Advocates struggle to find homes for tenants with new emergency vouchers in Northampton area

  • Downtown Northampton GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/18/2021 9:00:52 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Regional and local housing authorities in western Massachusetts have received batches of new emergency housing vouchers, which are available to certain homeless and at-risk individuals and families, but some agencies are having trouble matching tenants with affordable units.

Federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act funded 917 emergency housing vouchers statewide. Northampton received 17, the Franklin County Regional Housing Authority received 15, and 25 went to Holyoke.

Gordon Shaw, vice chair of the mayor-appointed Northampton Housing Partnership committee, said housing authorities are struggling to find apartments in the area that meet the vouchers’ financial requirements.

“It’s exceedingly hard to find rent that falls into the fair market rate,” said Shaw, referring to the federal standard that determines how much rent a Section 8 voucher will cover.

Northampton and Springfield have the same fair market rate under the formula — $1,129 per month for a two-bedroom apartment — even though, Shaw said, rents are generally higher in Northampton.

“You can get a voucher from any housing authority in America and go anywhere with it,” said Shaw, a fact that contributes to some recipients moving out of Hampshire County to seek cheaper rent, enabling them to pay the tenant portion more easily.

Franklin County is facing similar difficulty matching recipients with apartments, although the problem is “not as pronounced” as what Hampshire County is experiencing, said Gina Govoni, executive director of the Franklin County Regional Housing Authority. She added that the federal contribution to Section 8 vouchers is going down in October, which will further burden tenants who have to pay the difference.

“How could this happen right now? Does HUD understand the impact of this?” Govoni said.

Landlord incentives

The Northampton Housing Authority is offering new incentives for landlords and property managers who accept the emergency vouchers. The program includes a $1,000 landlord signing bonus, a $50 payment toward application processing fees and an expedited housing inspection.

To qualify, landlords must enter a one-year lease with an emergency housing voucher recipient by Sept. 30 and the unit must pass inspection. New and existing NHA landlords are eligible. Online sign-up for the program is available at northamptonhousing.org/EHVLandlord.

The emergency vouchers are for individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless; fleeing stalking, human trafficking, violence or sexually abusive situations; or have a high risk of housing instability. Those who were recently homeless also qualify. The vouchers cover the cost of a security deposit – a new feature for a Section 8 voucher – and the user receives professional help in finding housing.

The vouchers are not for people who are currently on the Section 8 waitlist. Instead, a portion will go to people in shelters, while the Three County Continuum of Care program is working to distribute the rest.

“If you are a landlord, it would be great if you would take a look at these vouchers,” Shaw said.

Eviction protections

There is ongoing action at the state level to pass the COVID-19 Housing Equity Bill, a series of protections for tenants who owe back rent and homeowners who are late on their mortgages due to the pandemic. Local legislators are pushing for passage, and the Northampton City Council is set to consider a resolution on Thursday night supporting the bill.

“The temporary federal eviction moratorium is set to expire on October 3, is vulnerable to legal challenge and as written still leaves thousands of tenants at risk of eviction,” the council’s proposed resolution reads. “Strong legislative action is required to prevent unnecessary evictions, foreclosures, displacement, and to ensure a more timely and equitable distribution of rental assistance funds.”

The federal eviction moratorium only applies in counties with substantial or high COVID-19 transmission, which currently includes all of Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If passed, the state legislation would ensure landlords cooperate with rental assistance programs before an eviction could proceed to court.

Over 2,700 new eviction cases have been filed in western Massachusetts since the lifting of the state eviction moratorium in October, and 585 homes in western Massachusetts face the threat of foreclosure, according to the resolution.

“There is no eviction moratorium in Massachusetts right now. That went by the wayside,” said Govoni, the Franklin County housing authority director. Tenants who face pandemic-related hardships have to actively invoke their rights under the federal moratorium by submitting paperwork to their landlord.

“When tenants are asked to leave, many don’t exercise their legal rights. They just go, either out of fear or misunderstanding,” Govoni said. “If you are behind on your rent, even if you’ve received help in the past, give us a call.”




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