A prominent legal advocacy group in Boston is raising the alarm about the state’s beleaguered rent-relief program, even as eviction cases in Massachusetts are on the rise.
Lawyers for Civil Rights on Thursday sent a letter to Governor Charlie Baker outlining concerns about lengthy processing delays facing applicants for Rental Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT, who are in danger of being forced from their apartments over unpaid rent. The six-page letter, which describes several at-risk Boston-area renters who have waited months for aid, demands a meeting with the Baker administration and raises the prospect of a lawsuit if conditions do not improve.
“The systemic failures of the RAFT program are causing significant harm and distress to the very people that the program is supposed to be helping,” wrote LCR’s lawyers.
For months, advocates for both tenants and landlords have voiced concerns about delays accessing RAFT, which provides up to $10,000 in rental relief to people who have lost jobs or income. Demand for assistance has exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Applicants ― and counselors who work with them ― described lost applications and monthslong waits for help, during which time their unpaid back rent often grew.
In October, when the state’s eviction moratorium ended, Baker beefed up the program, allocating roughly $100 million to it through next June and adding funding for the agencies that administer it around Massachusetts to hire more caseworkers. But with eviction cases starting to move forward again, and housing courts encouraging landlords and tenants to apply for RAFT to avoid eviction, backlogs have grown even larger.
Metro Housing Boston, which manages the program in 29 cities and towns in Greater Boston, said it’s working through a backlog that at one point reached 8,000 cases. The agency has hired about 50 new caseworkers and has 1,300 cases ready for them to process when they’re done with training. Metro Housing is also working closely with a wide range of community groups to find and help at-risk tenants, Communications Manager Jeff Landis said, and encourages tenants threatened with eviction to seek legal help.
On Thursday, Stefanie Coxe, executive director of the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts, which represents Metro Housing and the eight other agencies that manage RAFT, said her agency is working with state officials to continue streamlining the program’s onerous application process
“We need to get as much money in the hands of as many people who need it as quickly as possible,” Coxe said in an e-mail. “We still have a ways to go on this but appreciate the steps that have been taken thus far.”
Still, more needs to be done, said Lawyers for Civil Rights.
They’re urging the state to send letters to all pending RAFT applicants by Dec. 31 — when a federal eviction moratorium protecting many renters expires — updating them on the status of their application. And going forward, they want applications to be processed in 10 days. The current delays, they said, risk violating the due process and equal protection clauses in the 14th Amendment, and might cause landlords to evict tenants if they don’t think RAFT money will come through.
“This lack of notice and extreme delay is highly problematic,” they wrote. “With no RAFT funds received, many landlords are increasingly turning to the eviction process after months of waiting on state action.”
Last week, new eviction cases for nonpayment hit a high for the year, according to data reported by the state court system.
A Baker spokesman had no immediate comment. Lawmakers last week advanced a state budget that included an increase in funding for RAFT and rules that would simplify the application process and delay evictions for tenants who have a pending application. That bill is awaiting a final vote on Beacon Hill.