Many of the renters who live in informal housing across the state — in attics and pantries and subleased bedrooms — have borne the brunt of the pandemic.
They live in working-class and immigrant communities like Lynn and Chelsea. Some are now thousands of dollars in debt and are in most acute need of the nearly $500 million in federal funds set aside in December for rental assistance in Massachusetts.
But for scores of these precariously housed tenants, that rental aid remains out of reach — a symptom of what advocates and renters say is a disconnect between the formal requirements of housing assistance and the informal ways that many poor people live.
“People are falling through the cracks,” said Rose Webster-Smith, lead organizer with the housing justice group Springfield No One Leaves.
Even before COVID-19 struck, these residents existed on the margins of a housing market in which high rents and stagnant wages pushed tenants into crowded dwellings, advocates say. Tenants who qualify for the state program can get up to $10,000. But others find themselves in an impossible bind: unable to pay rent and also unable to prove they are eligible for aid because of their off-the-books living arrangements.
One of the major barriers to securing aid is that these residents often rely on informal middlemen to navigate the region’s housing markets.
That was the case with Noemy, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of her immigration status. Unable to afford a full apartment, she found a single room to rent for her family in a three-bedroom in Lynn. Like many renters who are immigrants, she subleased the room from a tenant-in-charge, known in Spanish as an encargado. The encargado also lives in the home and deals directly with the landlord.
She and her husband and her two daughters shared the room; they split the kitchen and bathroom with the apartment’s other tenants. Every month, she paid $700 to the encargado, who paid the landlord. She wasn’t on the lease — a familiar arrangement for an affordable room.
But then last spring she lost her housecleaning job and her husband lost his house painting job. Without income, she attempted to apply for the state’s main rental aid program, Residential Assistance for Families in Transition.
That’s when she hit a wall. The aid program requires landlord participation and sends aid checks directly to landlords. Noemy had no idea who her landlord was and when she asked, the encargado refused to tell her.
“There were no bills in [the landlord’s] name,” she said through a Spanish interpreter. “I couldn’t find her contact information anywhere.”
Ultimately, Noemy was not able to apply for aid.
That’s been a common experience among informal tenants trying to track down the documentation needed to apply for rental assistance, advocates said. It’s another obstacle in a long list faced by low-income immigrants, many of whom served as frontline workers and were disproportionately sickened during the pandemic.
“They’re just not things that a lot of people who rent shared space have access to,” said Isaac Simon Hodes, director of Lynn United for Change, an organization that helped Noemy and her family eventually move into a small apartment of their own.
For tenants on the margins, to get a landlord involved is to risk being thrown out — exactly what they’re trying to avoid.
“Oftentimes, the owner of the property doesn’t know what’s happening, or they don’t want to acknowledge it’s happening,” said the Rev. Edgar Gutierrez-Duarte of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Chelsea. The priest sees many tenants in this situation because, with nowhere else to turn, they come to him for help. He draws from a discretionary church fund that is rapidly dwindling.
Some advocates have suggested sending rental funds directly to tenants. But the state is not currently considering changing the payment process, according to a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development. And federal guidelines require that federal rental funds flow through landlords. Only after making serious attempts to notify the landlord can the funds be given directly to the tenant.
“We still have to go through the process of contacting the landlord, which still would create the very problem that folks are trying to avoid,” said Stefanie Coxe, executive director of the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts, which represents the agencies that manage RAFT.
Sending money to the landlord instead of directly to the tenant is also intended to protect tenants, Coxe said, because landlords have to agree not to evict in exchange for the aid.
The state has tried to make the funds accessible. Unlike many similar programs across the country, the state program does not require a formal lease. And roommates can apply separately, according to a state spokesperson.
But people who rent from and live with a tenant-in-charge have had a tough time successfully doing so.
Lilian, who asked to be referred to by her first name because of an open immigration case, rented a room in an apartment in Lynn from an encargada, an acquaintance from work. Lilian and her 12-year-old daughter shared one bedroom in a house with other tenants. Then the hotel where she worked as a housekeeper closed because of COVID, and Lilian and the encargada stopped getting along.
Lilian wanted to apply for rental aid to help pay for her room, but she was advised that she would need to include everyone in the house on the application. She couldn’t convince the encargado to join.
“The only thing that I wanted was a little bit of help for me to pay for my bedroom,” Lilian said through a Spanish interpreter. Unable to pay the rent herself or to get aid, she ended up moving out, doubling up with a cousin in another precarious setup.
“Ideally I would like to rent a small apartment just for me and my daughter,” said Lilian, who has found part-time work as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant. But the costs of moving to her own apartment are too high without a regular job.
So she remains stuck on the fringes of the housing market, searching for another room to sublease.