Easthampton setting up pandemic rent relief fund

  • Easthampton Municipal Building. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/19/2020 1:25:54 PM
Modified: 6/19/2020 1:25:43 PM

EASTHAMPTON — The City Council has approved $300,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to set up a rent relief program for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The supplemental appropriation was passed unanimously at the council’s Wednesday night meeting, and received vocal support from both councilors and members of the public.

“I love this project,” said City Councilor Tom Peake.“It’s the kind of cool policy that sometimes only really comes around when you have a really bad crisis.”

At the meeting, City Councilor Dan Rist noted that CPA money can be used for only three purposes: Open space and recreation, historic preservation and affordable housing.

Rist shared that someone had asked him how the program aligned with community preservation.

“What more important quality of life issue can there be than having a home?” he said. “Homelessness is a real possibility in this city.”

The city’s planning board and the Affordable and Fair Housing Partnership will put out a request for proposal to administer the program.

“We’re hoping to get it out early next week,” said Assistant Planner Jamie Webb.

Webb said responses to the RFP would be due early to mid-July, and she expressed hope that the program could start cutting checks by early August.

“This is going to help a bunch of residents in this city when it happens,” Rist said at the meeting.

Jacqueline Brousseau-Pereira of the Affordable and Fair Housing Partnership said the program should help about 80 households facing financial challenges during the current pandemic. And City Councilor Homar Gomez noted that 80 households doesn’t mean 80 people.

“Eighty means 80 families,” he said. “I think this is amazing.”

Webb said the program will pay landlords directly, and that administrators will look to negotiate cheaper rents. The money can be used for back rent dating to April 1, and also can be used to pay future rent. The current eviction moratorium in the commonwealth may make landlords more inclined to negotiate, she said, noting that most landlords in Easthampton have just a few units.

“These are people who are part of the community,” she said.

The moratorium is set to end on Aug. 18 or 45 days after Gov. Charlie Baker ends the COVID-19 state of emergency, whichever comes first.

Under the program laid out in the RFP, up to four months of rental assistance would be offered, with a maximum benefit of $3,000. Different size units will be eligible for different amounts of money, and there will be income limits as well.

Webb said they’re looking for entities to administer the program that have enough experience to tweak the current payment numbers if need be. Another quality Webb said they’ll be looking for in an administrator is experience connecting people with other assistance programs. The administrative costs of the RFP can be up to 20 percent of the money appropriated, and Rist hoped it would be less than that.

Community members at Wednesday’s council meeting lauded the proposal.

“I talk to people all the time who are worried about being able to stay in their homes once the eviction moratorium is done,” Laura Britton said. “Thank you so much for considering this.”

The housing partnership, which is a volunteer advocacy group, has reached out to landlords, Brousseau-Pereira said, and they’ve indicated there is a need but that it’s not “huge.” However, she said that the partnership would ask for more funds if a greater need is found.

“We’ll definitely consider going back and asking for more money if we find there’s more need,” she said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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