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How To Avoid Eviction? Talk To Your Landlord. Apply For Aid. Cross Fingers. Wait.

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Courtesy of Springfield No One Leaves
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The pandemic has taken a crisis of housing affordability and made it worse. In western Massachusetts and elsewhere, growing numbers of people are falling behind on rent and are in danger of being evicted, even with well-funded assistance programs.

A federal moratorium on evictions expires at the end of December. It may be extended until the end of January, but even then it's not bulletproof.

In Chicopee, Massachusetts, Iris, (who declined to use her last name, concerned her landlord would retaliate against her) lives in a three-bedroom apartment with her young family.

“I have my son, he’s 15. My daughter, she's 11, and then my baby,” Iris said. “She's turning two in January.”

Her rent is $900 a month and utilities are about $200.

In 2019, before the pandemic, Iris’ landlord tried to evict her. She had been working as a home health aide for people with disabilities. Her partner had moved out and she fell behind on her rent payments. The landlord served her notice, and they ended up in housing court.

“We were seen by a judge,” Iris explained. “I went through a lot [then]. I had domestic violence in there too as well, and so it was hard. Thankfully, the judge was able to give me another chance.”

In March 2020, when the pandemic hit, Iris said her job, taking care of several different people a week in their homes, put her and her family at risk.

“I felt like that wasn't safe because COVID was super, super bad at that time, and I just wasn't feeling uncomfortable going to homes where people have [the virus],” Iris said.

She stopped working and got unemployment, but the benefits weren’t the same as her wages and she said she had to make choices about how to spend her money. Food and diapers were a priority.

Like thousands of other Massachusetts renters, Iris tried to get financial help through the state’s Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program, or RAFT. It’s a short-term program intended to help low-income families pay back-rent and utilities.

The lengthy application requires, among other things, a certificate from the landlord that indicates they are in compliance with Massachusetts' lead paint law.

That’s when Iris learned — for the first time, she said — the apartment she has been living in for four years has lead paint. Because she has a child under six years of age, the landlord is out of compliance with law. And because of that, at least for now, Iris isn’t eligible for the much-needed RAFT benefits.

“I’m kind of upset about it, because I've been living here for a long time and I'm still not able to get the help,” Iris said. 

Iris is resourceful. In the last few months she found a new job and connected with an attorney from the advocacy agency Massachusetts Fair Housing, in Holyoke, which is helping Iris talk to her landlord and pursue RAFT benefits. 

Iris is now six months behind in rent.

Evicting people in a pandemic is a public health crisis wrapped in a public health crisis. State and municipal moratoriums were initially put in place to stave off what is being described nationwide as an "eviction tsunami."

“You can see that a crisis like this is impacting [Black and Latinx households] with a kind of great strength and velocity,” said Keith Fairey, the CEO of Way Finders, the housing agency in Springfield that processes RAFT applications in Hampden and Hampshire County.

“If you also then look at the job market and see what kind of jobs were being lost [in the pandemic] and who was employed in those jobs, I think it brings you back to the same population,” Fairey said.

In past years, Way Finders would run out of aid money nine months into the year, helping a few hundred families. It was a program of “scarcity and denial,” Fairey said.

But during the pandemic, limited emergency rental aid is not an issue — between the CARES Act, funding from the state and the potential new federal stimulus bill.

And that funding is needed. When Massachusetts ended its eviction moratorium October 31, 2020, Fairey said the number of people asking for emergency rent assistance exploded.

“We received 2,500 applications [right away],” Fairey said. “So that just gives you a sense of the demand that's coming to us. At our peak, we were receiving something like 100 applications a day. We're down to about 65 right now.”

Renters who come to Way Finders looking for assistance are of all races, but — again — race and opportunity intersect.

“More than 70% of white households in this region are homeowners, whereas only about 30% of people of color headed households are homeowners,” Fairey said.

More than half the renters in Hampden and Hampshire County pay more than 30% of their income for rent. Fairey said one in four renters is paying more than 50% of their income toward rent. These people are living on a razor's edge, he said, especially with the pandemic's disruption to the economy and lost wages. 

The federal moratorium on evictions holds until the end of December — possibly until the end of January. But Fairey said it’s not an automatic safety net for people behind on rent.

Tenants need to, at a minimum, "affirmatively declare" to their landlords they're applying for RAFT – and landlords are not necessarily the villains here.

“For many landlords, it becomes a real crisis if they have a small building and one or two tenants can't pay their rent,” Fairey said.

That is the scenario for Esther Anderson in Pittsfield, who owns two buildings with 16 units.

“At this moment in time I have four tenants who I haven't gotten a dime from this month,” Anderson said.

Her tenants were doing OK when the pandemic started, Anderson said. People made an effort to get their rent to her.

“As this has gone on, it's gotten worse and worse, and I'm at a point now where I have completely tapped out my personal savings,” Anderson said. “I am not eligible for any assistance because my mortgages are commercial, and I don't live in the properties.”

Years ago, Anderson did live in one of her buildings and she said she’s no stranger to the kind of jeopardy people are in right now. When she was a child, she said, her family had to live for a time in a camper.

Most landlords don't want to evict people, Anderson said, and often those at-risk of being evicted are young families.

“They’re trying — or they're trying to try, with children or even without children,” Anderson said. “The last thing you want to do is have somebody be homeless. And where are they going to go if they can't pay my rents, which are below market? How are they going to pay rent somewhere else?”

Anderson, who is on the board of the Rental Housing Association of Berkshire County, said her two-bedroom apartments rent for between $650 and $750 a month. Some include utilities. The market rate in Pittsfield, she said, is between $800 and $900  a month.

Through the landlord association and her day job at Home Depot, Anderson talks to a lot of other landlords — people like her who own properties with renters who work service jobs, like in restaurants. They’re struggling the most, she said, and they need to tell their landlords. Last week, Anderson spent a morning helping two tenants fill out the RAFT application. 

“Make applying for help a job!” Anderson said. ”You have to treat it as a 10-hour-a-week job until you do [the] work you have to do for this.” 

For a variety of reasons, some people who are behind on their rent will leave their homes before they ever get taken to court, or ask for help. In the pandemic, that’s even more troublesome to Keith Fairey of Way Finders. He and others are still alerting landlords, renters and housing attorneys that financial aid is available. 

Patience is essential, as it could take months for the funds to come through. Way Finders has a backlog of more than 6,000 applications, Fairey said. It’s a similar situation around the state. 

Earlier this month, Lawyers for Civil Rights posted an open letter to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, both commending the state for infusing his Eviction Diversion Initiative with highly needed funds and criticizing how requests are being handled.

The group said that since July 1, more than 25,000 requests for housing aid were submitted to Massachusetts agencies that administer the RAFT program, and only about only 5,200 households had received aid.

If a tenant lands in housing court, Fairey said the judge will see they’ve applied for help and — in many cases — will give renters the benefit of the doubt.

Even with the surplus of funds, the overall lack of affordable housing won’t be solved by these emergency relief programs.

“We need more vouchers for tenants to try to find affordable housing in the private market,” Fairey said. “We also need to build more affordable housing in the region and affordable at different levels. People with low and moderate income find big challenges finding affordable housing.”

Iris, in Chicopee, said she looked into Section 8 vouchers. The wait could be 10 years or more. Meanwhile, she is staying in touch with her landlord. He knows she is trying to get assistance — and, legally, he has to deal with the lead paint.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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