Stephen Medeiros

In March of 2020, Massachusetts and the United States officially declared states of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One month later, the state legislature enacted one of the strictest eviction moratoriums in the country, prohibiting even the sending of notices to quit (the first step in a lengthy eviction process) for all but emergency situations.

This policy choice was designed to be a limited-term solution for a near-impossible problem. Protecting housing stability was key to limiting spread of the virus, but prohibiting evictions, even in situations of non-payment of rent, created a ticking time bomb. The policy protected housing stability by stripping property owners of a basic right and forced them and other renters to bear potential burdens, such as non-payment of rent. Recognizing these challenges, the legislature built in a stopgap; the moratorium would expire in 120 days and could be extended in increments of up to 90 days by Gov. Charlie Baker.

In June, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors held its annual advocacy event with a new priority issue: expanding the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program to help those in need and preserve housing stability. Our objective was to provide additional funding, increase the dollar cap per award, and broaden eligibility. In June, a supplemental funding bill increased the RAFT line item by $20 million, a small but significant sign of things to come.

When the state eviction moratorium expired, Baker announced the Eviction Diversion Initiative (EDI), a $171 million investment in housing stability programs, including $100 million to expand capacity of the RAFT program and provide rental assistance. At the time, this investment was applauded but also widely recognized as too little to meet the need.

Foresight Set Mass. Up for Success

Looking back, expansion of RAFT and creation of the EDI demonstrated incredible foresight, long before many other states were taking any such action and months before the federal government started providing emergency rental assistance to states. While the state faced significant challenges at the time, in hindsight, creation of the EDI gave the state time to smooth out processes, staff up programs, and get money out to those in need.

In December, the federal government followed suit, allocating $25 billion to states for emergency rental assistance in the Consolidated Appropriations Act. They later added another $21.5 billion in the American Rescue Plan Act. When the dust had settled, Massachusetts had $968 million in rental assistance funds. Thanks to the head start from the EDI, Massachusetts programs were well-positioned to get money out the door to those in need.

The data clearly demonstrates EDI’s success. Since the start of 2021, rental assistance programs in Massachusetts have served over 40,000 unique households and distributed $291 million. Massachusetts is a national leader, ranking eighth among states as of the latest U.S. Treasury Department data in percentage of first-round federal funding distributed. On Oct. 1, Baker announced that Massachusetts met a key milestone by spending or obligating at least 65 percent of its first-round allocation, and the state would qualify for additional funds.

Massachusetts is not only a leader in distributing funds, but also in program design. On its website, the federal Treasury Department lists examples of best practices from states and municipalities in 10 categories. Massachusetts is cited in three of the 10 categories, tied for the most citations from any location.

Data Shows Program Works

State eviction filings for non-payment of rent provide another key metric of success, remaining significantly lower than norms before the state of emergency. Filings are down 40 percent year-over-year when compared with pre-pandemic norms. Even more noteworthy, these filings demonstrate that rental assistance is far more effective at preventing evictions than moratoria. When the state moratorium expired, Massachusetts was still covered by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium, but eviction cases suddenly spiked. From October through early 2021, filing numbers briefly returned to pre-pandemic norms. However, they decreased dramatically as rental assistance programs increased efficiency, and soon settled into their new reduced norm.

When the CDC moratorium was overturned by the Supreme Court in late August, there was no impact on state eviction filings. Regardless of moratoriums, property owners are not filing evictions at the anticipated levels and fewer residents are facing housing instability, because property owners and renters are receiving the funding they need.

Massachusetts continues to innovate and improve, most recently announcing a new common application for all rental assistance programs. This early success has bought the state desperately needed time. That time has allowed newer programs such as mediation as an alternative means of dispute resolution to gain traction. It has also bought time to relieve pandemic pressures on housing and the economy. With roughly two-thirds of its housing assistance allotment still in the bank and more on the way, the state is well-positioned to continue protecting housing stability for the foreseeable future.

Steve Medeiros is the 2021 president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and a broker-associate with Keller Williams Realty in Dartmouth. 

Pandemic Rental Aid Program Is an Incredible Success Story

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min