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Delays and debt mount as state rent relief program strains to meet demand

Kim Landaverde, a senior at Boston Latin School, has been helping her parents apply to the rent relief program.
Kim Landaverde, a senior at Boston Latin School, has been helping her parents apply to the rent relief program.Erin Clark / Globe Staff

After Lucia Guardado and her husband lost their jobs this spring, they could no longer pay the rent on their Chelsea apartment, so she turned to the state for help.

Guardado filled out lengthy forms, dug up Social Security cards and pay stubs, and in May sent in an application for $4,000 in rental assistance. Then she waited. And waited.

"I haven’t heard back on my application,” Guardado said this month, by which point she and her husband owed their landlord more than $8,000. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Cases such as Guardado’s, housing advocates say, highlight a big hole in Governor Charlie Baker’s plan to fend off a massive wave of evictions this winter with $100 million in rental aid, following the Oct. 17 expiration of the statewide eviction ban put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic: The system for distributing that aid is completely overwhelmed.

When Baker let the eviction moratorium expire, he pumped an additional $64 million into a long-running state program called Rental Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT. And he urged judges and mediators to steer eviction cases toward the program, as a way to bail out cash-strapped tenants and landlords alike and avoid putting families on the street.

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But even before courts reopened and thousands of eviction cases — frozen since March — started moving forward again, the RAFT program was struggling to keep up with demand. Since July 1 alone, more than 25,000 requests for aid have come in to the 11 nonprofits the state hires to run the program, according to the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts. They won’t all lead to RAFT applications, but that figure amounts to roughly four times the number of applications approved for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2019. Since April, according to state data, 5,169 households have received $15.5 million in aid.

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Now RAFT is being asked to do even more. A program designed to help renters get through a bad patch for a month or so has become a relief valve of first resort, for most tenants the only way to pay down months of back rent that accumulated during the moratorium and weather a housing crisis that could get even worse in the months to come.

Yet tenants and landlords alike ― as well as the advocates and counselors who work with them ― describe RAFT as strained to the point of bursting, with applications backed up for months, and many languishing due to documentation problems, language barriers, and simple miscommunication.

“You apply, and two or three months later you’re still wondering what’s going on,” said Akola Krishnan, who helps lead a Malden mutual aid society and has worked with dozens of struggling renters looking for aid. “It’s all a mess.”

In Guardado’s case, for example, her application finally moved last week after the Globe inquired about her case to the nonprofit that manages RAFT applications in Chelsea; some paperwork was incomplete, the agency said, and hadn’t been filed. The landlord received $4,000, but Guardado and her husband still owed more, and the monthly rent of $1,600 is set to rise $100 on Nov. 1. Now they follow news of the eviction moratorium, while scraping together work — warehouse shifts for her, odd construction jobs for him — as they can.

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“It’s not even a part-time job, really,” Guardado said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Part of the trouble, say people familiar with the program, is that RAFT was built for a different time.

Designed to help tenants with a short-term loss of income stave off homelessness, the program has long required extensive documentation — from pay stubs to birth certificates for everyone in the household. Caseworkers might spend weeks going back and forth with tenants and landlords, gathering the needed paperwork. Now demand has dramatically increased, and renters are tapping into RAFT both to pay off back rent and to secure their apartments for months to come.

“We need two things,” said Stefanie Coxe, executive director of the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts, which represents the agencies that manage RAFT. “We need the resources to staff up to pandemic-level demand. And we need to streamline the process.”

The state says it’s trying to do that by reducing paperwork. For instance, the program now allows applicants to provide Social Security numbers, instead of producing their actual cards, and soon will allow them to simply testify they are out of work, and then use state data — instead of pay stubs or a letter from their former employer — to verify that. Baker is providing $6.5 million to hire housing counselors, and has increased the annual cap on how much a landlord can receive to $10,000, from $4,000 — contingent on a promise not to evict for six months.

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That should make a difference, said Steve Farrell, chief operating officer at Metro Housing Boston, which oversees RAFT in 26 cities and towns in and around Boston. Whether it will be enough is hard to know.

“It’s all a function of demand, and the franticness of this housing crisis that we’re in,” said Farrell, whose agency has doubled its roster of caseworkers and plans to hire more. “We need to help these families get current on their rent.”

Brittany Thomas sees the human cost of those delays. The East Boston housing activist has helped about 25 families apply to RAFT — many of them Spanish-speaking. Most, she said, are still waiting for a response, and remain in limbo with their landlords. That uncertainty, on top of shaky job situations, closed schools, and worries about contracting COVID-19, create a heavy burden for many people. Some worry their landlords will tire of waiting for money from RAFT, and move to evict them. And then what?

“It’s overwhelming, frankly,” Thomas said. “These families are already stressed looking for work, and everything else.”

One of the applicants Thomas is helping is Jessica, who asked her last name not be used to avoid angering her landlord. She has been unable to pay rent on the three-bedroom where she lives in East Boston with her children and her mother after losing her job in March. Making the situation worse is that two tenants who sublet rooms in Jessica’s apartment have moved out. Jessica eventually found a new job, but it pays less than her old one, and doesn’t come with regular hours.

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“I make around $350 a week,” she said. “It’s just not enough.”

With Thomas' help, Jessica received $4,000 in RAFT money. It went straight to her landlord; he didn’t even tell her at first, she said. She still owes $2,400 to him, and the total climbs higher each month. Now that RAFT has been expanded to provide $10,000, she’s planning to apply again, even as she looks for a cheaper apartment.

“I’m really stressed,” Jessica said. “I’m sad, and nervous. Sometimes I get toothaches from how much I’m thinking about all this.”

Many in the housing industry doubt the $100 million Baker has put toward the RAFT program will be enough. As the eviction moratorium drew to an end, tenant and landlord advocates jointly called for $175 million, pointing to a recent report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimating a $40 million gap each month between what laid-off workers statewide collect in unemployment and what they owe in rent. Other studies have warned of the potential for tens of thousands of evictions in the coming months.

“So many people are thinking that this is going to be the lifeline,” said Helen Matthews, spokesperson for tenant advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana. “There’s no way it’s going to be anywhere near what we need.”

And that’s if people can even access it.

Kim Landaverde’s family has been waiting since July for $4,000 to cover two months back rent from when her father lost his job in the spring. A senior at Boston Latin School, Landaverde has been handling the paperwork for her parents, who don’t speak English, e-mailing their caseworker and holding off the landlord — all while managing high school, college applications, and a part-time job at City Life.

Her parents are both working again, Landaverde said, so they’ve resumed paying rent. But that debt still looms over them.

“As young people, you put your faith in the government,” she said. “But this is ridiculous. It’s really disappointing.”


Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.