I write to inform you of the state of the housing safety net in the commonwealth. The primary message of this letter is that our safety net is working. There are easy but meaningful actions you could take to improve it.
Are Renters Able to Pay Next Month’s Rent?
The most recent data for Massachusetts from the Census Household Pulse Survey indicates that we are in the best position since the pandemic began:
|Confidence to pay next month’s rent||Percent of respondents||Number of respondents|
|Did not report||2%||27,490|
|Payment is deferred with landlord permission||2%||21,809|
|Occupied without rent (e.g., payment is forgiven by landlord)||4%||38,681|
For the 8% who are not confident, the commonwealth continues to process intake for rental assistance.
Do We Have Enough Rental Assistance Allocated?
Roughly, yes. This time last year, MassLandlords estimated that $1 billion would be needed to help navigate the pandemic. As of the most recent federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) allocation, Massachusetts has now had access to just under $900 million in rental assistance. $100 million comes from state funding through the Eviction Diversion Initiative, $437 million comes from the US Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, and $360 million comes from the US American Rescue Plan Act). This money will be available for a while yet.
Of the $437 million allocated to Massachusetts in the December 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (CAA 2021), 65% must be spent by Sep 30, 2021, to avoid United States Treasury claw back. This means 35% will be available through the rest of the fall.
Of the approximately $360 million allocated to Massachusetts in the March 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), 50% must be spent by March 31, 2022, to avoid claw back. This means 50% will remain available into next year.
For any given household, the federal funding now guarantees up to 15 months of rent will be covered. Specifically, 12 months of rent arrears (owed rent), plus 3 months of stipends (future rent) will be paid upon application, with no dollar cap. This funding is available without regard to a renter’s residency status (e.g., undocumented are still qualified).
Are Evictions Being Filed?
Yes, and we must continue to work hard to ensure housing for all. But overall eviction rates are at the low-end of what is statistically “housing crisis normal” prior to the pandemic. Visually, filings appear to be falling.
Unemployment assistance combined with rental assistance is resulting in a very low filing rate relative to the economic disruption that many of us are still experiencing. In other words, considering how bad the economy is for renters, it reflects all of our hard work that filings are not higher than before the pandemic.
Are Landlords Required to Participate in Rental Assistance Programs?
Yes, we are fortunate to live in a state with strong discrimination protections requiring landlords to participate. General Law Chapter 151B Section 4 prevents discrimination on the basis of receiving public assistance, or on any requirement or condition of that program. Case law (DiLiddo 2007) firmly establishes the breadth of this protection. A landlord must fill out the forms, provide their tax documentation, provide a bank account for direct deposit and dismiss cases that are fully paid.
The attorney general has stated that it is discriminatory to refuse to participate in the state safety net. At a webinar on May 13, her office indicated that requests for enforcement were now being received and handled per their normal process.
We have requested that the Department of Housing and Community Development place an advisory statement at the top of all rental assistance forms notifying landlords that participation is required by law. The websites where the applications are hosted now say this.
Will Anything Change Without the CDC Moratorium?
Little if anything will change in Massachusetts, but other states may experience events of national newsworthiness.
The census household pulse survey indicates that not all states have had the same level of housing safety net. Removal of the CDC moratorium may have a noticeable impact in other states.
In Massachusetts, our courts have treated the CDC moratorium as applying only to levies of execution (forced move-outs). This means that any case that a landlord needed to file would have already been filed.
Also, the CDC moratorium covers renters who are applying for rental assistance. We have more than enough rental assistance allocated, and a mature application process. It falls to court mediators, the tenancy preservation program and other services to make sure that renters submit complete applications. When rental assistance arrives, it should be enough to cure all CDC-covered filings (stop the eviction).
We do not expect a sudden increase in Massachusetts filings when the CDC moratorium is either overturned or lapses. Other states may be different.
Will Anything Change Without the State of Emergency?
Little if anything will change in Massachusetts. The legislature enacted mandatory continuances (pauses) for renters in court waiting for a rental assistance application (Chapter 257 of the Acts of 2020). Although this provision will expire when the state of emergency is ended on June 15, the courts are already in the habit of granting continuances by request for any reason, including rental assistance applications.
We do not expect a sudden increase in executions (forced move-outs) when the state of emergency ends.
Is There Anything the Legislature Should be Doing?
Yes. Although our safety net is working in the broadest possible sense, in individual cases many of us are still slipping through the cracks.
The most recently published data from the Department of Housing and Community Development indicate that 57% of all applications for rental assistance are being rejected because of incomplete applications. There is no indication that there is widespread attempted fraud. Rather, there is every indication that renters are being stymied by difficult applications. Those of us without full residency documentation, a high level of English proficiency, or other general assistance are likely not receiving the level of support needed to complete the detailed rental assistance applications.
In response, first it would make sense to keep the courts open. Renters with crushing pandemic-related burdens often cannot be identified and helped until forced to appear in court. Mediation, language access and tenancy preservation, among other court resources, help renters through the lengthy application for rental assistance. Without the courts, there will be far fewer complete applications.
Second, it would make sense to allow landlords of any size to apply for rental assistance on behalf of our renters. Currently, we landlords are allowed to apply on behalf of our renters only if we own 20 units or fewer in the commonwealth. This needlessly penalizes renters who leased up with medium-sized and large landlords. Based on the unpublished work of Henry Gomory at Princeton University, we know that roughly half of all Massachusetts renters are in this category.
Overall, we should be proud of the current state of the Massachusetts housing safety net, and should continue working to ensure that it catches everyone who may fall.
I hope this summary is helpful. Note that our policy team is available to help with any housing related matter.