The following is a letter sent to Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday by elected officials and other groups in Chelsea.
We are residents and supporters of Chelsea, including City Council members, School Committee members, Chelsea city boards, nonprofit organizations, local businesses, schools, and houses of worship. We are writing to express our deep concern about the looming crisis of displacement and homelessness in Chelsea, and to ask you to take decisive and swift action to help avert disaster for a community that has already shouldered the greatest burden of the most significant crisis facing this state in the last century. The support you gave Chelsea to combat food insecurity, increased COVID19 testing and additional resources during the height of infections was invaluable. Now, as thousands of our residents face homelessness, we are asking for your support once more both in legislative action and direct funding.
As the epicenter of COVID-19, our 1.8 square mile city has by far the highest per capita infection rate in the state. At 747 cases per 10,000 residents on July 22, Chelsea has over five times the statewide average. In total, the City has witnessed 3,033 confirmed cases as of July 28. According to research from Massachusetts General Hospital, over 30 percent of residents may have actually contracted the virus, far higher than the confirmed number of cases. Chelsea is also grappling with the highest death rate in the state, a reality that has deprived families of over 152 loved ones and left indelible trauma throughout our community. Unable to work due to illness, quarantine, and loss of jobs, residents have faced immense food and housing insecurity. The expiration of the federal unemployment insurance payments on July 30 will only make matters worse.
COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the housing issues we’ve experienced for years in Chelsea. Prior to the pandemic, over half of the city’s renters were burdened by housing costs and over 20 percent of residents were beset by poverty. We appreciate the extension of the eviction and foreclosure moratorium until October 17 but, unless it is accompanied by decisive and immediate action to address rent debt, it is only delaying a wave of evictions that will push tens of thousands of Chelsea residents into homelessness.
As with the disproportionate impacts of the virus itself, those most impacted by eviction and foreclosure will be brown, immigrant ,and non-English speaking residents. Many of our community members put their lives on the line working throughout the pandemic as essential workers, supporting the regional economy and allowing others to shelter in place while placing themselves and their families at risk.
In a monumental effort to keep the city’s residents afloat during this crisis, the City of Chelsea and numerous nonprofit organizations, individuals, businesses, and foundations have contributed huge amounts of time, energy, money, food, and supplies. We have created and managed funds for residents impacted by COVID-19, an emergency rental assistance fund, food pantries and food deliveries, diaper distributions, a hotline to provide assistance with applications for public benefits, an assistance for struggling small businesses, and funeral funds to help bury our dead. A conservative estimate of the value of just the food, supplies, and financial assistance distributed since March comes to over $7 million, not including the significant ongoing costs of staffing and operating these efforts both at nonprofits and in the city.
In spite of this intense input of money, time, resources and labor, we have not been able to come close to meeting the financial needs of residents. The One Chelsea Fund, which raised $1.2 million and distributed checks of $250, still has a waiting list of 1,600 households. The city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, funded by CPA dollars, was only able to serve 19.3 percent of the 1,559 households that applied for the $1.25 million and most of those who applied had rental debt beyond the three-month cap. We estimate the unmet rental debt from applicants to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program alone to be $9.2 million.
The need is immense, and we cannot expect donations or city funds to continue at these levels moving forward. Cities like Chelsea, which have been hit so hard by the impacts of the pandemic, must get extra support from the stateproportional to the impact. We implore you, Governor Baker to release funds and support the following bills that will directly help the communities hardest hit by COVID-19. We fear that if there is another surge, with no extra resources or policies in place, it will bankrupt our community, our residents, and our hope. We will see more infections, more death, and an even bigger blow to our local economy, health, and well-being.
To help keep our communities from a nightmare of homelessness, we ask your support for the immediate passage of the following bills and budget appropriations:
- Work with the Legislature to swiftly pass H5166, a necessary tool to stem the tide of displacement. We firmly believe that the Legislature should, in the interest of public health and wellbeing, (1) cancel or suspend all COVID-19-related evictions or foreclosures for 12 months past the end of the eviction moratorium, (2) institute tenant protections related to just-cause evictions and credit reporting, (3) enact an immediate rent freeze with the exception of subsidized rents, which are tied to income, and (4) stabilize working class home-owners, small property owners, and affordable housing providers by creating the COVID-19 Housing Stabilization and Recovery Fund;
- Boost funding for upstream housing assistance programs to help prevent eviction and foreclosure, including an emergency appropriation of at least $50 million for RAFT, an increase in the amount of RAFT funding available per household from $4,000 to $10,000 in a 12-month period, and an expansion of the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program to increase both the number and value of subsidies to tenants and developers;
- Work with the Legislature to adopt S.2785, the Right to Counsel Pilot Project Bill to provide legal representation to low-income tenants and owner-occupants experiencing eviction, fund it with $6 million from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund, and establish a Right to Counsel Pilot Project in Chelsea in partnership with the Housing Court.
- Extend the utility shut-off moratorium enacted by the Department of Public Utilities and waive all reconnection fees; and
- Allocate $9 million in direct funding to Chelsea to help offset the tens of millions of additional dollars we anticipate needing to address the emergency housing needs of the city’s most vulnerable residents in the months to come. his sum represents the amount of unmet need revealed by the Emergency Rental Assistance Program in May, and is only a portion of the city’s growing financial need for housing assistance.
We are hoping that the tragic loss of life, the uncertainty of where a child’s next meal will come from, the terror of facing eviction and foreclosure and having absolutely nowhere to go, the fear of daily exposure to the virus in front-line jobs, and all of the trauma that our immigrant families have endured during this pandemic has opened the minds and hearts of people throughout the Commonwealth and can motivate us to work together to build equitable policies that work for the most vulnerable among us. We have a real opportunity to create and pass policies and budget priorities that will establish a new normal that leaves no one behind. Doing nothing now will cause massive disruption and harm to our residents’ lives. We must act swiftly today. We look forward to your partnership on this critical matter.
The individuals and organizations signing the letter included GreenRoots, the Chelsea Collaborative, the Neighborhood Developers, the MGH Center for Community Health Improvement, CAPIC, City Life/Vida Urbana, Greater Boston Legal Services, Sen. Sal DiDomenico Rep. Daniel J. Ryan, Chelsea City Council members Roy Avellaneda, Judith Garcia, Calvin T. Brown, Enio López, Giovanni A. Recupero, Leo Robinson, Yamir Rodríguez, Melinda Vega, Damali Vidot, and Naomi Zabot. Other signers include the Chelsea School Committee and various community groups and businesses.