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A ‘debt crisis’ among renters mounts in Massachusetts

Marina Maldonado tried to convince her 2-year-old son, Vladimir, to eat his dinner while they sat in the kitchen of their East Boston home. Maldonado and her husband were both laid off because of the coronavirus and the family has struggled to pay the $2,000 monthly rent.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

CHELSEA — Each month, Sandra Cruz receives a new letter from her landlord. The numbers change, usually for the worse, but the message stays the same.

“As of today, you are 4 months behind in the rent,” read the note from early August.

After Cruz received the maximum amount of rental assistance at the time from the state, a new letter arrived.

“We applied the payment to your account,” the property management company wrote in September. “After this payment, you owe $5,000 in outstanding rent."

Cruz’s income vanished when she lost her restaurant job in March as the coronavirus bore down on Massachusetts. Like thousands of other unemployed renters in the state, she and her two daughters were protected from eviction by one of the strongest moratorium laws in the country — but they were still on the hook for ultimately paying all the rent, bills that far exceeded what the state’s rental aid program could cover.

Now, six months later, the eviction moratorium is about to end, and many renters and homeowners find themselves staring down thousands of dollars in debt. A new plan announced by Governor Charlie Baker this week might save some, infusing an additional $65 million in rental assistance for a total of $10 million a month through June, and increasing the amount available per family from $4,000 to $10,000 per year.

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But the rental shortfall far exceeds that, housing advocates say. Roughly one in six renters in the state are behind on their rent payments, according to a recent study by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. In October alone, the collective shortfall of only those receiving standard unemployment benefits will be about $40 million. That figure doesn’t include people who are undocumented, self-employed, or working part time.

“The money will run out before the crisis is over, that is for certain,” said Tim Reardon, data services director at MAPC. Reardon noted that it will also take time for programs that distribute the money to scale up, meaning eviction proceedings may begin before tenants and landlords can access the funds.

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Renters like Cruz remain at a terrifying precipice: that money would be a lifeline, if she could get it.

“For me, personally, it would be a huge change,” Cruz said through a Spanish interpreter. “I stay up every night until three o’clock in the morning, thinking, what am I going to do?”

Anxiety has permeated the whole family: Cruz’s 12-year-old daughter has to translate the landlord’s monthly letters from English to Spanish so her mother can read them. Cruz’s landlord declined to comment.

Sandra Cruz nuzzled her daughter Gabby Villata, 8, while Gabby’s older sister Angie helped her with her homework in their Chelsea apartment. Cruz was out of work for six months after getting COVID-19. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“We definitely are in debt crisis — a working class people’s debt crisis," said Lisa Owens, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, a tenants' rights group. “To say [the additional aid] is a drop in the bucket is an understatement.”

The MAPC study estimated some 60,000 renter households in the state fear imminent eviction, an outcome that could drive up coronavirus cases if people are forced into more crowded apartments or onto the street.

“The worse case scenario would be a lot of people ending up losing their homes,” said Tendayi Kapfidze, chief economist at LendingTree, a mortgage aggregator. “Those people have to go somewhere.”

Baker’s plan seeks to prevent that kind of displacement. The state’s main aid program, Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT, will provide up to $10,000 in rental assistance for tenants only on the condition that landlords agree not to evict families with school-age children until June. The plan also earmarks funds for attorneys and mediators to help tenants and landlords work out payment agreements. A weaker federal moratorium, enacted by the CDC, will also protect some renters through December.

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“If it turns out that it’s more than we need, that’s great," Baker said Tuesday. “If it turns out that it’s less than we need, then we’ll figure it out.”

Housing advocates say the latter is far more likely.

There are 2,000 people on a wait list for rental assistance in Chelsea; on average, they are four months behind on rent, according to Norieliz DeJesus, director of policy and organizing at the Chelsea Collaborative. Many of those tenants are undocumented, which means they were ineligible for unemployment or stimulus checks (they are still eligible for rental assistance).

Families have cobbled together temporary solutions each month: exhausting savings accounts, relying on the generosity of friends, and racking up credit card debt.

The constant scramble takes its toll. In East Boston, Marina Maldonado lives with her two young children, her husband, and until recently, her brother, sister-in-law and nephew. In normal times, the two families had crowded into a single apartment in order to pay their $2,000 monthly rent, a relatively affordable rate made possible by the nonprofit Neighborhood of Affordable Housing.

But when the virus hit, all four adults in the apartment were laid off. The rent quickly became impossible to pay.

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“When we saw that we wouldn’t be able to pay the rent, we sat down and we tried to figure out priorities,” Maldonado said through a Spanish interpreter. “It was either we pay the rent or we pay the expenses."

Because of the moratorium, the two families chose to spend what they had on food and utilities. They are now $8,000 behind on rent. Maldonado filled out a RAFT application in the spring, but hasn’t yet been approved, and she doesn’t know whether the governor’s new plan will change her situation.

“We are waiting. We don’t know if we’re going to qualify or not for the aid,” said Maldonado, who said she has begun losing hair from the stress. “We’re in limbo.”

Her landlord, the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, has helped tenants fill out rental aid applications during the pandemic, and said that after the moratorium ends it will work with tenants on payment plans.

The nonprofit has seen the economic crunch firsthand: 31 percent of its units are behind on rent, compared to fewer than 5 percent before the virus, according to Mal Nelson, director of property management. The organization was able to secure a temporary deferment on mortgage payments to help cushion the blow.

For other landlords, too, mounting debt threatens the whole system.

“I’m sure the governor hopes it will be enough, but I don’t think it will be,” said Doug Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords. He called the RAFT money “a huge step in the right direction,” but predicted that some smaller landlords, who provide much of the affordable housing in the state, will still have to sell or go into foreclosure.

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City Life and the Chelsea Collaborative have thrown their support behind legislation that would extend the eviction moratorium for a year and create a housing stability fund to provide aid to both tenants and small landlords. That bill won a favorable recommendation from the Legislature’s Joint Housing Committee earlier this month, but its path forward isn’t clear.

For now, tenants and landlords are unsure whether the new plan is really enough to stave off disaster.

“I try not to think about it,” Cruz said when asked what she might do if she were not able to pay back her debt and faced eviction. Her eyes welled up. “If it’s going to happen, I’ll just wait until it happens.”

Tim Logan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.