I like things to work properly, so when my 2005 Toyota Corolla hood refused to close, I didn’t just bungie it down like any normal landlord, I got the latch replaced. And on the drive back from the mechanic to my house, a distance of 1 mile, I passed 68 units of rental housing. Statistically speaking, 12 of these households have needed rental assistance due to the pandemic. But only six of them have received or ever will receive help.
The balance of funds seems to be held back by a state intent on keeping the money for itself through unlawful discrimination. The net result is a loss of affordable housing run by small landlording businesses, plus despair in many Massachusetts homes.
Most Renters Doing Fine
Massachusetts has set aside roughly $1 billion for pandemic rental assistance. The state allocated $100 million in October 2020. Then the United States Consolidated Appropriation Act of Fiscal 2021 gave us $500 million. Then the American Rescue Plan Act gave us another $400 million.
The Census Household Pulse Survey (Week 32) shows 62 percent of Massachusetts renter households have “high confidence” in their ability to pay next month’s rent, and another 14 percent have “moderate confidence.” We are ranked 15th, near states like New York, New Jersey and California with similarly expensive housing.
Well then, fine! Eighty-six percent of renters can pay rent, and it only cost us $152.8 million. As long as we meet minimum spending targets by September 2021 and March 2022, we get to keep whatever of the $900 million in federal money is left. This will offset what we would normally have to appropriate ourselves, likely months to years after the pandemic’s last aftershock.
Except what about the 14 percent?
Since the state of emergency began March 10, 2020, it was clear that the bottom 20 percent of renter households, in terms of economic stability, were the ones who needed help. These are families with many mouths to feed, foreign nationals struggling with our language and customs, those of us living with disabilities and many people of color who are systematically and unfairly held down by the weight of everything. As of the Week 32 Census Household Pulse Survey, Massachusetts had 99,963 such households with “no confidence” or “slight confidence” in their ability to pay next month’s rent. Haven’t any applied? Yes. The state told them, “We need more information.”
A MassLandlords public records request revealed that 5,453 households were “timed out” in May 2021 alone because they couldn’t furnish this additional information before their application expired after two weeks. Other data adds to this picture: Roughly 50 percent of households who have applied over the last eight months have failed to provide (in the eyes of their administrator) information necessary to substantiate their claim.
The application is a dozen pages long, with lots of information required. Surely all of this information is necessary to prevent fraud, right? No, not all.
A Social Security number is still being asked for. Per the state guidelines, this number is not needed except to verify prior W-2 income. To ask up-front serves no legitimate non-discriminatory interest. It only frightens away anyone who thinks they are not American enough to avoid unwanted attention from the authorities.
Likewise, applicants have to list all members of their household, including children who earn nothing. This information is not used. To ask serves no legitimate non-discriminatory interest. It only frightens away households who don’t want the state or landlord to know how many are crushed into their apartment.
Similarly, applicants have to submit a form electronically or on paper with a detailed narrative about their COVID experience. This information is not needed. To ask serves no legitimate non-discriminatory interest. It only frightens away households whose disability makes such a chore burdensome out of proportion to the expected benefit.
On top of all this, the application is suspected to be having a disparate impact on the basis of race. Preliminary ZIP code analysis underway indicates that eviction filings may be higher, and rental assistance lower, in areas disproportionately non-white.
Silence in Response
On April 12, at his request, I spoke with Gov. Charlie Baker about General Law Chapter 151B Section 4, the anti-discrimination law. This requires landlords to participate in rental assistance. Months later, the required verbiage is still not on all landlord forms. And to make matters worse, the state has adopted a discriminatory policy that explicitly allows landlords to refuse rental assistance.
Anecdotally, we have had noticed from Gardner, Framingham, and Boston landlords that renters who could be the poster child for state aid have been rejected for the last eight months, or three times in a row or because they applied to the wrong program.
We have written a letter to the Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Keneally asking him to take these allegations of unlawful discrimination seriously. The timeout situation is letting tens of thousands of households slip through the cracks. The rental assistance network has parts more rotted than my 2005 Corolla. And unlike the state, I haven’t been given a billion dollars to fix it.
Doug Quattrochi is executive director of MassLandlords Inc.