Massachusetts recently passed a much-needed eviction and foreclosure moratorium bill, providing an important respite to ensure people stay safely in their homes through the state of emergency. This strong legislation put the commonwealth at the top of Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard, which measures each state’s homelessness prevention policies throughout the public health crisis.
Now, what we in the affordable housing community do during this pause will be the real measure of long-term stability for people. We only have a short period of time to ensure that renters and homeowners do not face a financial cliff when the moratorium ends.
With June 1 payments looming in just a few short weeks and rent already past due for many, preventing this cliff is imperative for the financial and personal health of each household and to the financial health and stability of the properties and communities where they live.
While the moratorium allows homeowners to work with their lenders to add missed mortgage payments to the end of their loans, renters will owe the full amount of missed rent payments when the moratorium ends. Many renters have already been forced to deplete any savings they have in order to cover their usual expenses on top of newly incurred medical bills, additional cleaning and food costs or to make the impossible decision between putting food on the table and paying what they can in rent. When people can’t pay the rent, landlords will struggle to pay property taxes and mortgages, impacting municipal services and neighborhood stability.
Over 777,000 Massachusetts residents have filed unemployment claims in the seven weeks since the shutdown began in response to the pandemic, leaving an estimated 21 percent of the pre-COVID workforce without their primary sources of income. When enhanced unemployment ends in July, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimates that more than 178,000 households will be unable to make ends meet. This does not include the 185,000 self-employed workers who have applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or the 15,000 households who are currently unable to pay housing costs between now and August.
No one should have to worry about losing their home during a pandemic. Nor should people be forced to risk their health and the health of others because they do not have financial resources to pay rent during a time of massive job loss. This is a matter of equity and public health; we need to provide adequate rental assistance to keep people stably housed and to keep rental properties and our communities healthy too.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that Massachusetts will need $1.9 billion in rental assistance in order to meet the overwhelming need of those who are severely cost-burdened. It is a daunting number, but necessary to secure emergency supports for those who are struggling to cover their housing costs.
RAFT Can Help
In the Massachusetts state budget, a $50 million emergency appropriation for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) would help to meet the increased demand, expand eligibility to serve more households and begin to assist with the long-term recovery after the crisis by helping residents pay their rent, mortgages and utility arrears. This appropriation would help to prevent homelessness and a potential foreclosure crisis while benefiting public health by keeping more people stably housed instead of on the street.
Federally, we need large-scale rent relief, such as the Emergency Rental Assistance and Rental Market Stabilization Act, which would provide $100 billion in housing assistance and stabilization to those with low and moderate incomes.
As we await more federal assistance, communities across Massachusetts are stepping up to create emergency rental assistance programs, using funds from the Community Preservation Act and local affordable housing trust funds. These programs are critical, but they are short-term solutions.
Long-term, we can’t lose sight of the housing crisis that existed before the pandemic. People struggled to pay rent before COVID-19, and this pandemic is a setback that may spiral many families into homelessness. Emergency rental assistance is needed now to help people stay stable through this public health and economic crisis. Ultimately, long term rental assistance and more affordable housing development in each of our communities is needed to ensure everyone has access to a safe, healthy, and affordable place to call home.
Rachel Heller is the chief executive officer of Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA).