In September 2021, Kim Bertelson applied for government help to cover four months of rent on her Brighton studio, almost $8,000. The process was smooth, seamless even — one less thing to worry about as Bertelson navigated finding a job in the midst of the pandemic.
A year later, she applied again.
This time, the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) swiftly declined to cover Bertelson’s two months of unpaid rent. The agency said she needed a Notice To Quit, a legal document from a landlord that starts an eviction proceeding, to qualify. Without it, she has “no eligible housing crisis,” the agency said in an e-mail. No crisis, no money.
“How is that possible?” said Bertelson, who was laid off when Verizon moved her job to Florida in early 2020 and has lived off unemployment assistance and temporary jobs since. “I’m on the verge of being evicted. The woman at my landlord’s office told me I’m ‘on a list.’ ”
Advocates are unsurprised by her dilemma. The money and legal protections ushered in by the Baker administration to fend off a feared “tsunami of evictions” during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic are disappearing in dribs and drabs, making it harder for people such as Bertelson to stay in their homes.
Many of the changes were triggered after the $846 million Massachusetts received from federal COVID relief funding began to run dry. The state closed applications for that money in April.
That leaves a much smaller and less generous state program, called Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT, as the main source of housing aid. It has $210 million available for the fiscal year ending next June.
With the federal fund mostly gone, the income threshold for applicants reverted to the much lower state one: 50 percent or less of the area median income ($70,100 for a household of four in Boston), compared to 80 percent or $111,850, under the federal program. And RAFT now requires applicants to have received an eviction warning from their landlords.
It is also stingier with distribution.
Households can no longer use funds to cover more than one month of upcoming rent, for example. The federal program, by contrast, could be put toward up to 18 months of both overdue rent and upcoming payments, as well as $2,500 of utility bills. It had no set dollar limit on the amount of aid, while RAFT caps relief off at $10,000.
In a statement, the DHCD said the amendments are necessary to preserve waning funds for “households most in need.”
But housing attorneys and advocates said the changes feel like a step back from 2020, when officials tweaked complicated aid programs to reduce the documentation requirements. It leaves thousands of tenants who are grappling with enduring pandemic issues, inflation, and sky-high rents at risk of losing shelter.
Since the rules tightened, eviction filings have crept up, and the number of households helped dropped sharply from 23,000 in May to 9,000 in August, according to state data. While economic conditions have improved for many, inflation and rising rents mean some tenants are as much at risk as they were two years ago.
“We’re moving in the wrong direction,” said Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, “particularly for households with no leverage, who may not feel like they have any power or agency to push back.”
‘The power of the NTQ’
The most drastic change to rent relief is the one Bertelson faced: the requirement tenants receive a Notice To Quit.
It’s the first step in Massachusetts’ legal process of eviction. If tenants submit an application without one, they are all but guaranteed to be turned down within weeks. That’s a sharp reversal from the past two years, when applicants could provide other “proof of arrears,” such as a ledger from a landlord confirming they’re behind on rent.
Prior to the pandemic, RAFT required a court summons for eligibility. So DHCD sees the notice policy as “a middle ground” between the more freewheeling COVID era and the pre-pandemic system, a spokesperson said.
But advocates say the requirement is already inflicting harm.
Legally, notices are not enough to boot tenants from their homes, said Andrea Park, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. Yet most are threaded with strong legalistic language that threatens eviction. As a result, she added, some tenants leave their apartments in fear, rather than staying put and fighting.
Other landlords are reluctant to file notices in the hopes of avoiding an eviction proceeding, which can cost thousands and drag out for weeks, if not months. But refusing to provide the notice bars tenants, and ultimately landlords, from relief at all.
Douglas Quattrochi, executive director of the trade association MassLandlords, added that many landlords wait between six and nine months to issue a notice, by which time tenants may owe far more than the $10,000 RAFT limit. Even those who receive help are left in a precarious position.
“The whole system is broken, and the DHCD requirement shows how broken it is,” Quattrochi said.
And for tenants, there’s also the stain of an eviction on their record.
Landlords are required to send a copy of a Notice To Quit to the state, and getting a notice dramatically increases the chances of a tenant facing an actual eviction proceeding, which lives on indefinitely in court filings as a black mark.
Often, the processing time for a RAFT application takes longer than the duration of the notice; in August, it was an average of 35 days. So even if a tenant is ultimately approved for aid and receives relief weeks later, they are stuck with a record.
That’s why Miriam, an Everett resident who declined to share her last name, looked for an alternative after RAFT turned her down in September. A mother of three, she refused to ask her landlord for an eviction notice in order to access $800 for her unpaid rent. Instead, Miriam contacted the Everett Public Housing Authority, which manages her apartment, and set up a payment plan.
“It was a lifesaver. It was everything,” said Miriam, 32. “But what about people who don’t have that choice? People who have to get this [notice] and be evicted and live with this forever?”
Park, the Mass. Law Reform attorney, said the state failed to consider how requiring the notice could trigger other problems, such as the impact on tenants’ credit scores and their ability to secure housing in the future.
“There’s this perception that it’s just a letter,” she added. “But that’s underselling the power of the NTQ.”
The people ‘denied, denied, denied’
Even during the pandemic, the rent relief system was far from perfect, bogged down by bureaucratic delays and at times straining to meet demand. But the federal program was flexible enough that low-income and immigrant households could access funds relatively easily, said the Rev. Myrlande DesRosiers, the director of the Everett Haitian Community Center.
The new RAFT requirements make it nearly impossible for tenants who live in unconventional situations — extra bedrooms or couches with informal leases — to get help. Their landlords, DesRosiers said, rarely issue notices or cooperate with the relief system.
“What we’ve seen so far from people is fear. Total fear,” DesRosiers added. “They are being denied, denied, denied.”
Though problems abound, advocates acknowledge that Massachusetts went beyond the call of duty to help households during the pandemic.
Rachel Heller, executive director of the Citizens Housing & Planning Association, said Massachusetts stretched federal dollars to the end when “not every state had that level of commitment.”
Moreover, the state-level RAFT fund is much larger today than its pre-pandemic level of $20 million. Plus, lawmakers are making permanent one change that protects tenants from eviction if they have a pending RAFT application.
But now, many say, is not the time to pull support. A band of organizations in May urged state lawmakers to put $600 million toward a modified program that melded a few tenets of the federal effort with RAFT. That didn’t happen.
It makes little sense to Michael Kane, the director of the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants, who noted that the state is awash with a $5 billion budget surplus and leftover American Rescue Plan dollars from the White House.
If we’re going to try something bold, he suggested, try today.
“Putting on punitive requirements is counterproductive. It’s nickel-and-diming poor people to save the money the state doesn’t need to save,” Kane said. “We should have learned something from the pandemic. Period. Instead, here we are.”
Globe correspondent Camilo Fonseca contributed to this report.