MALDEN — For 25 years, Irma found steady work as a nanny. Then, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, the family she worked for no longer felt comfortable with her taking the T to their house.
Without a car, she lost her job. As an undocumented immigrant, she couldn’t receive unemployment. The bills mounted. Food. Utilities. And rent, so much rent. By late last year, Irma — who didn’t want her last name published because of her immigration status — owed $13,000 on the one-bedroom apartment she rents in Malden.
Then, on the verge of calamity, she found help.
With the assistance of a local mutual aid society — Malden Neighbors Helping Neighbors — Irma cobbled together enough money to stay afloat: one month’s rent from the city, $1,000 from a local social service agency, and another $4,000 from a state rental aid program that came with a promise her landlord couldn’t evict her for months. Just before Christmas, a nonprofit working with the Malden Redevelopment Authority paid off the rest of her back rent, part of an ambitious city program to keep Malden residents in their homes.
Dealing with the flurry of applications was practically a full-time job, Irma said. But she still has a home and is resolved to making a full recovery.
“I’m hoping I can continue to pay rent until I get vaccinated and can get back to work,” she said. “I feel really thankful. Blessed.”
As the pandemic nears the one-year mark, one of the biggest worries about its economic fallout hasn’t come to pass ― so far. There have been relatively few evictions in Massachusetts; since a bump up during the first weeks after the state’s eviction ban ended in October, the number of new filings for eviction has fallen steadily. According to state courts data, new cases for nonpayment of rent in 2021 are about 40 percent below the pace of the same period last year, just before the pandemic threw hundreds of thousands of people, many of them working-class renters, out of work.
There are a number of reasons why the widely anticipated wave of evictions has yet to arise.
A broad federal moratorium, enacted by President Trump in September and extended last month by President Biden, has kept many tenants at risk of eviction from being put on the street. Also, the Baker administration has ramped up rental aid and ordered state housing courts to encourage mediation over eviction. But perhaps most important, cities and towns have launched an array of programs to help tenants and landlords alike.
Perhaps no community in Massachusetts has done more on that front than Malden.
Over the last few months, the city of 60,000 has poured resources into staving off evictions. It’s provided legal aid to tenants in housing court, negotiated with large landlords, and tapped federal COVID aid for a city rent-relief program. The city also has an eviction moratorium — one of just three Boston-area cities with one — which aims to ensure no one is put on the street at least until after the pandemic has been quelled.
“There’s not one thing that’s going to solve this,” said Alex Pratt, community development director at the Malden Redevelopment Authority, who is spearheading the effort. “We really needed to step up and address a whole array of housing needs.”
To do that, Malden partnered with social service agencies that have deep roots in the city, organizations familiar with the people who need assistance. Housing activists and ad hoc volunteer groups that have sprung up during the pandemic helped steer struggling renters to city programs too.
“There are massive numbers of people in need, but not necessarily the infrastructure or the relationships in the community to get help out fast,” said Laura Rosi, chief executive of the Malden-based homelessness prevention nonprofit Housing Families. “We were able to do it because we were already there.”
That came in especially handy last fall, when Mayor Gary Christenson decided to put $500,000 the city had coming in federal relief toward rental aid. The unorthodox move needed state approval, Pratt said, which came a couple of days before Thanksgiving. All the money had to be distributed by year’s end.
“For us, that was a massive challenge,” Pratt said. “We’ve never run a rental assistance program before.”
But the city teamed up with Housing Families and with Just-A-Start Corp., another social service agency active in Malden, tapping their client lists. It reached out to churches and food pantries to get the word out, and it made sure that applications were translated into six languages.
“Malden is one of the most diverse communities in Greater Boston,” said Angie Liou, executive director of Asian Community Development Corporation, one of several groups that works with Malden’s large immigrant communities. “The city was great in terms of proactively thinking about that.”
All that outreach, and all those carefully cultivated relationships, made a difference. The city’s programs have helped about 350 households pay their rent, compared with 82 Malden residents who accessed the state’s overwhelmed rental aid program during the second half of 2020, according to Pratt. The blitz in December enabled 133 households to clear their rent debt for all of last year, funding an average of $4,630 in back payments.
That was a life saver for Jean, a laid-off health care industry project manager who was looking for work when COVID-19 arrived. By year’s end, she had long since exhausted unemployment, drained her retirement savings ― and was still behind on rent. Her landlord was sympathetic, Jean said, but had bills to pay, too. Eviction was on the horizon.
“I’ve never been homeless. I don’t know what happens. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with your stuff,” said Jean, who asked that her last name not be used because of her ongoing job search. “I do know you need an Internet connection to find a job. I can’t even imagine what’s that’s like when you don’t have a place to live.”
In December, she heard about Malden’s rent relief program. She called Housing Families, and it helped her put together an application in just a few days. By the end of December, her landlord was paid off, and Jean was OK again, at least temporarily.
That money also has helped landlords. Malden cut deals with several large apartment-building owners to pay down half of tenants’ rent debt if the landlords agreed to forgive the other half. That allowed dozens of tenants to stay put. It also said any landlord whose tenant received rent relief through Housing Families for 2020 would have to agree not to file an eviction case for 2021 rent until at least April.
Boosting landlords makes a lot of sense, said Nichole Mossalam, who with her husband owns a two-family building in Malden. Many — especially mom-and-pops like them — rely on rental income to pay the mortgage and, often, their own bills. When Mossalam lost her job last spring, and then her tenants fell behind in rent, it put the couple in a financial squeeze.
“If our tenants can’t pay rent and we can’t make things work, we end up on the street, too. Everybody loses,” she said. “Providing rental assistance really doubles your impact.”
At the same time, Mossalam said, she keeps getting texts from investors offering to buy her house for more than it’s probably worth. Other small landlords in Malden say they have received similar offers. The demand reflects the broader pressures on the city, which has emerged in recent years as a relatively affordable alternative to Medford and Somerville, just a short Orange Line ride from downtown.
That has brought a wave of investment, but also higher rents, which risks pricing out the working-class and immigrant residents who have long called Malden home. The pandemic, said Luke Deems of the Malden Renters Coalition, threatens to supercharge that activity.
Deems praised Christenson’s efforts to blunt the wave of evictions, but said the city must do more long-term to build and fund affordable housing, and to require low-cost units in new private development, much as Somerville, Cambridge, and Boston do. Christenson said he agrees, and predicted Malden’s housing challenges will last for years.
“This is something we’ll be working on for the rest of our careers,” he said. “This will be the issue.”
For now, the job is simply to keep people in their homes. It’s an all-hands-on-deck affair.
Christine, a single mother who asked that her last name not be used, found herself deep in arrears on rent after she had to stop working as a supervisor at a drug store to stay home with her three children. Following months spent “super stressed, super anxious, and super broke,” she found Malden Neighbors Helping Neighbors, the volunteer mutual aid group. It hooked her up with a food pantry, diapers, and heating aid. The group also cajoled the state into finally processing her rental aid application. Just before Christmas, Christine’s landlord received a check for $10,000 from the state to cover back rent, and in return promised not to evict her for months.
After so many tumultuous months, the newfound stability means everything to her, she said.
“I’m OK now,” Christine said. “I’m making it. That help really changed my life.”