With Massachusetts' strict ban on evictions set to end this week, Governor Charlie Baker on Monday unveiled a $171 million package of programs aimed to keep struggling renters in their homes.
Whether it will be enough to fend off a looming eviction crisis remains to be seen.
Baker said Monday he’ll pump $100 million into the state’s main rental-relief program and boost the amount tenants can claim to $10,000 a year, up from $4,000, to keep up or pay off unpaid back rent. He also earmarked funds for homelessness prevention and for counselors, attorneys, and mediators to help tenants and landlords work together to keep renters in their homes. State Housing Court judges joined in, saying they’ll rehire retired judges to help process cases more smoothly and expand mediation programs.
“The pandemic has created financial challenges for many individuals and families who are struggling with rent payments,” Baker said in a statement. “This strategy has been designed to be user friendly and easily accessible for tenants and landlords in need.”
The move comes as Massachusetts' strictest-in-the-nation ban on evictions is set to expire Saturday. That measure, which blocks nearly all evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, has likely forestalled thousands of evictions since lawmakers passed it, as the state’s economy has shed more than 400,000 jobs since March. But it has drawn mounting complaints from landlords, who say it forces them to provide housing essentially for free, and the federal judge hearing a lawsuit challenging the ban said last month that he’d likely overturn it if it goes on much longer.
But the rental crisis, many housing advocates warn, is nowhere near over. And if Baker hopes to blunt it, they say, he’ll need to do more.
“One hundred million dollars is certainly something,” said Lew Finfer, executive director of the Massachusetts Community Action Network. “But it’s far short of the need at a time of worsening economic conditions and a worsening pandemic. It’s sort of an inadequate response to a huge, catastrophic problem.”
Finfer pointed to a report last week from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council which estimated that 45,000 laid-off workers in Massachusetts will have trouble paying rent this month alone, even after collecting unemployment benefits. Add in self-employed, undocumented workers, and others who can’t collect unemployment and that number will likely grow. Reports like that have housing advocates warning there could be tens of thousands of evictions in the state after housing courts reopen.
A broad coalition of advocates, including landlord groups, last week urged Baker to provide $215 million, including $175 million for Rental Assistance for Families in Transition — or RAFT — as the state’s primary rental assistance program is known. That’s $75 million more than Monday’s announcement of $100 million and even that figure includes about $30 million that has already been allocated in the state budget and previous emergency rounds, said Stefanie Coxe, executive director of the Regional Housing Network.
“We’re very pleased to have it but we’re going to continue to monitor the burn rate on that money,” Coxe said. “All the projections are showing that the need is significantly greater.”
Coxe and others who have been involved in talks with Baker’s office are hopeful that mediation and other changes to the eviction process will mean fewer tenants wind up faced with losing their homes. The rental market, particularly in Greater Boston, is soft right now, and some experts say landlords will have extra incentive to work with struggling tenants — especially if they can tap rental assistance funds — rather than move to push them out.
Landlord groups generally cheered the news, though they, too, said more funds would help.
“Building owners have worked tirelessly to ensure people can stay safe in their homes through the COVID pandemic," said Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. “We need leaders to continue to find new and significant ways to support struggling tenants and property owners who can’t keep up with their bills as federal support runs out.”
There appears little prospect, right now, for rent relief from Washington. But a federal eviction moratorium, launched last month by the Centers for Disease Control, could help some tenants through the end of the year — though housing advocates here warn it is far less comprehensive than the ban that’s about to expire in Massachusetts. And in Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh last week said that about 25 large landlords had pledged to work with struggling tenants to avoid eviction.
The extra funding will come both from money Massachusetts received under the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus plan passed by Congress in March, and from $1.1 billion in funds that Beacon Hill allocated for COVID needs in July. The Baker administration expects the rent relief funds will last through June.
Meanwhile, some advocates are still pushing for stronger action here. Hundreds of activists rallied outside the State House on Sunday in support of a bill that would block all evictions for 12 months and establish a large rental relief fund. It won a favorable recommendation from the Legislature’s Joint Housing Committee earlier this month, though its path forward on Beacon Hill remains unclear.
Baker has taken no position on that bill. But Monday his top housing officials said they’re hopeful the plan they’re laying out will be enough to ride out this crisis for months to come.
“This package of new and expanded resources will help us reach thousands more households in need,” said Jennifer Maddox, undersecretary for housing and community development, "to prevent evictions and ensure stability for families with children through the end of the school year.”