MassLandlords Inc. has filed a lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court against the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. We are asking the court to order DHCD release records on rental assistance applications. Our purpose is “to determine whether [DHCD] is using rental-housing subsidies in a manner that affirmatively furthers fair housing in compliance with Title VIII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the Fair Housing Act) or whether [DHCD’s] practices are perpetuating racially segregated housing patterns.”
The petition follows a year of advocacy with DHCD for better processes around rental assistance. There’s no doubt DHCD have done amazing work ramping up RAFT, ERMA and ERAP. Overall, we feel heard at DHCD. But on this matter of timeouts, we seem unable to arrive at a common purpose.
What is a “timeout?” My November column in Banker & Tradesman describes the problem. In a nutshell, DHCD and the commonwealth’s regional administering agencies (RAAs) have received roughly twice as many applications as they have approved. The number of outright denials is small. Roughly half of all applications submitted have instead been “timed out,” allegedly for lack of adequate documentation. Sometimes a timed-out applicant is notified. Usually, applicants are ghosted.
We want to see where timeouts are happening. We have requested exact addresses but not names. Addresses would allow us to draw important but generalized conclusions with respect to Census tract, race and eviction diversion. DHCD refused our public records request, saying the addresses are personally identifiable information. We deflate the privacy concerns in our complaint, and then argue the public interest in finding those unlawfully denied ought to outweigh whatever privacy concern such a household may wish to raise.
Many Complaints from Aggrieved Applicants
Overall a majority of applicants (and nearly all MassLandlords members, based on a poll of 200) have been able to obtain rental assistance. But since my prior piece in this publication, MassLandlords has received unsolicited calls and emails from aggrieved, timed-out applicants.
Most of the calls and emails express frustration at the repeated loss of uploaded documents. A few calls have raised explicit concerns about discrimination on the basis of race and national origin. The discrimination concerns seem plausible to me, because the case workers in charge of decision-making appear to have little experience (we can see their LinkedIn profiles). The crushing caseload seems unlikely to have afforded time for on-the-job fair housing training.
MassLandlords cannot speak to the veracity of these allegations, but since they keep coming in, we need to see these public records. We know from having watched landlords get their pants sued off them over the years that you cannot deny someone housing without stating a reason unrelated to protected class status. If you ghost someone or slow-play them, that action will be assumed to be unlawful discrimination.
The bigger you are, the harder you must fall on the basis of your bigger systemic discriminatory impact. Tens of thousands of applicants have been timed out and told nothing, or told to reapply from the back of the line. A separate public records request to DHCD showed we have no statewide process for preventing systemic discrimination like this.
What the Data Could Cause to Happen
We sincerely hope to find nothing bad. We state in our brief that we are willing to abjure our right to see these addresses if only DHCD will share the dataset with established journalists. Suffice it to say, we or others must compare the rental assistance dataset to the public eviction records and the Census tract data. We will readily see if assistance was awarded proportional to need or if systemic racism plagues us here. Down the road, we may even be able to identify individual failures in need of reparatory payments.
I note that the annual budget writes the RAAs by name. It beggars belief that the $800 million allocated to rental assistance has been administered entirely by no-bid contracts. Personally, I would like to see competitive bidding and an end to the regional monopolies, especially now that substantially all assistance is administered remotely.
It should also be noted that our fair housing inquiry takes place in the glare of the discrimination dumpster fire that is the Chicopee Housing Authority. On Tuesday Dec. 21, the United States Department of Justice and the US District Attorney for the District of Massachusetts filed suit alleging some truly mind-blowingly racist and bigoted culture at this public institution.
It just goes to show: Just because an organization is nonprofit or public does not mean it is immune to human frailty.
The MassLandlords Board of Directors voted unanimously in favor of this lawsuit. The docket number is 2184CV02866.
Doug Quattrochi is executive director of MassLandlords Inc.