Jackie Brousseau-Pereira: Time’s up! Will state see an increase in homelessness?

  • Jackie Brousseau-Pereira FILE PHOTO

  • In this Sept. 16, 2019 file photo, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks with reporters at the Statehouse in Boston.   AP Photo/Steven Senne

Published: 10/16/2020 3:37:39 PM

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic after many lost their jobs, the state instituted a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures so that residents who were already struggling with their finances wouldn’t also have to worry about losing their homes. The moratorium was set to expire on Aug. 18, but Gov. Baker extended that deadline for two months.

The end of this week will mark the end of the moratorium, and while the state Legislature has attempted to stall immediate evictions, there will not likely be another extension to the moratorium after the Oct. 17 deadline.

The commonwealth offers two programs that provide short-term funds to help residents with low incomes to stay in their homes. Way Finders in Springfield (wayfinders.org/apply-financial-assistance) is the local nonprofit that oversees both the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) and the Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance (ERMA) programs. RAFT funding is predominantly geared towards families earning less than 50% of the area’s median income. ERMA funds are used to help both renters and homeowners earning between 50-80% of the area’s median income.

In addition to the state programs, some local communities are using Community Preservation Act or Community Development Block Grant funds to provide short-term rental assistance. Amherst and Springfield have programs in place. Easthampton and Hadley are developing theirs.

It may sound as though there are many avenues for people who are struggling to pay their rent to get support, but each of these programs has capped the total amount that a household can access. What will happen once households have used all of their options?

Between March 15 and Aug. 22, a total of 1,208,132 Massachusetts residents filed for unemployment. Over the summer, unemployment in the state reached a high of 17.7%. These are people who are figuring out how to survive on much less income than they are used to. Sometimes this means choosing between paying bills or buying food and medicine.

The moratorium has helped stabilize both individual households as well as communities. However, when it is lifted and landlords begin eviction proceedings for their tenants, we will face new challenges. Evictions are costly to both landlords and tenants. There will likely be a backlog of cases; proceedings will take a long time. The legal costs will be high, and so will the emotional costs.

Eviction is damaging. In the short term, evicted individuals and families have to find somewhere to go. They may end up moving in with family or friends or end up living for a time in a homeless shelter. During this pandemic, either of these options may mean exposure to the virus and an increase in COVID cases. Studies have also shown that people who have been evicted suffer from higher rates of depression. Eviction can be particularly destabilizing for children, who lose the structure and sense of security they need to thrive.

In the long run, eviction can stop people from finding stable housing even when they have recovered financially. Evictions are included on credit reports and may be in rental histories for up to seven years. The fallout from an eviction can alter the course of a person’s life.

The Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) and other housing advocates are calling on the governor to increase the RAFT funding from the Coronavirus Relief Fund. They estimate that approximately 17,000 households across the state are in danger of being evicted without this additional help. The proposal calls for a $175 million increase RAFT and $15 million for legal assistance and case management for low-income renters and property owners who may end up in housing court.

As of this writing, Gov. Baker had committed to some parts of the CHAPA proposal. He has added $100 million to the RAFT program and dedicated another $50 million to rehousing those who have been evicted. Even better would be to drastically reduce the number of evictions that happen.

At the federal level, the U. S. House of Representatives has proposed another stimulus bill that would help those who are in need, but the Senate has prioritized the Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

If you are interested in learning more about housing and how you can be an advocate, you can become a member of the Citizens Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) or you can join your community’s Affordable Housing Partnership.

Jackie Brousseau-Pereira, of Easthampton, is the academic dean and director of first-year seminars in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a founding member of the Easthampton Fair and Affordable Housing Partnership.




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