Some Boston city councilors are concerned that the city’s rent relief distribution process has lacked immediacy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with only six city households having received such aid as of Thursday, more than a month after the funding initiative was announced.
The city’s housing chief vigorously defended the program, saying officials have moved quickly but also deliberately to get renters help they need.
To date, about $17,300 of the $3 million slotted for pandemic rent relief in the city has been disbursed, according to the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development.
Councilor Julia Mejia is calling for city authorities to assess the efficiency of the program and “to ensure those who are the highest need are also the ones who are receiving the financial support.”
“It’s very disappointing, considering the need,” she said of the number of households who have thus far received funding.
Sheila Dillon, the city’s housing chief, rejected criticism of the program’s execution on Thursday. In an interview with the Globe, she said a lottery was held for rental relief applicants in mid-April and that applications were sent over to the city’s nonprofit partners — Metro Housing Boston and Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) — within days.
“The fact that it has taken more than two and a half weeks, I don’t see as being an issue,” she said.
Most other cities have yet to issue funds for rent relief, she said, indicating Boston is ahead of the curve in that respect. She also noted that evictions are on hold in Massachusetts, meaning that people would not be kicked out of their homes for failure to pay rent during the public health emergency. Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill last month blocking all eviction and foreclosure proceedings in the state for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.
Additionally, Dillon indicated that 301 households are slated to receive rental relief checks totaling $821,000 by May 15.
“I think we’re moving quickly, I think we’re moving deliberately, and I think we’re being careful with taxpayer resources,” said Dillon.
Still, Councilor Michelle Wu said Thursday the city “must do better in matching the scale and urgency of our communities.”
“We should never judge our actions by whether it was fast or slow by City Hall standards,” she said. “We need to hold ourselves accountable to the urgency of constituents who are trying to make ends meet and are currently in crisis.”
Councilor Lydia Edwards hoped city authorities had learned how to improve the process from the first round of funding, and said she wanted more clarity brought to the program for applicants.
“This is a learning experience,” said Edwards. “It’s not like we had something to model this on."
Calling the current pool of renters who have received relief through the program a “low number,” Councilor Ed Flynn indicated the city must continue to work on its outreach to those who are struggling to pay bills, suggesting authorities consider a social media push, marketing in target areas, and language access challenges in their efforts to encourage residents to apply.
“We also will redouble our efforts to provide technical assistance on the application process,” Flynn said in a text message.
Councilor Andrea Campbell said the pandemic is putting a financial strain on her constituents, adding that there is “an immediate need for rental relief.” She also thanked officials for moving quickly to get the relief program off the ground.
During the pandemic, there have been more than 10,500 confirmed novel coronavirus cases in Boston, a caseload that included 486 deaths as of Thursday. The crisis has laid waste to the economy, with more than 960,000 people having filed for unemployment pay in Massachusetts since the outbreak’s local onset. Another 68,600 new jobless claims were filed in the week ended May 2, the Baker administration said Thursday.
On April 2, city authorities announced the $3 million fund, which was aimed at helping income-eligible Boston residents with up to $4,000 for rent. The funding was made available to households earning less than 80 percent of the area median income, which is $72,000 for a two-person household. A portion of the funds was reserved for households with extremely low incomes, such as under $25,000 for a single-person household.
Applications were made available on April 6, and 5,500 households requested them, according to the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development.
Of those 5,500 households, about 800 were sent application forms from the two nonprofits partners of the city, authorities said. The applications required documents that reflect someone has been financially hurt by the pandemic, including income statements, as well as bank account information, and address of residence.
Chris Norris, the executive director of Metro Housing Boston, said the program continues to ramp-up and added that it takes time for applicants to get the documentation they need to receive funding. He said the program is “working as intended.”
“We want that money out,” said Norris. “We know it’s important for residents and owners.”