THE STATE’S EMERGENCY housing assistance program is upping its game, pushing more money out the door and helping more people struggling to avoid eviction.
As of January 13, the program had dispensed only $22.6 million of the $100 million available. But now that figure has more than doubled to $48.4 million. The number of households helped is also rising, although that data isn’t as current. The program helped 2,676 households in January, a big boost over the 1,267 helped in December.
The numbers are a big improvement from the fall and early winter, when there was public outcry about the slow release of funds after Gov. Charlie Baker ended the state’s eviction moratorium and turned to Residential Assistance for Families in Transition — or RAFT program — as one of the main methods to keeping people struggling financially in their homes.
Several Gateway Cities, including Springfield, Worcester, Lawrence, and Lowell, were included among the top 10 municipalities whose tenants have received funds. Boston, which is not a Gateway City, led with $1.4 million received since January 1. Tenants receive funds for a variety of reasons, ranging from eviction to assistance as their case moves toward housing court.
The regional administering agencies that process, respond to, and allocate housing assistance funds saw a boost in staffing, funding, and training in January in an effort to ramp up processing a landslide of applications.
In January alone, the agencies received 9,409 new applications and denied 6,045. The state’s department of Housing and Community Development says it’s important to note that the number of denials and approvals in a month don’t fully correspond to the net new ones, since there are other applications from previous months still being considered in addition to the 9,409.
The overall approval rate is closer to 50 percent, according to a spokeswoman. Reasons for denial include incomplete documentation and property owners being unwilling to participate in the program, which directly compensates landlords for tenants’ unpaid rent.
“Between completion of hires and training, a new admin plan that really transformed the program from a homelessness prevention program to a disaster relief fund, and the extra helping hands from the Rental Assistance Processing Center, productivity has increased dramatically in recent weeks,” said Stefanie Coxe, executive director for the Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts
Her organization has been working with the Department of Housing and Community Development to speed up the processing of applications and make applications easier to complete.
Despite the progress, advocates say improvement is still needed and some tenants are waiting a long time for applications to be processed.
Among them is Maritza Rodriguez, 66, a longtime Lynn resident who has lived more than 23 years in her two-bedroom apartment, where she pays $1,140 a month. She paid her rent for years, on time, as a caterer and cook for a restaurant, which shuttered a couple of years ago. After that she worked contracted jobs in the restaurant business, but that work and her late husband’s Social Security benefits are not enough to cover her rent, which she hasn’t paid since December.
Rodriguez said in a Spanish language interview that she applied for RAFT assistance in December but, due to a communications issue, never learned she was turned down because she failed to submit additional paperwork.
Rodriguez called RAFT 12 times, and talked to a person only once. She doesn’t have a computer and didn’t realize RAFT had emailed her seeking more documentation. Once the mixup was discovered by her daughter, who logged into her email account from another state, Rodriguez got help from the tenant advocacy group Lynn United for Change and succeeded in getting her case reopened.
“I was so nervous and anxious when I found that out,” said Rodriguez. “My landlord has been calling often, and stopping by for a rent check. He knows that I applied for RAFT, but doesn’t understand why it’s taking so long.”
Rodriguez said she doesn’t completely blame the state for the situation, but implored officials to consider older, non-English speaking residents when crafting their policies. “I communicate by phone —it’s the young people who really know about the computers. Please just make it a little easier for those of us who don’t use technology so well,” she said.
The state’s department of Housing and Community Development says that the average wait time for action on an application is 68 days. Each Regional Administering Agency, the department said, has a language access plan, and has telephone numbers and phones being answered with translation available.
“We’re still seeing really long wait times. We’ve been hearing from people who applied in late November and early December who are just getting approvals now,” said Isaac Hodes, director of Lynn United for Change.
Hodes said cases like Rodriguez should not be closed without speaking with the tenant who applied. He also said people who sublet apartments are ves excluded from the RAFT program even though subleases are a primary housing arrangement for many groups of immigrants in areas hard-hit by COVID-19, including Lynn, Chelsea, and East Boston.
Tenant advocacy groups also say terms like “overdue rent” and “monthly stipend” were poorly translated on state forms and are incomprehensible to people who only speak Spanish. Hiring more people with appropriate language skills and limiting document requirements, as many other states are doing, could help make the system more efficient, Hodes said.
Andrea Park, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said efforts to improve the RAFT program seem to be working. “Overall it seems RAFT processing times are improving, though there are still challenges in various regions,” she said. “Unfortunately, evictions were allowed to resume long before these systems were ready.”
Her organization is hoping the state will make new funds accessible with less documentation, and provide payments directly to tenants when landlords refuse to participate in the process.
“All of these things are explicitly permitted by the US Treasury Department in disbursing these funds, and many other states are also adopting “low-barrier” systems to ensure maximum participation,” she said.