A Landlord’s Guide to Massachusetts’ Residential Assistance for Families in Transition Program

By Kimberly Rau, MassLandlords Writer

Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT), a short-term Massachusetts rental subsidy program, is designed to help families who are at risk of becoming homeless transition into stable housing. The program can also be used to help families who are already homeless pay for necessary costs to get into a house or apartment. RAFT, which has been around since 2005, has helped many families with things like security deposits, rent and furniture since its inception. However, as it stands now, it would be difficult for many participants to see lasting benefits through RAFT, suggesting the program needs more in order to be truly effective.

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RAFT can assist families with emergency rental situations, but it lacks the long-term stability of permanent rental subsidies.
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In this article, we’ll look at what RAFT is, who it is designed to benefit, how it affects landlords and the areas where it could be doing more for families in need.

A brief history of RAFT

Funded by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), RAFT is described as “a homelessness prevention program…[that] provides short-term financial assistance to low-income families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.” In other words, it is flexible funding that can be used for a variety of housing-related expenses, depending on the needs of the individual family.

RAFT was first piloted in 2005, with a budget of $2 million for that first year. The state officially adopted the program in 2006, and since then, RAFT funding has continually gone up, with funding for the 2019 fiscal year hitting $20 million.

Initially, families accessing RAFT funds received between $1,500 and $3,000 as a one-time payment, according to literature published by Metro Housing Boston. Eventually, that number increased, and families were able to access up to $4,000 in funds, with the possibility of reapplying after 12 months if they needed additional assistance.

What does RAFT do?

Residential Assistance for Families in Transition could pay for moving costs, paying owed rent or utilities, security deposits or first/last month’s rent, among other uses. This could be in the form of emergency rent assistance to avoid eviction (or help paying rent going forward, if the family applying is in search of housing or has already been evicted). RAFT funds could go towards paying a security deposit, first/last month’s rent, even furniture, though there are caps on how much RAFT money can be used for those purchases.

Who is Eligible for RAFT?

First, according to mass.gov, families must be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. This could include families who are facing eviction. Families must meet income guidelines as well: No less than 50 percent of RAFT’s funding must go to families with an income at or below 30% of the area’s median income (AMI). No more than 50 percent of the funding can go to families with an income that is 30–50% of the AMI.

If a family meets the income guidelines, they must then be screened using an assessment developed by DCHD. Those administering the screening have some discretion in determining eligibility based on the tool. Administrators will also look at why the family is homeless or at risk of becoming so. This could include loss of income or increased expenses for those families in the higher income group (30–50% AMI).

If a family is eligible at this point, they must prove that the assistance they receive from RAFT will “stabilize the current housing situation.” In other words, a family applying for RAFT must show that after the funds are applied, they have enough income to either obtain new housing, remain in their current housing or “otherwise avoid homelessness.” MassLandlords interprets this to mean that a family who was facing eviction could, for example, obtain RAFT funding to get current on their rent and remain in housing, rent a new place, or use the money to pay court-ordered debts and then move in with family. However, a family more than $4,000 in arrears with their landlord would have a hard time using RAFT funding to stave off eviction. Since such a family is beyond stabilization with RAFT alone, such a family would likely not be eligible for any RAFT assistance at all. Other funding would need to be lined up first.

Families who are living in emergency assistance (EA) shelters and families already receiving Section 8 housing assistance are not eligible for RAFT.

The mass.gov frequently asked questions about RAFT page includes the query, “Can a person who has a Section 8 and is moving from one unit to another unit receive RAFT?” The answer was, “Only if they are being evicted and have a ‘Writ of Summary Process’.  DHCD does not provide relocation money for families who are already in the Section 8 program.”

Though mass.gov is not clear on whether current participants in the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP) are RAFT-eligible, wording from the 2020 RAFT administrative plan states that “If a family is using RAFT to move into a unit with a subsidy, proof of the total contract rent and of the tenant’s rent share must be provided. Depending on which agency or housing authority administers the voucher or subsidy, this may take the form of a lease or a rent share letter.”

This verbiage implies that families who receive rental vouchers may also receive RAFT funds, at least under certain circumstances.

How does RAFT Work?

As discussed earlier, families who receive RAFT funding can use that money for a variety of purposes to avoid becoming homeless or to find housing if they are currently homeless. They can use it for first and last months’ rent, a security deposit or even furniture (furniture expenses are capped at $1,000). They can also use the money for utility bills, or to get current on owed rent/utilities.

One important caveat is that families can obtain no more than $4,000 from RAFT within a 12-month period. They are eligible to reapply after that time, but must wait 12 months from their first received payment.

How to apply for RAFT:

People applying for RAFT must do so in the region where they intend to use their RAFT benefits. Therefore, going through a regional Housing Consumer Education Center to complete an intake assessment is the first step to accessing RAFT funding. A list of regional agencies can be found at the Massachusetts Housing Consumer Education Centers site.

Since each HCEC has its own website, we have tried to list the RAFT application links here:

If any link doesn’t work, visit the Housing Consumer Education Centers site, find the regional HCEC page, and then tell us which link to change.

The intake form does not need to be completed in person, however. If an individual needs assistance in completing their form, mass.gov reports that the regional agencies can provide help.

Once someone receives initial approval, they can complete an application. Applicants must bring photo identification and proof of current income for all adult members of the household. Additional documentation that backs up the applicant’s claim for needing funding may also be required.

If a family is determined to be ineligible for benefits, they may reapply after 30 days.

Note that you as the landlord must provide information for the RAFT application. Work with your renters to provide your part of the information as soon as requested.

When can someone apply for RAFT?

A renter can apply as soon as there is unpaid rent. There is no longer any need to wait to receive a court summons or a notice to quit.

If someone is approved for RAFT, when will they get funds?

There does not appear to be a clear answer for when funding is received, however, the first payment of the benefit must be used within 60 days of an applicant being determined eligible for RAFT money (barring documented administrative delays or extenuating circumstances).

If someone is at risk of being evicted, do they have to give their landlord RAFT funding?

The answer is no, RAFT funding can be spent on any housing needs that will keep someone from becoming homeless. A tenant who is late on rent could sign up for the program, receive funds, and use it to put down a security deposit on another housing unit elsewhere.

Is RAFT better than Section 8? What about HomeBASE?

People who are in Section 8 housing are not eligible to apply for RAFT funds. However, of the two options, Section 8 seems to be the preferable program to utilize if possible (Section 8 waitlists tend to be 10 years long). Section 8 is permanent (as long as the recipient remains eligible for funding), and it guarantees the landlord will receive rent. RAFT is capped at $4,000 per 12-month period which is barely enough to cover two months’ rent in many Massachusetts municipalities. The two programs also serve different purposes. Section 8 is a housing subsidy, and RAFT is meant to be a short-term cash infusion to help families in a temporary difficult spot. RAFT monies are only awarded if the applicant can demonstrate a way to remain in housing after the RAFT funds have been expended.

HomeBASE is a program for families who are experiencing homelessness and are living in shelters. It can provide funds for the same housing-related expenses that RAFT covers. However, there is a $10,000 cap in funding, and any money that a family has received from RAFT counts towards that. If a family had used RAFT funds to stave off becoming homeless, but in the end were not able to remain in housing, they could see less HomeBASE funding later on.

Families living in emergency shelters are not eligible for RAFT funds, and in theory, RAFT is the superior program, as the goal of the Commonwealth is to keep families out of shelters in the first place. Families who have received HomeBASE funding may also be eligible for RAFT.

RAFT COVID

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and response, the state of Massachusetts has made an additional $5 million available for RAFT. This additional funding program has slightly different eligibility standards than the regular RAFT program, and may be used for mortgage foreclosures and loss of utilities, not just evictions.

Because the eligibility standards for this program are different, tenants who may not have previously been eligible for RAFT are encouraged to re-apply. RAFT COVID, like the traditional program, has an assistance cap of $4,000, and recipients must have an income of up to 50% AMI (60% if the tenant is at risk of becoming homeless or is in a situation involving domestic violence). And, like the traditional program, one way of proving eligibility can be by providing a month’s worth of pay stubs. But if the reason why the tenant is at risk of losing their housing or utilities is COVID-related, they may be eligible for this program with a written self-certification.

To document COVID-related income loss, applicants may provide a letter from their employer showing lost or reduced hours, or documentation of loss of childcare (requiring the applicant to have to stop working). They can also provide a copy of their application for unemployment insurance, documentation of loss of insurance or documentation of the death of a household member who contributed to the household’s income. If none of these are available, the applicant can self-certify.

RAFT and mortgage forbearance

In Massachusetts, the eviction and foreclosure moratorium is set to expire on October 17, 2020. Homeowners who owner-occupy a dwelling with 1–4 rental units can delay mortgage payments for up to 180 days without fear of foreclosure if they have lost income due to the pandemic. Homeowners should contact their lenders for assistance and guidance regarding what to do when the moratorium is lifted, but should also consider applying for RAFT funds to help pay their mortgage.

However, even after the foreclosure moratorium is lifted and the pandemic is a thing of the past, homeowners who meet RAFT income guidelines should remember that RAFT is not just for renters. Homeowners in danger of losing their housing because they cannot pay the rent are also eligible to apply for RAFT funds. Both the traditional RAFT and RAFT COVID funds may be used toward mortgage arrears and mortgage stipends. A statement showing the mortgage is in arrears is required for money already owed to lenders.

Residential Assistance for Families in Transition Conclusion

RAFT is a one-time or as-needed subsidy currently in vogue, with none of the long-term stabilizing power of permanent rental subsidy, but with more responsive application timeframes. If your renters are in a tough spot, it is worth checking to see if RAFT funds are available and if your renters qualify.

Example of Subsidy Applicability (Greater Springfield)

Additional Resources

Past Presentations

Webinar: Rental Assistance Application Process RAFT ERMA

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