United Way Calls for Robust Housing Investments and Financial Relief for Tenants

September 28, 2020

Region braces for a potential tripling of evictions related to COVID-19 

With the statewide eviction moratorium set to expire on October 17, 2020, Massachusetts is in a make-or-break moment to prevent an impending tidal wave of evictions that will devastate our region and have a disproportionate toll on communities of color.  

 Informed by our partnership with 70 housing agencies and our statewide campaign to stabilize individuals and families in supportive, permanent housing, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley calls on the Baker Administration and State House leadership to immediately expand rental assistance and legal representation for low-income tenantsSimultaneously, the State must increase its investments in creating deeply affordable housing with supportive services for those most vulnerable 

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley has raised $9 million to support residents and families most impacted by the pandemic in some of the hardest-hit cities in our region. Working with over 170 nonprofit partners and dozens of municipal leaders on the front lines of their communities, United Way has distributed nearly all of these funds to date, providing more than 300,000 households with financial assistance to help pay for food, housing, utilities, and other basic needs.  

As we approach the fall, marking over six months since the start of the pandemic, our region faces a housing crisis of potentially enormous magnitude,” said Bob Giannino, President and Chief Executive Officer at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “An initial influx of federal and state emergency aid helped to maintain financial security for many. Yet with the upcoming expiration of these benefits and protections, additional public investments are needed to support and sustain our most vulnerable residents.” 

Massachusetts already had an affordable housing and displacement problem prior to the job losses resulting from COVID-19. The pandemic has only deepened these challenges, pushing our crisis response system to the limit and further straining the region’s patchwork of critical services and supports that keep low-income households afloat. Without urgent, coordinated and comprehensive action, the expiration of the state’s eviction moratorium will result in widespread displacement, surging rates of homelessness, and tightening of rental markets that will likely increase virus transmission and deepen health and educational inequalities. 

Considering the magnitude of COVID-19 related job losses and the region’s systemic issues with housing access and affordability, the state must take immediate steps to address an impending crisis. The United Way urges the immediate enactment of the following policy solutions: 

Implement a Right to Counsel Pilot Program
We ask the Baker Administration to dedicate $6 million from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) to implement an emergency statewide right to counsel pilot program. In Massachusetts, 93% of tenants face eviction without legal representation, while 78% of landlords have lawyers. A right to counsel pilot would address this imbalance and protect tenants in areas of the state hardest hit by COVID-19. A state-level investment of $6 million would provide full legal representation for low-income tenants and homeowners in eviction proceedings as an essential housing stability intervention.  

Increase Funding for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT)
COVID-19 has dramatically increased demand for emergency rental assistance across the Commonwealth. We call on our state officials to infuse an additional $50 million in emergency funding for RAFT, a proven homelessness prevention program which provides short-term financial assistance to low-income families to help cover housing-related expenses. Furthermore, the United Way supports DHCD’s efforts to increase available assistance from $4,000 to $10,000 per household and expand eligibility and access to RAFT funds, while targeting resources to the most vulnerable residents 

“Robust public investments in housing services and rent assistance are needed to match the philanthropic community’s efforts since March to keep residents safe, fed, and housed,” said Giannino. “The United Way looks forward to working with our state officials to advance bold investments and innovations in housing and to continue supporting our communities in the lengthy recovery ahead.”

Across the Commonwealth, there are 5,000 eviction cases currently pending in Housing Court. Legal advocates estimate that another 20,000–60,000 eviction cases will be filed once the statewide moratorium ends. For comparison, 16,000 eviction cases were filed in the entire year of 2016, demonstrating a potential tripling of evictions in our region related to the COVID-19 crisis. 

According to the latest Household Pulse Survey (collected between September 2-14, 2020) from the U.S. Census Bureau, 15 percent of Massachusetts tenants in renter-occupied units are not caught up on their monthly rent payments. Importantly, these challenges are even more pronounced in households of color, due in large part to redlining practices and systemic discrimination that have shut out communities of color from homeownership. Compared to the statewide average, 28 percent of Black renters, 18 percent of Hispanic/Latinx renters, and 17 percent of Asian renters report that they are falling behind on their monthly rent.  

Looking ahead to October 2020, these economic challenges are only expected to deepen. The same survey shows that roughly 1 in 5 (21.7%) of Massachusetts renters have no confidence or slight confidence to pay next month’s rent. Notably, twice as many Hispanic/Latinx renters (40.5%) report low confidence in their ability to pay October rent – while Black and Asian renters report rates near the statewide average. 

In calling for these immediate recommendations, the United Way is also recommitting to broader solutions that encompass all people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Equitable access to stable housing ends homelessness, and more recommendations will be needed to truly head in that direction. We call on others to do the same.