrey said. “You can’t be promoting public health if people are homeless and have nowhere to go.”
The city’s Community Preservation Commission and City Council would have to approve the proposal. Using community preservation funds for a renters’ assistance fund is allowed under state law, and would not require legislative approval, city officials said.
Community preservation funds are raised from a 1 percent surcharge on property taxes, a portion of which is matched by the state, and may only be used for land or historic preservation, outdoor recreation facilities, and affordable housing.
Last year, community preservation money was used to help acquire a portion of Webster Woods by eminent domain from Boston College.
The rental assistance proposal also is backed by councilors David Kalis, Holly Ryan, Rick Lipof, Andreae Downs, Maria Scibelli Greenberg, Alicia Bowman, and council president Susan Albright.
Albright said she considers the measure a high priority, given the widespread economic disruption caused by the pandemic.
“We have so many rent-burdened folks in Newton, this is an emergency that bears dealing with immediately,” Albright said. “The only thing we can do to help people right now is to get cash in their hands — this is one way to do it.”
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller also supports the effort, according to spokeswoman Ellen Ishkanian.
Fuller has asked the city’s Planning Department to look at a number of measures the city “may be able to take with [community preservation] and other funds that may be made available to help the vulnerable Newton households whose continued housing has been threatened by the impacts of COVID-19,” Ishkanian said.
The city preservation commission is expected to review the proposal during its April 14 meeting, according to Barney Heath, the city’s planning and development director. Newton is now working out the logistics of rolling out a rental assistance program, he said.
“I think our goal is the same as other communities: We want to get the money out on the street [and] helping folks as soon as possible,” Heath said.
The city has nearly $13.7 million in its community preservation fund available, said Lara Kritzer, the community preservation program manager.
The Massachusetts Housing Partnership has released guidelines for communities considering creating rental assistance funds to help respond to the pandemic, according to Shelly Goehring, a senior program manager with the organization. She’s spoken to officials in about 20 communities about the issue, she said.
Stuart Saginor, executive director of the Community Preservation Coalition, said the state’s Community Preservation Act was updated in 2012, and one of those changes was to make it clear the law allowed money to be spent on renters’ assistance.
During the 2008 financial crisis, there was uncertainty in some communities whether the law included that use, he said. Since the law was updated, several communities established renter assistance programs with community preservation funds.
“What better way to support a community than to keep the people who live in that community living there?” Saginor said. “That is what the CPA is about, to preserve the community.”
Among the communities considering the use of community preservation money to help renters is Chelsea, according to Karl Allen, that city’s economic development planner.
Allen said officials there began work last week developing an emergency fund for renters as part of the city’s overall COVID-19 response, including the launch of The One Chelsea Fund, which also is run in partnership with the United Way.
The city would earmark half of Chelsea’s community preservation fund — $1.25 million — to aid renters, he said.
“In mid-March, we realized that disaster was ahead of us,” Allen said. “We wanted to find programs that addressed the needs on the ground. Rental assistance is a big part of that.”
Chelsea’s proposed rental fund would provide households earning up to half of the region’s area median income with grants to cover three months’ worth of rent. For Chelsea residents, that works out to be about $40,000 for a single person, and $56,000 for a family of four.
The program would have a maximum of $5,000 for each participating household, Allen said. “We have to act, because inaction is going to contribute to additional people dying.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.